Detroit — Even when the Pistons didn’t have their starting backcourt for their preseason opener Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs, coach Dwane Casey didn’t get desperate to try to piece together a new group of starters.
Instead of elevating veterans Cory Joseph and Hamidou Diallo to the first group, Casey opted to move up Saben Lee and Rodney McGruder. That way, Casey could keep the developing chemistry with his second unit intact.
And it worked.
The Pistons mounted a lead in the first half and that reserve group helped expand it in the second half, on the way to an impressive victory. The Pistons’ bench outscored the Spurs’, 68-53, with 16 points from Josh Jackson and 14 points each from Joseph and Kelly Olynyk.
There’s something to be said for the connection between the reserve group, which also included Trey Lyles and Diallo, in that they have more experience than the projected starters. Cade Cunningham is a rookie, with Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart in their second season. Jerami Grant is the only veteran in that group.
“They’re veteran players; they know how to play and they have a rhythm of being together for so long, especially Cory and Kelly,” Casey said. “Going into the training camp, we knew that, and I was impressed with the way they came in and gave us IQ, experience and the know-how in that situation.
“That’s part of growth with our guys, and the first unit will have a little bit more cohesion when we get everybody back and in their right positions.”
The Pistons added Olynyk and Lyles in free agency and brought back Joseph as a veteran option to help mentor the young point guards. It’s a rare trio of Canadian players, and that cohesiveness is showing in their play on the court.
In fact, all three have some familiarity from playing on the Canadian National Team, and they’re bringing that chemistry to the Pistons.
“We’re all more experienced in this league, I think, on that second unit because we’ve been playing for a while,” Joseph said. “Obviously, I have a lot of experience playing with Kelly and Trey from Team Canada in the summer times all the time, so it’s easier to click.”
The Pistons are in rebuild mode, so they’ll be apt to giving their young players some playing time in order to develop, but it’s always good to have a strong second unit to help keep the team in games. Where many teams look at their reserve group to try to hold on in the game until the starters return, the Pistons could be a rare case where their reserve unit are a strength.
“Hopefully, that’s the case. We have experience in that second unit and we can use that to our advantage,” Joseph said. “We’ve got guys that have (high basketball) IQ on both units, but on that second unit, we have guys that their games complement each other well.
“I’m very excited about it. It’s just one game so far in the preseason, so we’ve got to continue to work and get better.”
With Cunningham and Hayes recovering from ankle sprains, the Pistons are going to have to be patient with getting everything up to speed, but if they can maintain the edge that the second unit has brought.
Jackson and Diallo are defensive-minded wing options, and they can be difference-makers.
Jackson was a standout with his scoring efficiency and playing under control, and Diallo added nine points and six rebounds. Though they look to play the same position, they can be interchangeable as wings, which gives the Pistons some flexibility in distributing minutes, while relying on their strengths.
“They’re athletic, they have long arms, and they get a lot of deflections. Hami is obviously very athletic and he can guard multiple positions,” Joseph said. “On the offensive end, they put a lot of pressure on the rim. Josh had a great game and he started getting going.
“They have the ability to do that so having them at the wings is a great dynamic to have.”
Figuring out the rotation could be a balancing act for Casey and the coaching staff, but the general consensus is that they can platoon the second unit together. That was even without shooting guard Frank Jackson, who figures to get some minutes with that group as well.
It won’t necessarily affect the starting lineup, but the maneuvering with the next group of players shows the Pistons’ depth can be a strength, which will help during a long season.
“Our first unit is going to be young. We’re going to be in development mode with those guys, so the experience is going to be with the second unit, Casey said. “There’s no sacred cows —there’s competition each night and guys are going to earn their playing time, no matter who it is. That’s the beautiful thing about development, to keep that competition. Competition makes us all better, and that’s the motto, we’ve got to have.”