Early Predictions for Detroit Pistons' Starting Lineup Next Season
New coach and team president Stan Van Gundy will certainly have different opinions of the returning players than his predecessors did. And he's also brought in six new faces to the mix, several of whom will play serious minutes in 2014-15, if not earn a starting role.
The Pistons could have serious competition at four of the five spots, and Van Gundy said he will treat it as such to Dave Hogg of Fox Sport Detroit.
"It's going to be a wide-open competition," he said. "We're going to find the best way to get these guys to fit together."
After winning just 29 games in 2013-14 and missing the postseason for the fifth consecutive season, every player should have to prove himself.
Expect developments until the season begins on which players best prove to Van Gundy that they deserve the starting spots. For now, we are left to speculate on what the new coach will do.
Point Guard: Brandon Jennings
Brandon Jennings has started all but three of the games he's played in his five-year career, and that should continue in the 2014-15 season.
But his place in the starting lineup is more precarious than perhaps it has ever been.
The Pistons brought in D.J. Augustin via free agency to serve as Jennings' backup (and likely to play alongside him at times).
While Augustin has had an up-and-down career, he started all 82 games for the then-Charlotte Bobcats in 2010-11. And he played arguably the best basketball of his career last season after signing with the Chicago Bulls midseason, averaging 13.1 points, 4.4 assists in just over 30 minutes per game off the bench.
Augustin is open to coming off the bench in a role similar to that which he played in Chicago.
“I think we’re all pretty smart players,” Augustin said to Darrell Williams of The New Orleans Advocate. “You can play us together, too. You can switch it around. Whatever my situation is, if I have to come off the bench, I’m going to play hard. We just have to play together.”
The spot is Jennings' to lose, but that's exactly what he'll do if he plays like he did to finish the 2013-14 season. In eight April games he averaged 13.1 points and 5.9 assists while shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 27.1 percent from the arc.
The 6'1" Jennings is the better overall scorer and distributor of the two, but Augustin is the superior outside shooter—an area where the Pistons really struggled in 2013-14. And though he's shorter, the 6'0" Augustin rated as the better defender by many metrics. According to 82games.com, opposing point guards in 2013-14 had a PER of 17.2 when facing Jennings, and a 15.6 PER against Augustin.
The gulf between the two isn't enormous, and Jennings' superior length in theory gives him the potential to improve on the defensive end. But even Jennings being a marginally lesser defender than Augustin will make the battle for the starting spot at least somewhat interesting, especially if Augustin's success carries over from Chicago.
It seems more likely than not that Jennings spends the year starting at the point for the Pistons. But the addition of Augustin makes their roster much more flexible, and it makes the possibility of a trade involving Jennings significantly safer for the Pistons.
Shooting Guard: Jodie Meeks
On the first day of free agency this summer, Van Gundy made sure to get his man.
"For us, [Jodie Meeks] was the guy that we wanted to make sure we got, so I thought we needed to be sure we were very aggressive to get that done, and we did that," Van Gundy told MLive.com's David Mayo. Meeks "was the guy we had unanimous agreement from coaches, front office, everybody, as the guy we wanted to go after."
That kind of sentiment—plus Meeks' new three-year, $19.5 million deal—make the new Piston the favorite to start at shooting guard.
Second-year guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also has a legitimate claim to the spot, as he started 41 games there in 2013-14 as a rookie.
But despite a very strong summer league performance, Caldwell-Pope still seems unready to start for a playoff-level team after a disappointing offensive season last year in which he averaged just 5.9 points, made fewer than 40 percent of his field goals and had a sub-10 PER.
Meeks, on the other hand, had a career year, scoring 15.7 points per contest on 46.3 percent shooting from the floor while making 40.1 percent of his triples.
Caldwell-Pope's best opportunity to make up the ground will be on the other end of the court, where he was a plus defender even as a rookie. He has the potential to be a lockdown guy in the near future, and that is something Meeks will never offer.
