Is it time to play the rookies?

As the Pistons’ playoff hopes sink in the western sky, when should the organization admit that this team will not make the postseason and begin making player development a higher priority?

Detroit will not reach the Eastern Conference playoffs this season. If you think that prediction is going out on a limb, then consider the unlikely scenario that would have to unfold to prove it wrong:

Atlanta (31-35), which is currently on a five-game winning streak, would have to crash and burn over the next three weeks. The Hawks would need to lose all their games to the 10 teams with a superior record and also fall to most of their weaker opponents. They face six squads with a worse record – Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Philadelphia. Four of those contests are at home. It’s hard to imagine they will not at least go 4-12 to finish at 35-47.

Cleveland (26-43), having lost guard Kyrie Irving to injury, is not in a great position to jump past Atlanta if they fade. Though seven of their remaining 13 games are at home, they face just four teams with a poorer record than their own – Boston, Detroit (twice), Milwaukee and Orlando. The outcome of those two head-to-head meetings with the Pistons will be critical to the fortunes of both franchises. But their chances of making the playoffs are very low.

New York (28-40) is in the best position to profit if the Hawks dive. Sporting a seven-game winning streak, the Knicks will play five of their final 14 games against inferior opposition – Cleveland, Los Angeles (Lakers), Philadelphia, Sacramento and Utah. With home and away contests slated against both Brooklyn and Toronto, it’s possible to foresee them catching Atlanta at the wire.

Detroit (25-42) has only five home games left, and only two of those battles will be versus weaker teams – Boston and Milwaukee. Of their 10 road foes, only Philadelphia and Utah have lost more often. As mentioned above, the Pistons face the Cavs twice, so victories over them are conceivable. But they must play the Bulls, Clippers, Hawks, Nets, Pacers and Thunder on the road, and the Heat and Raptors at home. With eight home games in their previous 15, Detroit went 3-12. It would be very optimistic to expect a 7-8 finish. Even that level of success is unlikely to catch New York, and it’s highly improbable it would surpass the Hawks.

While Detroit is technically still in the playoff fight, and could remain so for the next week or more, expecting a miraculous finish is a very remote hope. The time to make our move was earlier this month – which is what both Atlanta and New York have done. Whether we will lose enough to be reasonably assured of keeping our draft pick is still in question. A trip to the postseason is not.

So is it time for Coach John Loyer to juggle the playing rotations – if not also the starting line-up – in order to further the development of our three rookies and other young players? And is there a way to do this now that also respects the more veteran members of the squad?

Yes.

With these goals in mind, here are some modest suggestions:

The Starters

Point Guard: Brandon Jennings

Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Small Forward: Josh Smith

Power Forward: Greg Monroe

Center: Andre Drummond

This line-up presumes that Drummond will be ready to play again soon. If not, then Kyle Singler can start at small forward, with Monroe and Smith manning the other frontcourt spots. The amount of playing time they are given will be just as important as whom the starters are. With the exception of Drummond and Monroe, no other starter should play more than 30 minutes per game, in order to provide more minutes for the bench.

Returning Caldwell-Pope to the top five would be the only major change. While he’s been used sparingly since he lost his starting job to Singler in February, he had a strong outing against Denver Wednesday night. Increasing his role now would be a suitable reward, and should further his development.

The Reserves

Point Guard: Will Bynum, Peyton Siva

Shooting Guard: Rodney Stuckey

Small Forward: Kyle Singler, Luigi Datome

Power Forward: Tony Mitchell

Center: Jonas Jerebko, Charlie Villanueva

At point guard, Siva needs an opportunity to play as soon as his sprained ankle allows. Rather than split minutes in the same game, he and Bynum could alternate as Jennings’ backup from night to night. Getting 18 or more minutes of game experience per outing would help Siva develop and allow the organization to see the progress he has made since his experience with the Mad Ants in the D-League.

Mitchell, who is probably the "rawest" of the rookies, is in the same situation. Giving him regular NBA game experience is the key to his development and to helping the Pistons make an informed assessment of his future potential.

Datome has not been used significantly since December. While his shooting ability has been "missing in action," perhaps some extended game time now will jump start him. Once again giving him some selected opportunities might be all he needs. If he still does not respond with productivity, then at least Detroit will know he was given another chance.

Last season, the Pistons did not give rookie Kris Middleton any significant playing time until late February. Even then he was not given regular minutes until March, when he still did not play in three games. In April, Middleton averaged 24.3 minutes per game, and responded with 8.1 points per game on .529 percent shooting (.400 on threes).

Perhaps Middleton earned those minutes in practice and by gradually improved play when he did see the court. But the point remains that giving him a larger role served to benefit his development, and may also have helped Detroit (and Milwaukee) assess his potential for a larger role.

Realistically, Coach Loyer probably does not have the authority to make these changes on his own. But there is no reason why the front office should not mandate that the rest of the season be utilized toward building for the future. Now is the time for the Pistons to give their four rookies an extended opportunity to play.

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