Detroit Pistons’ preseason opener crystalizes potential playing-time problem in frontcourt

Detroit Free Press

It’s unwise to read too deeply into a preseason performance, good or bad. The 2008 Lions, of course, won all four of their preseason games before going 0-16 during the regular season.

Exhibition games are a tune-up — an opportunity for players to work off months of offseason rust, and for coaches to experiment with lineups and get a handle on where their roster is. Sometimes they’re an accurate indicator of what the team will look like during the regular season. Sometimes, they’re not.

With that said, the Detroit Pistons117-96 loss to the New York Knicks on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden was ugly. They trailed by as many as 32 points, committed 22 turnovers and their two primary offensive options, Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey, were a combined 4-for-20 shooting for 13 points.

The Pistons aren’t a contending team yet, but they’ll certainly be better on average than they were in their preseason opener.

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But Tuesday was our first preview of what Dwane Casey’s rotation could look like when the regular season tips off Oct. 19. His starting lineup — Bey, Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Bojan Bogdanovic and Isaiah Stewart — could be the starting lineup on opening night. Cunningham, Bey, Bogdanovic and Stewart appeared to be safe bets to start. Ivey was the wild card, but his team-leading 16-point performance showed that he may be ready for the limelight.

Sorting out the bench is a different matter. Killian Hayes, Cory Joseph, Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Livers and Jalen Duren were the first five players off of it. That’s more likely to change. The Pistons weren’t at full strength, as Alec Burks projects to be a key rotation player and is sidelined until Oct. 17, at least, as he rehabilitates a foot injury. It’s unclear if he’ll be healthy in time for the regular season. But there are also some fit issues that aren’t likely to be resolved before the preseason slate ends.

Casey said he intends to play Stewart and Bagley alongside a second big, at times, this season. The results were mixed on Tuesday, as Detroit’s spacing was cramped when Bagley and Duren shared the floor together. Bagley and Stewart are both being encouraged to shoot more 3-pointers. Stewart, who shot 1-for-3 and was a productive shooter toward the end of last season and in the summer, is further along than Bagley in that area. Bagley missed his lone attempt. Hayes, who had a productive game with 11 points and five rebounds, struggled to find clean lanes to the rim when two bigs shared the floor together.

There’s incentive for the coaching staff to give the big-big pairings more time. Duren, who grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds, impacted the game with his athleticism and length. He’s still raw and had a couple of “welcome to the NBA” moments, but the 18-year-old was one of the most physically-imposing players on the floor. He looked like he belonged.

Any minutes given to Duren could come at Stewart and Bagley’s expense if they can’t play effectively together. Stewart’s continued development as a 3-point shooter could be the key to making it work. He was Detroit’s best rim protector on Tuesday, and defenses will begin respecting his shot if he can knock them down at a similar clip he did against the Knicks.

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It still remains to be seen how Nerlens Noel, who has been limited in camp and didn’t play on Tuesday, will factor into the rotation. Like Duren, he can rebound and will give the frontcourt a jolt of athleticism, but is a non-shooter and could have to share the floor with another big to find his way to the floor.

If the Pistons eventually abandon the two-big experiment, Isaiah Livers could capitalize. He knocked down 3 of 7 3-point attempts, showing, once again, that he’s one of the most reliable shooters on the roster. But his defensive activity stood out, as well. He blocked two shots and made smart rotations. He moves his feet well and understands where everyone should be on the floor. He can also play both forward spots, giving the Pistons another option at power forward. The coaching staff may have a tough time not playing him this season.

Unlike much of last season, the Pistons have multiple unique options at power forward. Tuesday was a preview of a rotational battle that could play out throughout the regular season. They can play big or small. They can prioritize shooting, defense or athleticism. They don’t have a player who checks all three boxes, like Jerami Grant did, so the coaching staff will have to mix-and-match. Tuesday highlighted the downside of playing two bigs together, but the Pistons have time to figure out if the upside is worthwhile.

There are backcourt minutes to sort out, as well. Burks, a career 38% shooter, will have to acclimate himself once he’s cleared for five-on-five action. But once he’s at full speed, he’ll be one of Detroit’s most important players regardless of if he starts or comes off of the bench. The Pistons shot 32.6% from 3 last season, 29th in the NBA. Burks and Bogdanovic will remedy their shooting woes.

Hamidou Diallo didn’t appear in Tuesday’s game, but could have opportunities to play down the road.

Casey has generally stuck with a 10-player rotation when coaching a healthy roster. Detroit’s final three preseason games will give us more clues as far as who will eventually make the cut.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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