Can a change in the starting lineup restart the Pistons' season?

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

With his team mired in a 4-9 slump, Coach Mo Cheeks faces tough choices to get Detroit back on the road to winning

With the Pistons on a welcome five day break between games, speculation has increased about possible changes to their starting lineup. Both David Mayo of MLive and Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press have recently asked whether Coach Maurice Cheeks might move one of his starters to the bench. “If it isn’t working, you have to consider changes,” Ellis wrote.

It isn’t working. Detroit was 10-10 back on December 7, winners of four in a row (three on the road). Since then, the team has gone 4-9, and is currently on its second three game losing streak of that span. Other than an impressive 101-96 road win at Indiana, even the victories have been uninspiring. The Pistons beat Brooklyn by four points and Boston by one. While they easily handled the Cavaliers, 115-92, defeating an 11-21 squad is hardly anything to crow about.

Furthermore, it’s not as if no one could see this car wreck coming. The traffic jam the Pistons often face in the paint was entirely predictable. Entering the season, many commentators questioned whether General Manager Joe Dumars’ plan to start Josh Smith at small forward alongside power forward Greg Monroe and center Andre Drummond would work. Back in mid-October, Steve Aschburner of NBA.com wrote:

Like Teamsters trying to pile into a Corvette for a boys’ night out, it’s all about the fit. Two? Sure. Three? No way. That’s the challenge facing the Detroit Pistons as they sift through their frontcourt options and try to find both the lineups and schemes -- the best fit -- for Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond.

In other words, the problems Detroit has been facing were totally predictable. While Smith can be commended for his recent efforts to look for his offense closer to the basket, this is hampered by the presence of Drummond and Monroe on the floor at the same time. Neither of their defenders has to worry too much that either one of those men will knock down an open jump shot. While Monroe is more capable in that regard than Drummond, it is by no means the strength of his game.

Likewise, if either Drummond or Monroe seeks to score in the post, they also must worry that Smith’s defender will contract the space available to them. While Smith is much more willing to shoot jump shots than Monroe, he is hardly much more of a threat. For instance, according to the play by play log for last Monday’s 106-99 lost to Washington, Monroe was 0-5 on jump shots. Smith was 2-9. Given a choice between contesting a jumper by Monroe or Smith, or packing the paint, most defenders will chose the latter option. So what’s a good option for Coach Cheeks to get the Motor City crew out of the pits and back on the road to respectability?

Start Kyle Singler at small forward

In that same game against the Wizards, Kyle Singler went 2-3 on his jump shots. While he is not a player who can serve as a primary offensive threat in many situations, his outside shot must be respected by opponents. For December Singer has averaged 9.6 points per game in 23.1 minutes, making 53.5 percent of his shots and 46.7 percent of his three-pointers. Per36 this year, he has averaged 12.9 ppg on nine shots. For comparison, Kyle Korver of Atlanta has averaged 13.2 ppg on 9.3 shots Per36. (Don’t forget that in his only start this season on November 22 versus Atlanta, Singler scored 22 points.)

With Singler in the starting lineup alongside Brandon Jennings and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, opposing defenses would not be able to pack the paint as successfully against our big men. As Ellis noted, “His presence could create more spacing, and he’s the best on the team moving without the ball.” So no matter which one or two of our ‘Big 3’ was on the floor, getting to the hoop would become easier for them.

Of course, if a decision is made to start Singler, the next question is which of our ‘Big 3’ should be given a reserve role. Coach Cheeks was actually asked about this possibility back in October. Here’s a Cheeks’ quote from Aschburner’s article:

“We have to be on a collective string … If it means one of those guys sits out and we're winning games, that's what we'll do. If that's the recipe -- I don’t know if that’s the recipe, but if it is -- one of them will have to sit. “The only thing about that, those guys are young. It's hard to tell a 20-year-old [Drummond], 23-year-old [Monroe] or 27-year-old [Smith], one of you have to sit down. [At] 35? They’ll sit down with no problem. That’s the hardest part, that’s my job. I have to figure that out."

So let’s look now at the pros and cons of sitting one of either Drummond, Monroe or Smith:

Sit Andre Drummond

Pros: As the youngest of the three at age 20, and having been very successful coming off the bench for last year’s squad, it might be easiest to give Drummond a reserve role. He would still be counted on for 30-plus minutes a night. This could also give him more opportunities to play pick and roll basketball with Will Bynum. On defense, he could play with more abandon since foul trouble would be less of a concern.

Cons: Drummond averaged almost 14 points, 13 boards and two blocks in December. As a future All-Star with the potential to be the face of the franchise into the next decade, do the Pistons want to risk alienating him or hindering his development?

Sit Greg Monroe

Pros: Because he can play either center or power forward, Monroe could substitute for Drummond or Smith as necessitated by foul trouble, game situations or matchups. He would probably see little reduction in his playing time and would likely become the primary scorer when he was on the court, so his production could actually increase.

Cons: Monroe has been a dependable starter and double-double producer since his rookie year, and will be a restricted free agent. While his usage is down this year with Smith and Jennings taking over 30 shots per game, he is still performing efficiently. Giving him what would appear to be a reduced role now might make him question his future in Motown. It would also serve to encourage teams that will be shopping for a starting big man this summer to make him an attractive offer.

Sit Josh Smith

Pros: He’s the “new kid on the block” in Detroit, and he’s playing out of position at small forward. His offensive efficiency is at an all-time low (he shot a better percentage as a 20-year-old for the Hawks), and making him a wing has encouraged him to take more of the long jump shots that he routinely bricks. Using him as a reserve would allow Smith to return to his natural position at power forward and would also bolster production from our bench on both ends of the floor.

Cons: Other than that November game against Atlanta, we have to go back to 2005-06 to find a season when Smith did not start every game he was available. As the “crown jewel” of Dumars’ off-season free agent haul and the Pistons highest paid player, many would view this move as an early admission of failure. Plus, unless Smith agreed to this role amicably, the locker room dissension it created could sabotage any advantages it produced.

Conclusions

What decision should Coach Cheeks make? As he said back in October, “That’s the hardest part, that’s my job. I have to figure that out." Ideally, if he does make any changes, he will be able to get “buy-in” from everyone on the team. Cheeks certainly could decide to continue with the present starting lineup. Having played their last 13 games in the span of only 23 days, with a total of four back-to-backs, he may believe that this week’s extra practice time and rest and the eventual return to health of Rodney Stuckey will make a winning difference in 2014. But with 40 percent of the season behind them, the Pistons don’t have much time left to figure out how to win games.

Perhaps they could take some cues from the resurgent Toronto Raptors, who have gone 9-3 to reach 15-15 while we were going 4-9. According to second-year guard Terrence Ross, "Everybody is just playing for each other. Nobody has any secret agendas. Everybody wants the same goal. We are all on the same page and I think that is something that we are getting better at and it is something that is helping us."

Ross has also been starting since Toronto traded their high-priced, inefficient small forward (Rudy Gay) to Sacramento – a trade that coincided with the start of the Raptors’ 9-3 run. Since a trade seems unlikely at this point for Detroit, might not the best option be to start a more efficient player at small forward?

Feel free to share your thoughts with the poll and your comments:

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