The Detroit Pistons are broke, and nobody is sure that the team can be fixed given its personnel. Now head coach Maurice Cheeks is again openly discussing changes to the starting lineup.
"There is a time when you change sometimes just to change some things up. You don't want to have them just keep going just going the same way, but it's always a thought; when to do it is always the key," Cheeks told reporters recently.
Yes, the head coach is now literally talking about the benefits of changing the starting lineup just for change's sake. And curiously, he seems to be thinking of making a change at one of the team's most settled positions -- shooting guard.
Cheeks said he was contemplating inserting Rodney Stuckey into the starting lineup. This most likely means that he would take the place of rookie Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who has settled into the spot nicely in the past month or so.
This would indeed be change for change's sake. Taking your most reliable bench scorer and most reliable defender and having them switch places while a glaring red flag still exists at the small forward position. I suppose Cheeks could secretly be thinking bolder -- Stuckey at small forward and one of the bigs to the bench -- but that doesn't seem to be his style.
And boldness is what is needed. While two beat writers, Vince Ellis and David Mayo, both believe that boldness means the team should sort out its big man rotation, with Greg Monroe playing center, either in the starting lineup or off of the bench, and Josh Smith moving to his natural power forward position.
But allow me to suggest the boldness of a different path -- the starting lineup is not really the main problem right now. Yes, the team would be more effective overall if it used a three-man big rotation with one coming off the bench (based on merit, it should be Smith but I can see a certain logic in just about any starting combination of the three).
The real problem isn't how the team is starting games, it is how the team is ending games. And how it is ending games is via a small-ball lineup with Brandon Jennings increasingly self-destructing the PIstons offense.
As I discussed in late December and Shinons discussed just this morning, the Pistons are awful in fourth quarters. The worst in the league by a large margin, in fact. And this is because their offensive profile changes completely, going from a paint oriented big-man attack, to a Brandon Jennings jump-shot fest.
Lately, Cheeks has tried to address this issue by slotting another ball handler alongside Jennings in Rodney Stuckey as well as keeping the quality defense of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the floor. This small-ball lineup leaves the Pistons undersized at the small forward position negating KCP's and/or Stuckey's defensive effectiveness, and leaves one of the big men (lately Greg Monroe) on the bench in crunch time.
It's no surprise then that, as Shinons points out, the Pistons get outrebounded and have trouble scoring in the fourth. If the Pistons really wanted to make a bold move they would do something truly bold -- sitting Jennings far more often late in games.
Jennings takes 4.3 fourth quarter shots per game, one of the highest marks in the NBA, yet he hits on only 34.3 percent, one of the lowest marks for the group of high-volume shooters. And he is also perhaps the worst perimeter defender on the team. His poor defense is less of an issue when he's hitting shots and helping the team get out and run on the break. But those opportunities are fewer and farther between when things slow down in the fourth quarter.
The Pistons, then, have constructed a fourth-quarter lineup that is too small, poor on defense, can't rebound and can't score. It leaves the team's most consistent offensive weapon relegated to the bench in Monroe, sees few posts opportunities run for Smith even though he's at his more natural position and sees little to no involvement of Drummond.
Instead, the Pistons should pull Brandon Jennings when he starts moving away from the gameplan that seems to have worked pretty well for the team through three quarters. It should install Rodney Stuckey at point guard, allowing the team to improve its perimeter D at the point of attack. This would allow KCP to play and defend the shooting guard position, where he excels the most. And it allows the team to get its most consistent offensive weapon in Monroe touches in the fourth quarter.
The offense is simply nonexistent without him on the floor late, and Monroe needs to be on the floor. Cheeks could either pair him with Smith or Drummond based on how the game has gone to that point, and even all three at once if Cheeks is satisfied how Smith is performing defensively at small forward.
A lot was made when Cheeks was hired how he was brought in to help bring out the best in Jennings and take him to the next level. For all his pluses and minuses, Jennings has performed well, for three quarters anyway. The team can either continue to let him dominate the fourth quarter, give away winnable games, and hope the playing time allows Jennings' game and decision making to evolve and mature.
Or, it can say the poor results mean that someone else gets a chance to captain the team late in games. Cheeks can still mentor Jennings, but more from a seat alongside him on the bench instead of playing through his myriad late mistakes.
Simply, what the Pistons are doing isn't working. This isn't exactly change for change's sake. Instead, it's change for improvement's sake. Hopefully Cheeks has the boldness to give it a shot.