Steve Aschburner of NBA.com recently posted a preview of the Pistons (link: Pistons face ‘big’ dilemma with new-look frontcourt) which featured an interview with Tayshaun Prince, whom we traded to Memphis late last January. The whole article is worth reading, but I wanted to lift out Prince’s statements about our Big 3, reflect on them, and offer the DBB community an opportunity to comment on what he had to say.
Since Prince was a teammate with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, and has played against Josh Smith, it makes sense that he can speak with greater insight than most other NBA players on our 2013-14 frontline. According to Aschburner, Prince is "not as discouraged by the prospect of using them in a trio rather than an ever-rotating tag team."
Prince also spoke specifically about the respective abilities of each player. So before we return to his assessment of them as a starting lineup, let’s look at what he said about each one in turn:
"Obviously Greg is going to have to be quicker on his feet, as far as [defending] pick-and-pop 4’s," Prince said after a Grizzlies-Bulls preseason game. "His advantage is against the 5’s because he’s quicker and he has a great first step. If it’s a 4 guarding him, it will be a little tougher, but he has a great basketball IQ and knows how to play the game, so it doesn’t really matter. He’s great at making adjustments on who’s guarding him."
His first three years in the league, Monroe has mostly guarded centers, who generally are not as agile as the PFs he’ll be tasked with covering this season. While there will be some exceptions (e.g. Zach Randolph), he should face few 4s who will try to outmuscle him in the post. Monroe apparently slimmed down some this summer to adjust to this different responsibility. Is he capable of guarding NBA PFs well? The definitive answer to that question will come this season.
But it should also be noted that Monroe got some good reviews on his defensive play as a 4 this summer at the Team USA Olympic Minicamp in Las Vegas (link: Making Their Case ). As reported by Keith Langlois, in the scrimmage that closed the four-day event Monroe "made a handful of eye-catching defensive plays, especially early in the game to stake his team to a lead." According to Assistant GM George David:
"From a selfish standpoint – from strictly the Detroit Pistons standpoint – one of the things I thought was great was Greg having to spend the week playing against some of the top power forwards and having to face multiple types. The game was a culmination for him of getting a chance to play against those guys all week. He had an outstanding first quarter defensively with what he was able to do against some of those fours. He impacted the first eight or nine plays of the game defensively, in one way or another. We couldn’t have picked a better scenario for Greg over the week than to play against some of those power forwards for USA Basketball."
On offense, Prince noted that Moose will no longer enjoy the same quickness advantage working against PFs that he had when facing most NBA centers. Clearly this is a significant adjustment to make, since so much of his game has relied on facing up at the elbows and trying to drive around the 5 who was guarding him. In this case he may need to work more at posting up opposing 4s in the paint, using his size to his advantage. Prince was confident that Greg’s "great basketball IQ" would allow him to make the needed adjustments. I think we can expect that fully adapting to this new reality will take some time.
"Josh’s abilities, at his best, are at the 4 because of the mismatch problem. If he’s at the 3, I think he’ll post up a lot more, having smaller guys on him. But it will be sort of a disadvantage, because he’s been at the 4 so long in Atlanta and it gives him the ability to help off and get steals, stuff like that. When he’s guarding the 3 and the guy’s a shooter, you’ve got to stay home — there ain’t no going for blocked shots [in help defense] or they’ll pick you apart."
I interpret Prince’s first statements about Smith as referring to how his superior athleticism has given him an edge at PF on offense. Playing more SF for us, he’ll be more effective using his size to post up smaller players. But will we actually see him doing that consistently? It’s hard to imagine Smith getting much space to operate in the post when Monroe and Drummond are both on the floor. Perhaps we’ll need to consider using Harrellson at center occasionally to make better use of Smith’s offensive talents at the 3 or 4.
