Did ‘open competition’ for starting positions on the Detroit Pistons materialize in the preseason?


When Pistons coach John Kuester declared early in training camp that starting positions were ‘up for grabs’, his statement elicited its share of “Psshh … we’ll believe it when we see it” responses.

With a veteran-dominated team virtually every year of the Joe Dumars era, and a starting lineup that has had a minimum of three (and as many as five) spots set in stone for the last nine years or so, it’s understandable why many wouldn’t possibly believe that players like Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince or Ben Wallace would be in any danger of not starting. And although he doesn’t qualify as a member of the championship core of veterans, the team’s commitment to Rodney Stuckey at the starting point guard spot has been unwavering for the last two seasons, making him seem like a virtual lock for the starting lineup as well.

With all four of those players presumably starting the season-opener, joined by first-time starter Austin Daye, it’s conceivable to believe that this ‘open competition’ was more coach-speak and didn’t actually materialize. In reality, four of the five starting spots had clear winners, and the fifth had both candidates perform poorly. Here’s a breakdown:

Point Guard

The Candidates: Stuckey, Will Bynum

The Preseason Stats:

  • Stuckey: 8 games/27.9 minutes/16.2 points/3.1 rebounds/4.8 assists/3.0 turnovers/1.0 steals/47 percent shooting/15 percent three-point shooting/90 percent free throw shooting/- 10
  • Bynum: 6 games/30.3 minutes/10.3 points/3.2 rebounds/5.0 assists/2.7 turnovers/1.0 steals/48 percent shooting/36 percent three-point shooting/78 percent free throw shooting/+ 1

The Per-36 Minute Stats:

  • Stuckey: 20.8 points/4.0 rebounds/6.1 assists/3.9 turnovers/1.3 steals/6.6 free throws attempted
  • Bynum: 12.3 points/5.9 rebounds/5.9 assists/3.2 turnovers/1.2 steals/4.5 free throws attempted

Key stats for Stuckey: His per-36 numbers in the preseason were very strong, although he was helped greatly by closing the preseason with two fantastic games offensively. But one stat that was consistent for him throughout the preseason: he’s getting to the line very frequently. If he can continue getting to the line six or more times per game, that will be a huge plus for him. And his overall 47 percent shooting in the preseason was a very good sign. For a guy who gets so many of his points inside of 15 feet, his career shooting percentage is way too low.

His 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio this preseason was bad. Even with the positives Stuckey can bring if he’s shooting a better overall percentage and getting to the line, the Pistons desperately need him to get better at making plays for teammates. That doesn’t mean he has to be Steve Nash, but if he can get that ratio up to 2.5-to-1ish range, that will be a huge improvement for him.

Key stats for Bynum: Bynum rebounded the ball better than Stuckey this preseason, which is pretty strange considering Bynum is really small and Stuckey, for some reason, has been labeled as a good rebounding guard even though it’s not backed up statistically. Bynum was also pretty consistent — he didn’t have any really great games or really poor ones, whereas Stuckey started slow and finished really strong.

He also improved drastically from the perimeter. He’s not going to be a three-point threat, but he can now knock the shot down enough that he can’t be left wide open out there.

Like Stuckey, he didn’t have a great assist-to-turnover ratio, something the Pistons desperately need out of whoever is their primary point guard this season.

The verdict: Stuckey is going to start, and it’s hard to argue, based on preseason, that he’s not deserving. Bynum had a stronger start, Stuckey had a stronger finish, and with Bynum sitting out the last two games, it’s pretty easy to see that Stuckey won this job.

Shooting Guard

The Candidates: Hamilton, Ben Gordon

The Preseason Stats:

  • Hamilton: 6 games/22.0 minutes/8.0 points/1.8 rebounds/3.0 assists/2.0 turnovers/39 percent shooting/31 percent three-point shooting/91 percent free throw shooting/- 6
  • Gordon: 8 games/25.3 minutes/11.2 points/2.3 rebounds/2.3 assists/2.4 turnovers/51 percent shooting 43 percent/32 percent three-point shooting/96 percent free throw shooting/- 3

The Per-36 Minute Stats:

  • Hamilton: 13.1 points/3.0 rebounds/4.9 assists/3.3 turnovers/3.0 free throws attempted
  • Gordon: 16.8 points/3.0 rebounds/3.2 assists/3.4 turnovers/4.3 free throws attempted

Key Stats for Hamilton: The only number I’m concerned with after watching Hamilton in the preseason is the 39 percent shooting. Hamilton’s a slow starter in his career, so typically a mediocre preseason is nothing to worry about. But his shooting percentage has been plummeting the last two seasons, and the preseason didn’t do anything to show he has his stroke back. His per-36 assist numbers were very good, and the Pistons generally have better movement and fewer isos when he’s on the floor because of his activity, but if he’s not hitting a high percentage of his shots, his value will continue to plummet.

