The Detroit Pistons headed into the preseason with several storylines in place, but perhaps the most relevant heading into the season was sorting out a few backup jobs.
Who would backup Ish Smith while Reggie Jackson recovers from his knee tendonitis treatment? Who wins the backup center job, the incumbent Aron Baynes or tantalizing free agent signing Boban Marjanovic? Could Darrun Hilliard or Reggie Bullock carve out rotation minutes?
Five games into the preseason, the Pistons haven’t gotten clear answers to any of these questions.
Ray McCallum and Lorenzo Brown entered training camp expecting to compete for the final roster spot and third point guard role. With Jackson’s injury, the stakes increased to include a spot in the rotation as well.
So far both players have looked reasonably competent in different areas of the game, but neither has been able to shoot. McCallum has a shooting line of 35/0/50 through three games and Brown has has played two with a line of 28/33/50. Considering Ish Smith’s shooting woes throughout his career, we could be looking at a situation where neither the first or second unit point guard can shoot. That’s a bit scary.
Rookie Michael Gbinije has always been the underdog in this race, but has been impressive during his time on the court. In two preseason games he’s shot 50 percent from the field and 60 percent from three, but he’s unlikely to be ready to contribute at point guard too soon; he hasn’t even been practicing at the position as Van Gundy eases him into his NBA career.
The situation is so murky that it’s difficult to tell whether one of the three would be able to competently man the spot early on or if it resembles the early season backup point guard dumpster fire we started with last year. Should the team roll with what they have? Look externally? I have no idea.
There’s also no clear movement in the fight for backup center minutes between Boban versus Baynes. Baynes has been the player we’ve come to expect - solid, physical, but physically limited. He’s reliable, fine, unexciting.
Boban is in many ways the exact opposite. He’s physically dominant and incredibly tantalizing. He’s mostly unstoppable in the post, shooting 78 percent from the field and 79 percent from the line. But he’s had some major ball security issues, with a 34 percent turnover percentage.
Turnovers weren’t an issue for Boban last year in San Antonio, as he had just a 11 percent turnover percentage for the Spurs. Perhaps it’s a fluke with the small three-game sample size or just the Pistons putting him in some different situations he still needs to figure out. Those turnovers, however, have been particularly brutal as Boban struggles to get back defensively from his spot deep in the post, giving the opposing team a major advantage on the fast break.
So who should open the season as Andre Drummond’s primary backup? Again, it’s tough to say. It depends on whether you prefer steadiness or upside.
Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard finished last season making a strong case that they deserve additional minutes this season. Prospect du jour Stanley Johnson is expected to see an increase in minutes and Stan Van Gundy prefers a rotation with nine guys, so it’s tough to see where either fit in.
While neither Hilliard nor Bullock has dropped any jaws like Bullock did last preseason to win his roster spot, they’ve both been decent. Each has been a solid, efficient contributor despite some disappointing three point shooting. Both are under 30 percent from three after being looked to as potential floor stretching threats.
But something that’s also relevant: they’ve both been better than Stanley Johnson. This is understandable as both have several years on Johnson, but with his continued struggles to score the ball efficiently and avoid turnovers, it’s fair to question whether he should be getting major minutes at the expense of two other young players who could outperform him.
It’s fair to argue that either deserves a spot in the rotation. But it’s extremely unlikely that both will get one. So which? And whose minutes do they take?
Marcus Morris has missed time this preseason to rest some knee pain, but he should be back for Wednesday’s final preseason game and it looks like he’ll be ready for the start of the season. Stan Van Gundy might be able to limit him early on to get more minutes to one of the Hilliard-Bullock pair, but there’s no easy decision long term yet.
The final Pistons game of the preseason will be a preview of opening night against the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday. It’ll be interesting to see if any of the above are able to make life easier on SVG and his rotational decisions.