Pistons rotation options abound; how it resolves gives clues to their blueprint

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Dwane Casey has a puzzle on his hands. Not an easy one, either. It’s a mechanical, moving three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

How Casey goes about cobbling together a rotation this season will be more of a challenge by a mile than most others. And how the Pistons set their organizational objectives might lend clues as to how it shapes up. Or perhaps the inverse is more appropriate: How the rotation is employed might speak to how the Pistons balance short-term goals against long-term objectives.

One insight into the latter came when the Pistons made the decision to trade Jerami Grant a day ahead of the 2022 NBA draft. Dealing away their leading scorer for Milwaukee’s 2025 first-round pick was the move of a franchise staying true to its 2020 decision to rebuild for sustained success, not one that’s set a 2023 postseason appearance as its priority.

Go back to what Weaver said in April, before the draft and before the Grant trade: “I try to stay principled and make sure we’ll build a sustainable model. We don’t just want to appear; we want to happen.”

In effect, Troy Weaver converted Grant into Jalen Duren and cap space, a chunk of it used to take on the contracts of Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel for more future draft capital. Duren, at 18 and 9 months the NBA’s youngest player, is a long-term play. Burks and Noel help fill Grant’s void – Burks for his scoring, Noel for his defense, both as respected veteran voices on a team with scant few of them. The Pistons have 12 players 24 or younger among the 18 contracts, standard or two-way, with training camp looming.

The roster is a little imbalanced for today’s NBA, heavy on big men and a little light on wings, but that, too, is the product of an organization focused on the future beyond this season, prioritizing finding and developing long-term assets over ideal synergy roster.

So given all of that, what does Casey’s rotation look like? With the caveat that it’s going to be extremely fluid, full of trial and error, here’s a stab at how it might shake out:

LOCKS (4) – Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Jaden Ivey

You can pencil Cunningham and Bey in for 30-plus minutes a game. Stewart has earned entry into this group with his dependability at the defensive end and the potential for more he’s displayed at the offensive end, including the 11 of 18 from the 3-point line in the last eight games of the 2021-22 season and the 5 of 9 in Summer League when he played the bulk of his minutes at power forward. If that translates to real NBA games, it opens up possibilities for Casey to tinker with frontcourt pairings.

Ivey’s tantalizing athleticism and the on-paper fit he provides with Cunningham in the backcourt is irresistible, though his talent in a vacuum is enough to vault him into this category. Playing Ivey alongside Cunningham for the bulk of his minutes allows Ivey to ease into a playmaking role and is an obvious solution to letting Cunningham effectively man point guard duties without putting the stress of defending point guards on him.

GOODBETS (4) – Kelly Olynyk, Marvin Bagley III, Killian Hayes, Alec Burks

The Pistons signed Bagley to a reported three-year, $37.5 million deal. They loved what they saw from him after his February acquisition and signed him to a contract that clearly indicates their regard for his place in their future. He’s in the rotation. Whether it’s at center or power forward, starting or coming off the bench, remains to be seen.

Olynyk had a frustrating debut season with the Pistons that included a two-month absence with a knee injury followed by a bout with COVID-19 that knocked him back. The Pistons have the frontcourt depth to put a rotation together that excludes Olynyk, but he’s their most versatile offensive big man, both scorer and facilitator, and a proven NBA 3-point shooter on a team looking for more. If he gets squeezed out of the rotation, then the Pistons are ahead of schedule.

Casey said as last season wound down that while the past two seasons had been primarily about developing young players, the equilibrium was about to change going forward. Minutes would have to be earned. That said, Hayes probably still has enough latitude as the seventh pick in 2020 that, at 21, he’s going to be given every chance to flourish and likely opens as the second unit’s point guard.

Burks’ scoring and 3-point threat are going to be essential elements. He’s probably got a better chance to be part of the closing unit than he does of starting, though that is certainly not out of the question. It’s possible Casey won’t feel he has the luxury to bring Burks off the bench. Ideally, he’ll serve as the scoring anchor for the bench unit and play starter’s minutes or close to it.

ON THE BUBBLE (6) – Isaiah Livers, Hamidou Diallo, Cory Joseph, Jalen Duren, Nerlens Noel, Kevin Knox

Casey has generally used a 10-man rotation when he’s had enough healthy bodies to credibly field two units and that probably should be the expectation heading into training camp. Depth is a strength of the Pistons and a 10-man rotation is the way to exploit that strength. In that case, two more players are needed outside of our first two groups to get to 10. It could well be that the identity of those two players will vary from game to game depending on matchups and performance.

Isaiah Livers has a solid case to join Cunningham, Bey, Stewart and Ivey in the starting lineup. He shot 42 percent from the 3-point line as a rookie and followed up with an impressive Summer League. There would be fewer matchup worries with him opposite Bey than there would be with two-big lineups, though starting two big men is one way to maximize the presence of five rotation-worthy players. Livers is on the border of being a good bet, but then again he has 19 NBA games on his resume. So he’ll have to earn it.

Diallo’s athleticism and defensive upside give him a chance to fill key roles, too. His viability might come down to how much 3-point shooting lineups that include him can produce.

Joseph will capably handle whatever Casey has in mind for him, whether it’s starting next to Cunningham, playing alongside Hayes with the second unit or manning the point himself for either unit. But adding Ivey also makes it conceivable Joseph will be held in reserve for when a need arises.

Knox is interesting. The Pistons could certainly find room for the idea of ​​Knox, the ninth pick in 2018 who showed flashes as a Knicks rookie but hasn’t gotten much traction since. There’s at least a chance Knox stalled due to circumstances beyond his control – his wouldn’t be the first career to go sideways in New York – and the Pistons could be the beneficiaries of a true talent hiding in plain sight. He just turned 23 last week and the Pistons saw enough untapped potential in an athletic 6-foot-7 frame with a 3-point stroke that stamped him as an elite prospect years ago to give him a chance to find his footing.

Duren and Noel are likely fighting for the same role and it might be a limited one. How much opportunity is there in today’s game to play two big men side by side? If Stewart shows the same ability to stick at power forward as he did in Summer League, the door opens a little wider. Noel’s defensive presence might vault him into the rotation. Duren is a huge part of the future and there will be great internal focus on figuring out how best to groom him. Does he shuttle back and forth to the G League when the schedule allows, at least for the first month or two?

WAITING THEIR TURN (4) – Rodney McGruder, Saben Lee, Braxton Key, Buddy Boeheim

Lee has established himself as an elite G League scorer and has shown he can both hound the ball and get into the paint when given extended minutes. The lack of a 3-point shot has been limiting, though, and the presence of three young guards drafted in the upper end of the lottery – Cunningham, Ivey and Hayes – makes it a tough path for him. You can only develop so many young guards at once.

McGruder was signed even after the Pistons had in place 15 guaranteed contracts – the regular-season maximum – an indication of how highly Troy Weaver and Casey value the veteran’s presence. Whatever McGruder wants to do once his playing days are done, you can bet the Pistons will create a spot for him. In the meantime, his ability to sit idly for long stretches and add a jolt to the lineup when called upon is invaluable, as is his 3-point threat.

Key might be a legitimate rotation threat despite his two-way status. He’s always around the ball, his defensive versatility stands out and he’s developed into a solid 3-point shooter.

Boeheim has a potentially elite 3-point tool and he’ll get all the minutes he can handle with the Motor City Cruise to polish it and pull one or two other skills up to par so he might put himself in the mix for a legitimate NBA role down the road.

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