Auburn Hills — During the pregame player introductions, Luke Kennard plays it cool, ready to get his teammates hyped up. His name isn’t called, but he’s OK with that. He’s in his best role now, coming off the bench as something of a super sub.
Kennard is showing how much of a force he can be off the bench, scoring 17 points Saturday against the Heat and 19 Monday against the Pacers. With a renewed focus and a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Kennard is showing on both ends of the court why he’s such a valuable member of the second group.
But why isn’t Kennard starting?
Fans argue that he’s a better shooter than Wayne Ellington and just as good defensively as Bruce Brown, who are the starting wings.
The answer, according to coach Dwane Casey, lies in the better fit that Kennard has with the reserve group than with the starters. He used Lou Williams, whom he coached in 2014-15 with the Raptors, as an example.
“The way you start and the transition to the second unit, Luke is the glue for that. You’re always going to have that debate about why a guy is on the second unit,” Casey said Tuesday. “When Lou Williams got Sixth Man of the Year, we had the same issue. “I don’t have that conversation with fans. There’s a method to the madness.
“With Lou or a guy like that, he fits. We started Luke out of necessity one game and our second-unit numbers were terrible. There’s a reasoning for him being a ball-handler and shooter and especially with Ish (Smith) out there, it’s a much better fit.”
Kennard is a facilitator and from the eye test, his skill set simply gets lost when he plays with the starting group. In the last six games, he’s posting 13.5 points and is hitting 53 percent on 3-pointers.
The Pistons went 2-7 in the nine games Kennard started this season and there’s something in the chemistry and mix between Kennard and the other starters, such as Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson.
“It’s the fit. All the best players don’t always start. For there not to be as much of a dropoff between our first unit and second unit, we have to have that from a defensive and offensive standpoint,” Casey said. “On the second unit, we have some good offensive players. Ish can facilitate but shooting is also a needed skill set with the second unit. Luke fits that.”
Griffin likes what he sees from Kennard’s game of late, especially with his shooting and attitude toward becoming an offensive force.
“It’s just his mindset. I told him last game, when he comes off the court and he’s got that look like ‘Nobody can stop me.’ When he’s playing like that, it’s pick your poison,” Griffin said Monday. “He’s coming down pulling a quick 3 or pump-fake at the rim. When he plays like that, he’s dangerous for us.”
What about defense? Isn’t Kennard improving there, too?
At times, Casey has challenged Kennard to be a more aggressive defender and to seek his shot more readily on offense. There have been several flashes, but the recent stretch that Kennard is on is encouraging.
“He’s always challenging us to be better. He’s gotten on me before playing lazy and not being ready or in a (defensive) stance,” Kennard said. “They’re little things but big things in the big picture. He’s great talking and being positive but also being on me when he needs to be on me.
“He’s been hard on me, which is good and he expects a lot out of me. I’m just showing him I can play angry and mad and aggressively on both ends of the floor.”
In most cases the league’s sixth man of the year could be a starter, but the fit and flow of having that spark come off the bench is more beneficial than adding another scorer or offensive piece in the first group in the opening minutes of a game.
Casey accentuates his point by noting that although Kennard doesn’t start, he often ends games or plays during critical stretches when the team needs his boost. It’s a similar role to what Manu Ginobili did for many years with the Spurs.
“I don’t get caught up in who starts and who doesn’t start — it’s who finishes. You don’t worry as much about the fit with the finish. Luke has done a heck of a job offensively and defensively he’s getting better. He’s more needed with our second unit,” Casey said. “That is a comparison we talked about with Luke — be a Manu Ginobili; be a facilitator and a glue guy, then still be in there at the ends of games, which Luke has been doing.
“I’m very comfortable with where Luke is, how he’s playing, how we’re playing him and where he is in his career…You don’t have a lot of it, but it’s time and fit, as much as anything else.”
Pistons at Spurs
Tip-off: 8:30 Wednesday, AT&T Center, San Antonio
Outlook: The Pistons (29-30) are one of the hottest teams in the East, having won eight of their last 10 games, with a three-game win streak. The Spurs (33-29) are holding on to the eighth spot in the West but went 1-7 in their annual Rodeo Road Trip.