Key Stats for Gordon: Gordon’s shooting stroke, on the other hand, looked like it was back at times. He shot the ball very well, finishing the preseason at 51 percent. (ED: Scratch that. Gordon only shot 43 percent in the preseason).His three-point stroke didn’t seem to come back either. Gordon only shot 32 percent from three-point range, which isn’t a good sign coming off a career-low last year in three-point percentage. Gordon also had more turnovers than assists in the preseason.

The Verdict: Virtually every statistic favors Gordon here. But as I mentioned above, Hamilton’s motion is a good fit on the floor whether he’s shooting well or not, whereas Gordon can be more of a ball-stopper. The Pistons also desperately need a bounceback season for Hamilton if they intend to trade him at some point. Taking away his starting job before the season started wouldn’t be the best way to convince team’s he’s healthy and ready to be semi-productive again. This is the only case in the starting five where there is a really strong case that the person who is likely to start may not have actually won the job in camp.

One number inverted in a spreadsheet can certainly mess things up. Hamilton and Gordon both shot poorly in the preseason. Hamilton shot slightly worse, but had more assists, turned it over less and is a better defensive player who doesn’t have to have the ball all the time on offense, unlike Gordon who doesn’t move without the ball the way Hamilton does. Basically, the Pistons need one of these two to be much more productive than they were in the preseason.

Small Forward

The Candidates: Tayshaun Prince, DaJuan Summers

The Preseason Stats:

  • Prince: 7 games/26.7 minutes/9.1 points/3.6 rebounds/2.7 assists/1.0 turnovers/48 percent shooting/56 percent three-point shooting/73 percent free throw shooting/+21
  • Summers: 8 games/15.0 minutes/6.1 points/1.9 rebounds/0.4 assists/0.6 turnovers/40 percent shooting/36 percent three-point shooting/80 percent free throw shooting/-44

The Per-36 Minute Stats:

  • Prince: 12.3 points/4.8 rebounds/3.7 assists/1.3 turnovers/2.9 free throws attempted
  • Summers: 14.7 points/4.5 rebounds/0.9 assists/1.5 turnovers/4.5 free throws attempted

Key Stats for Prince: Prince was the steadying influence he always is this preseason. He shot it well and he showed he’s the most efficient player with the ball that the Pistons have, with a per-36 assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 4-to-1. The only real gripe (and it’s a minor one) is that with Daye playing at power forward, I would hope Prince’s rebounding numbers go up since Daye will need all the help he can get down low.

Key Stats for Summers: As his per-36 numbers suggest, Summers can provide a reasonable amount of scoring, and he does it in a variety of ways. He also shot a poor percentage from the floor, he was an astounding -44 for the preseason in just 120 minutes of action and he averaged less than one assist per-36 minutes.  Summers just doesn’t do much of anything except for score, and in the preseason, he didn’t do that efficiently.

The Verdict: With Tracy McGrady out and Daye getting pushed into the PF competition with the injury to Jonas Jerebko, it was hard to call this a competition. Summers never had a chance to unseat Prince, and even with Prince cruising through the preseason preserving his body for the regular season, he still easily out-performed Summers at the three spot.

Power Forward

The Candidates: Daye, Charlie Villanueva, Greg Monroe

The Preseason Stats:

  • Daye: 8 games/28.0 minutes/15.9 points/5.6 rebounds/1.5 assists/1.3 turnovers/47 percent shooting/50 percent three-point shooting/71 percent free throw shooting/+23
  • Villanueva: 7 games/22.9 minutes/12.3 points/3.9 rebounds/0.6 assists/1.3 turnovers/45 percent shooting/32 percent three-point shooting/79 percent free throw shooting/-25
  • Monroe: 8 games/25.3 minutes/7.8 points/4.9 rebounds/2.3 assists/2.0 turnovers/1.5 steals/41 percent shooting/71 percent free throw shooting/-20

The Per-36 Minute Stats:

  • Daye: 20.4 points/7.2 rebounds/1.9 assists/1.6 turnovers/0.8 steals/1.1 blocks/2.7 free throws attempted
  • Villanueva: 19.4 points/6.1 rebounds/0.9 assists/2.0 turnovers/1.1 steals/1.1 blocks/4.3 free throws attempted
  • Monroe: 11.0 points/7.0 rebounds/2.7 assists/2.9 turnovers/2.1 steals/0.5 blocks/5.5 free throws attempted

Key Stats for Daye: What else can be written about Daye? He was the most exciting player in the preseason, his confidence has grown tremendously since last year and as his per-36 stats show, he’s capable of doing a little bit of everything. His three-point shooting, over 50 percent in the preseason, will be a welcome addition to the lineup. Gordon and Villanueva never provided the shooting they were supposed to last season, and having a long range threat in the game is vital to unclogging some driving lanes for penetrating guards.

