How will newcomer Josh Smith fit next to Greg Monroe?
Smith is naturally a power forward, and the Pistons already have two of the best young post players in the NBA: Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond. With three players needing minutes at two positions, new head coach Maurice Cheeks will have to perform a bit of a juggling act with his rotation.
Not only does he have those three, who all expect to play big minutes, but he also has veterans Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva, both of whom have been rotation players the last few years in Detroit.
Cheeks must find a way to create an offense that works when all three share the court, but also find enough minutes in the post for each player.
On the court together
At least to begin the season, the Pistons are expected to have all three big men in the starting lineup. GM Joe Dumars confirmed as much in an interview with Grantland:
I don't know how many minutes we'll have that front line [Drummond, Smith, Monroe] on the floor together, once you get past the first six minutes for the first quarter.
Even if the three big men only play together six minutes per half, there will still be very real spacing issues. Smith made just 27 percent of his shots from beyond 7.5 feet of the rim. Monroe shot just 30.7 percent from beyond five feet (102-of-332). Drummond shot only 19.5 percent on 41 attempts from the same distance.
While each was very good near the basket, there just isn't room for three players to operate in the paint. Ultimately, Smith will be pushed to the perimeter as the small forward, where he has been all too willing to shoot in the past.
One way to combat the spacing issues when all three share the court is to run the offense through Smith or Monroe, rather than through a point guard in the traditional sense. Both are excellent passers, averaging at least 3.5 assists per game last season. Also, allowing Brandon Jennings to play off the ball will help keep opposing defenses honest, as they'll have to account for a second three-point shooter.
With his athleticism and ball-handling ability, Smith will allow them to run big-big pick-and-rolls periodically, something that very few teams have the option to do. Drummond's elite physical talents and ability to finish at the rim makes him an ideal partner for such plays. The duo could create huge matchup issues for opposing small forward-center combinations.
Monroe doesn't have the same ability to create off the dribble as Smith, but his ability to pass from the high post is well-suited for a motion offense. The Chicago Bulls, another team that has struggled with spacing, used Joakim Noah in a similar role last season.
With 96 minutes available per night between the power forward and center positions, there is plenty of playing time to go around for the three main bigs, but the backups will struggle to get on the court consistently.
Smith has averaged at least 35 minutes in six of the last seven seasons, and since he's in the prime of his career, there's no reason to think he won't average the same in 2013-14. And if Cheeks follows Dumars' plan, 10-12 of those minutes will be at small forward.
Monroe's minutes have increased each of his three NBA years, up to 33 minutes last season, which is a good projection for his current minutes.
Drummond's development is the biggest unknown for their rotation. He played just 20.7 minutes per game last season, in part because of poor conditioning. But reports this summer say he's in great shape, and down to as little as six percent body fat.
If he truly is in that kind of condition, it's easy to see him playing 30 minutes or more this year. That would leave just 10 minutes for Villanueva and Jerebko.
Charlie V's value is almost exclusively as a three-point shooter, although it is a skill the Pistons desperately need more of. He could see time next to Drummond or in small-ball units with Smith, but would be a disaster defensively next to Monroe.
Jerebko isn't exactly a lock-down defender either, and he never developed a great three-point shot (he's a career 30.6 percent shooter). He provides energy on defense and a mid-range jumper, but not much else. He does many things well, but lacks one skill that sets him apart. In the end, that missing niche may be what costs him a spot in the rotation.
Playing time in close games
Which duo will have the most success together in 2013-14?
The biggest challenge facing Cheeks will be managing players' minutes down the stretch of tight games. While he will largely be able to play just two of the three big men at a time through the first 40 minutes of a game, there is pressure to play the best players in crunch time.
As previously illustrated, the problem with playing Smith, Monroe and Drummond together is that they will struggle with court spacing, regardless of who plays next to them. Without proper spacing, there will be times when the Pistons' offense will be unable to generate points in the half court.
If one player is kept on the bench in crunch time, it will likely be Drummond. While his defense is better than Monroe's, his offensive game is limited to mainly lobs and put-backs. And his 37.1 free throw percentage makes him a liability if opposing teams are forced to foul.
Otherwise, the Pistons may look for offense/defense substitutions in the final minute with Monroe and Drummond. Smith is the most complete player of the three, so it is unlikely that he comes out at the end of close games.
Overall, they have many options with their three frontcourt players, although the least attractive is playing the three together. As long as Cheeks can properly manage their minutes, those stretches can be minimized as much as possible.