Going up, or going nowhere? Ten issues facing the Pistons this season
Detroit — Injuries are a part of basketball. Shots not falling, spurts of turnovers and losing streaks all come along at different times.
There are thousands of decisions and little things that come up during the season that can tip the scales of a 41-41 finish like last season into a few more wins or a few more losses — which makes the difference between making the playoffs and another lottery selection in the draft.
Some are predictable and others just pop up unexpectedly, but they can derail a season just as well.
Here are 10 issues facing the Pistons as they look to jump above .500 and make a statement that pushes them out of the merry-go-round of mediocrity:
1. Load management
Over the past couple of years, managing the number of games and minutes played for the veterans wasn’t much of a consideration. With the addition of Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose — each with a significant injury history — the emphasis will be on ensuring that they don’t burn themselves out, especially early in the season. Griffin played 75 games in the regular season last year, but was hobbled down the stretch and missed the first two games of the playoff series against the Bucks. Rose had season-ending surgery, and although he’s bounced back nicely in the preseason, the training staff will keep an eye on his minutes throughout the season.
2. Favorable schedule
In their first 25 games, there are only 11 games — including three against the Pacers — against teams that made the playoffs last season. That means the Pistons have an opportunity to get a fast start out of the gates and build a winning record before they get into the gauntlet following on the western trip at the end of December. A poor start and another stumble in January could hasten hitting the reset button and dismantling the roster.
3. Deals at deadline
Last season, the Pistons dispatched some of their expiring contracts before the February trade deadline, seeking value for players who probably wouldn’t have re-signed for this season. This year will be more difficult, as starters Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond could be in their final season with the team. Add Langston Galloway and also Thon Maker — who could become a restricted free agent — and it’s clear there are some major decisions to be made if they’re not in playoff position by the deadline. If things go way south, would trading Griffin be a consideration?
4. Divvying minutes
Finding places for the right pieces at the right times in the right combinations will be one of the challenges for the early part of the season. Starters’ minutes likely won’t fluctuate much, but how coach Dwane Casey splits time with the reserves as the game progresses will be something to watch. For example, Rose could be limited to about 25 minutes, so finding hybrid lineups with him in the middle of games and then in the final minutes will be a priority.
5. Reliance on Griffin
The Pistons made the playoffs last season, but had to lean on Griffin heavily down the stretch to get there. That heavy usage likely was one of the factors that led to his knee injury, and Casey is adamant that they are going to find other options to relieve some of that pressure on Griffin. If Griffin misses 10-15 games because of planned rest, what happens in that handful of games?
6. Depth at small forward
Since the departures of Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson, there haven’t been prototypical small forwards on the roster. Tony Snell provides the size but after that, the options dwindle. Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown aren’t an ideal size for the position and Sekou Doumbouya isn’t ready to be a regular in the rotation. Svi Mykhailiuk could step in, but he’ll have to show he’s ready for a bigger role.
7. Backup center
There has been an annual shuffle behind Drummond since Aron Baynes left a few years ago, leaving a dropoff in athleticism and production when Drummond went to the bench. Christian Wood has a chance to become the most dynamic backup in years, and he brings a different skill set than Drummond and still in scratching the surface of his full potential. Maker and Markieff Morris also will pick up some minutes to provide different looks.
8. Developing youth with logjams
Kennard isn’t going to break into the starting lineup to begin the season. Doumbouya isn’t going to get a ton of minutes early on. Khyri Thomas is buried in the rotation behind Galloway. Where is the opportunity for the young players to take the next step? Casey has said he wants to keep the regular rotation at about nine or 10, so there won’t be plentiful minutes for some of the less-experienced players at the outset. There could be trades throughout the season, but timing is key in seeing the young guys step into bigger roles.
9. What of Reggie Jackson?
Heading into the final year of his contract, the Pistons will have to figure out what’s next for Jackson. Will they keep him beyond the trade deadline as a versatile offensive weapon or try to get value for the $18.1 million on his deal? They have a glut of guards on the roster, so they could get to a point of looking at other options if the situation is right.
10. Gauging Sekou
Doumbouya was a lottery pick, but it looks like he’ll spend most of the season with the Grand Rapids Drive to develop. He has some of the physical tools to fit in, but he’ll need to be more assertive to find more playing time as a rookie. By the end of the season, he could be ready to get in the rotation, which was one of the major reasons noted for drafting him so highly.