Meeks as the starter is by no means a sure thing, as Van Gundy has emphasized. But with his shooting ability capable of helping out the team's big men down low, he is the clear front-runner for the spot.
Small Forward: Caron Butler
In 2013-14, Josh Smith started nearly every game out of position at small forward for the Pistons. The experiment failed miserably, and it almost certainly won't continue this season.
“In the things we’ve studied—when you look at our three frontline guys, there’s your strength—but when you study it, when you play two of those three guys together, the Pistons were a very good team, at least last year," Van Gundy told Keith Langlois of Pistons.com. "When you played all three of them together, they really struggled.”
If those comments hold true, despite Smith making $13.5 million per season, then the Pistons are left with veteran free-agent signing Caron Butler or third-year player Kyle Singler to fill the role.
The two will find themselves fighting for minutes at very different points in their respective careers. Singler is just hitting his prime at age 26 after being a below-average starter much of the past two seasons. Butler, who is joining his eighth team, is a 34-year-old former All-Star who has already played his best basketball.
Butler may be a shell of his former self, but he still had enough in the tank to average over 27 minutes per game after joining Oklahoma City late in the 2013-14 season. Not only was he playing in meaningful minutes last postseason, but he has started 49 playoff games in his career. Singler has never seen the postseason.
The Pistons desperately need leadership on and off the court, and that's exactly what Butler can bring. And he can still be a productive player; his 10.5 points per game and 12.24 PER from last season both top Singler's numbers—9.6 and 11.86, respectively.
Butler won't average 20 points a night like he once did, and he's no longer a top wing stopper. But he's a gritty veteran player who can stretch the floor with his three-point shooting. If Van Gundy really won't start Smith, Butler is the guy who will replace him in the starting lineup.
Power Forward: Greg Monroe
The Pistons depth chart at power forward may look much different when the NBA season begins, but as it stands now, Greg Monroe has a slight edge over Smith to have his name announced in the starting lineup on opening night.
There are still many things that can happen before then. Monroe is still unsigned as a restricted free agent; the Pistons may still bring him back with a four-year extension, a shorter deal or even the qualifying offer, according to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.
Or another team could swoop in and force the Pistons to move him.
In that case, Smith becomes the obvious starter at the 4. But there's still a chance he, too, could be moved, with the Sacramento Kings as his most likely landing spot at this point, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com.
If they are both on the roster, though, Monroe gets the nod. Van Gundy has already said he likes the Monroe-Andre Drummond combination, and after last season Monroe is more deserving of the spot than Smith.
“I think it is an ideal pairing,” Van Gundy said to Langlois of Pistons.com. “If I look at just the film I’ve watched now and looking at the numbers, you would say that Greg and Andre together were great offensively. That was a great combination on the offensive end of the floor, especially when the three guys around them were shooters—more conventional perimeter types. That worked very, very well."
Still, so much could happen at this spot before the season begins. It just doesn't seem like the Pistons can go into another campaign with both Smith and Monroe on the roster.
Center: Andre Drummond
While there is some uncertainty at the first four starting spots, there is absolutely no question who will be starting at center.
Drummond was already the Pistons' top player last season at just 20 years old, and his game is only going to improve. The 6'10", 270-pound center is already one of the most physically imposing players in the league. And though he's raw, he's already impressed plenty of important basketball people—he's the youngest of the 19 players trying out for the FIBA World Cup.
“He’s a big, strong, young man with a terrific future, and he’s got a great attitude to go along with it,” U.S. managing director Jerry Colangelo said to Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.
Drummond will be the starting center in Detroit for years to come, and there's an excellent chance he becomes an All-Star next season. He averaged 13.5 points, 13.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals with a 22.65 PER in his second year and looks like he'll be one of the NBA's best big men for the next decade.
Drummond is the franchise centerpiece, and the Pistons will continue to build their game plans around him more and more on both sides of the ball in 2014-15.
Jakub Rudnik covers the Detroit Pistons as a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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