The only constant this season has been change. Not just with COVID issues, but with injuries. That has kept most of the Pistons’ lineup and rotation in flux for most of the season.
When Jerami Grant rejoined the Pistons’ starting lineup for Tuesday night’s matchup against the New Orleans Pelicans, it was the first time he played since Nov. 10, going through rehab after thumb surgery and a subsequent stint in health and safety protocols.
It’s a bit of a reorientation for the Pistons, who have gone through several iterations of changes in the starting lineup. The return of Grant and Kelly Olynyk, who played two games in January after returning from a knee injury, allows the Pistons to be the closest to full strength that they’ve been all season.
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Cade Cunningham missed most of training camp and took a while early in the season to ramp up to playing at an NBA level. By then, Olynyk was out in the early part of November, and Grant wasn’t far behind with his injury on Dec. 10.
The Pistons are starting a new normal with their reinvigorated roster, getting two of their key players back. The next challenge will be melding with Cunningham, Saddiq Bey and the other players who have had bigger roles with the absence of the veterans.
“Cade wasn’t here for training camp, so this is all going to be (different),” coach Dwane Casey said before Tuesday’s game. “I don’t know how many games and we’ve had all the guys together but it hasn’t been very many — and definitely not all of them for practice — so it’s going to be interesting to see what combinations actually work.
“I know some (combinations) look good on paper but that can be deceiving sometimes. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all works out … It’s a good issue to have because this is kind of what we envisioned going into the season with all these guys together, and now we’ll see it play out.”
Casey indicated that there will be some adjustment in the roster, with Hamidou Diallo moving from the starting lineup to the second unit, allowing for Grant’s return. It’s a domino effect that will have Bey move back to his more natural position at small forward.
“It’s going to be an adjustment; it affects a lot of people. It affects Saddiq because he’s now got to move to the (small forward),” Casey said. “It affects, Hami, who now goes to the second unit. It affects Trey, who now goes to (power forward). It’s a trickle-down.
“For Rodney (McGruder) and a lot of guys, they move down a little bit. It’s a developmental piece, where guys have gone in and gotten better developed and they’ve gotten confidence.”
The Pistons get more quality depth for their rotation, and the second unit gets more time to jell, with Killian Hayes moving from the starting unit to the reserve group and veteran Cory Joseph joining the starters.
There’s plenty of moving around to sort out, which has been somewhat overdue with the Pistons’ struggles early in the season and the production that they’ve started to see with some changes in the rotation.
It gives Casey more options, but it also has provided some opportunities for players to show what they can do with increased playing time. With fewer minutes to go around, there will be less margin for error.
With more healthy players and more experience for some of the players near the back of the rotation, it also allows Casey more options to plug in during certain sections of games. He’s placed the importance not on which players start the games, but who finishes.
Casey retains the latitude to determine who that finishing group will be, based on how they’ve played throughout the game. With more veterans to lean upon, it makes some of those choices easier.
“I think we’ve done and found combinations at the end of the game that have been working or get us back into the game,” Casey said. “We didn’t hesitate putting the second unit in when the first group was struggling, and it’ll be the same going forward.
“If guys are not producing and not getting it done, no disrespect, but next man up. Internal competition is good, and we’ll see how it plays out.”
Rising stars representatives
The Pistons will be well represented among the Rising Stars during All-Star Weekend in Cleveland. Cunningham was among 12 rookies selected, and Bey and Isaiah Stewart were among the 12 sophomores picked to play. There will be four additional G League players who will round out the rosters.
The format will change, with four teams competing in a three-game mini-tournament on Feb. 18.