As the season’s unofficial second half gets underway, the Detroit Pistons are going to struggle to thread the needle in addressing two priorities. They must allow their current core players to continue to play together and build chemistry, and they also must use these last two dozen games to dust off some little-used pieces and see what they have.
Last year it was as simple as can be — throw your rookies on the floor, rest your veterans to keep them healthy and fresh, lose enough games to ensure great odds at a top-5 pick. The Detroit Pistons got 4,500 minutes from their rookie class last season, it was quickly apparent just what veterans Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Cory Joseph brought to the floor and the team finished with the second-worst record in the NBA.
On the face of it, this year should be even easier. The results have been markedly worse on the court, and the Pistons already have a comfortable cushion and will likely finish with a bottom-two record whether they rest players or not.
But injuries and COVID have robbed this team of any sense of balance, cohesion and team chemistry. And that could motivate them to have their veterans share the floor with important young pieces much more often than we saw last season.
Their most-used five-man lineup has played just 237 minutes together. The current lineup with Cade Cunningham, Cory Joseph, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Jerami Grant has been limited to 129 minutes.
Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Grant and big offseason acquisition Kelly Olynyk have missed extended time with injuries and health and safety protocols. The team — and its most important pieces — have had little time to build chemistry and learn how to play off of one another. That is especially important now with Cunningham on board and guiding the offense on most every possession.
The team also has big offseason decisions to face — the NBA Draft could fundamentally alter the starting lineup, they must decide whether to trade Grant for future assets, play out the final year of his contract or give him a contract extension that could stretch past $100 million.
At the same time, rookie second-round picks Luka Garza and Isaiah Livers have played 340 and 5 minutes, respectively. Livers was sidelined for most the season recovering from foot surgery, and you’d like to see what you have in him and also reward him for the work he put into rehabilitation and practice.
You’d also like to see more of Saben Lee, who is obviously too good for the G League but still trying to figure out how to translate that into success on an NBA floor. He had a surprisingly solid rookie season and played 781 minutes focusing more on being a ball distributor and defender. This year, he’s trying to build out his offensive game and develop a consistent shot, and the limited results on the floor have been underwhelming.
But he too deserves some time in the backup point guard role, but that spot is reserved for Hayes. Add to that, the Pistons likely want to give the currently injured Frank Jackson time on the floor if he is healthy enough. That means one or both of Cory Joseph and Rodney McGruder would be stuck on the bench, and they are two of the only players who seem to be capable of hitting a 3-pointer on any sort of consistent basis.
Then there is Marvin Bagley III who would soak up tons of playing time if the Pistons decide to rest Grant. But Grant and Cunningham need to figure out how to play alongside each other, and Casey needs to figure out how to stagger their minutes.
In Thursday’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Casey let Grant run wild with a bench unit featuring Hayes and Hamidou Diallo and the energy and defensive disruption was easy to see.
In that same Cavs game, the Pistons had Stewart, Bagley and Grant on the floor together, seemingly because they wanted to see Bagley in a crunch-time situation but also wanted their two most capable big defenders on the floor as well.
We might see more funky lineup and rotation combinations going forward as Casey looks to balance these competing priorities and also, as all coaches hope to do, finish the season strong.