On defense, Prince said Smith’s ability to focus on help defense, generating blocks and steals, will be negated by having to "stay home" with 3s who can shoot. Still, when he’s matched up against the league’s best SFs, this is probably the best option for our team. In fact, I think that’s probably one of the main reasons we signed Smith. Considering how we were torched last season by LeBron James (29 pts., 70.6% FGs) and Carmelo Anthony (27.3 pts, 51.9% FGs), any improvement at on-ball defense would help. We may see fewer blocks and steals from him than he generated in Atlanta, unless he’s guarding SFs who can’t shoot (e.g. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist).
"Sky’s the limit," Prince said. "He just needs more experience. He’s got a big body, so he should be able to create some space and get some easy opportunities. He’s a great rebounder, he has great hands and he can run the floor like he’s 220 pounds."
Prince clearly sees Drummond’s incredible potential – along with his already evident size, speed, hands and rebounding ability. What he needs the most, Prince said, is "more experience." And he won’t get that on the bench. What this means is that Dre is going to need to play – a lot. Considering the amount of time he’s already logged in 5 preseason games (34 minutes against the Cavs, 26.6 per game so far), it looks like he’ll play plenty this season. By comparison, Monroe has averaged 28 minutes and Smith has averaged 29.4.
Our Big 3 Together
"There’s pluses and negatives to everything," Prince said. "I’m pretty sure one way or the other, they’ll figure it out. I think whatever suits them best, when they figure it out 15 or 20 games into the season, then they’ll make the necessary adjustments."
As Prince said, playing Drummond, Monroe and Smith together offers us both "pluses" and "negatives." While he didn’t spell out what all of these are, I think most of them are evident. On the plus side, we should have a size and rebounding advantage at both ends of the floor against most teams. In Dre and Smoove we have two outstanding athletes on our frontline, which should bolster the effectiveness of our transition game. Both Monroe and Smith are excellent passers. We have the capability to once again develop into a top defense.
On the negative side, we’ll have a starting frontline featuring no one with floor-stretching shooting ability. While each of our Big 3 are most effective operating near the hoop, they’ll have difficulty finding space to operate against sagging defenses. The problem of a packed paint will encourage Smith to camp out near the 3-point line and shoot jumpers, which is the least effective part of his game. Each player’s game may suffer because the others’ abilities are not an ideal complement to his own.
In spite of the obvious minuses, Prince expressed confidence the three can make the necessary adjustments, though it may take a fourth of the season to do so. Of course, if he honestly felt that it is an unworkable lineup, would Prince publicly say so?
One unforeseen difficulty so far has been the absence of Brandon Jennings from our lineup since the first preseason game. Without him, we’re missing a key floor-stretching shooter in our starting lineup. Luigi Datone’s injury and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s shooting struggles have further magnified the spacing issues many of us anticipated that the Pistons’ offense will face. Chauncey Billups should be able to help, of course, but it’s unlikely we can expect him to regularly play more than half a game.
"It’s going to be a learning experience for all of them. We don’t have a conventional team. I don’t think Josh is a conventional three. I’m not really a two guard. We’re putting just basketball players on the floor, so it’s going to be an adjustment period for all of them to learn how to play with one another. But we’ll see how fast we can make it happen."
Billups’ statement betrays the high probability that he will be in the starting lineup on opening night. As a career 39% 3-point shooter, he’s our "Big Shot" at stretching the floor for our Big 3. He should provide a strong, steadying influence from the outset of games, as well as at other times when our offense goes off the rails.
Finally, as important as it is for us to make our Big 3 work as well together as possible, I think it’s just as important to manage our rotations so we always have 1-2 of them on the floor. Miami has certainly done this with their Big 3, because the rest of their roster is not composed of high-quality starting talent. We also need to put our best team on the floor for 48 minutes. Last season, for instance, one of our most effective lineups featured Drummond and Will Bynum. We might find that surrounding either Monroe or Smith with shooters would also make better use of their talents, giving them room to operate in the post and making good use of their passing ability.
Hopefully we’ll work out the "bugs" in starting games with our Big 3 early this season. But finding creative line-ups that maximize their talent throughout the game may be even more important to the Pistons’ success this season.