Key Stats for Villanueva: Villanueva started the preseason slow and finished strong. His scoring and shooting numbers were positive, and he the offseason talk about him being in great shape appears to be accurate as he looked healthy and mobile when he was on the court. His rebounding numbers were still poor.

Key Stats for Monroe: Monroe played a lot of minutes in the preseason, which is good. He also showed the passing skills that were hyped so much at Georgetown and, although it could be a preseason anomaly, he averaged nearly two steals per game. But there were also negatives — he shoot horribly for a big man (41 percent), he turned it over a lot (nearly three times per-36 minutes) and he often appeared timid as a rebounder.

The Verdict: Daye might be playing out of position as a future wing player in this league, but he’s too good to keep off the floor, and he clearly beat the other candidates at this position. Villanueva and Monroe are both used to playing down low, and Daye was a better rebounder than both of them. There’s a lot of debate as to whether playing out of position will be good or bad for Daye’s career or whether his slim body can hold up, but he’s young, smart and if his teammates provide good help for him defensively, Daye getting minutes that didn’t appear to be there for him when camp started will be a net win for the team.

Center

The Candidates: Wallace, Jason Maxiell

The Preseason Stats:

  • Wallace: 7 games/19.4 minutes/3.7 points/6.3 rebounds/1.3 assists/1.0 turnovers/1.1 steals/0.3 blocks/63 percent shooting/29 percent free throw shooting/+20
  • Maxiell: 5 games/21.0 minutes/5.4 points/4.2 rebounds/0.0 assists/1.6 turnovers/1.1 steals/1.4 blocks/45 percent shooting/58 percent free throw shooting/-19

The Per-36 Minute Stats:

  • Wallace: 6.9 points/11.6 rebounds/2.4 assists/1.9 turnovers/2.1 steals/0.5 blocks
  • Maxiell: 9.3 points/7.2 rebounds/0.0 assists/2.7 turnovers/1.7 steals/2.4 blocks

Key Stats for Wallace: Wallace’s per-36 rebounding and steals numbers are about what should be expected of him. Those numbers were very solid last season as well. It’s not a great idea to play him 36 minutes a night, but it’s clear he’s going to be their only rebounding presence and only good post defender this season.

The surprising number for Wallace is in blocks. Hopefully it’s just a preseason thing, because the Pistons could really use a shot-blocking presence with so many average or below average perimeter defenders, and Wallace has traditionally provided that.

Key Stats for Maxiell: Two categories jump out, one good and one bad. Maxiell blocked a lot of shots in the preseason, 2.4 per-36 minutes. Also, he played 105 preseason minutes and didn’t pick up a single assist.

Maxiell will provide good activity, some spectacular plays and some good games off the bench. He didn’t do anything in the preseason to really suggest he should get more or fewer minutes than he’s ever received in the Detroit rotation.

The Verdict: This was another positional “battle” that wasn’t very close. Wallace might be the Pistons best player overall, and he’s still easily their best big man. Chris Wilcox didn’t factor into the competition here, either, as his -19 in just nine preseason minutes will attest. You can pretty much mark down Wilcox for a -5 in the +/- category the second he steps on the court, before he even does a thing.

Conclusion

Injuries certainly made some of the positional battles a little anti-climactic, but I think it’s hard to argue that the players who performed the best in the preseason are starting for the Pistons. It’s impossible to tell if Kuester would’ve actually went through with the ‘open competition’ promise if Bynum had significantly out-played Stuckey in the preseason or if McGrady were healthy and out-played either Prince or Hamilton. Those were the two wildcard scenarios that could’ve led to a shakeup of the lineup, but neither played out and the Pistons starting lineup (except for Daye) will be a familiar one on opening night.

Tags: Austin Daye Ben Gordon Ben Wallace Charlie Villanueva Chris Wilcox DaJuan Summers Greg Monroe Jason Maxiell John Kuester Jonas Jerebko Richard Hamilton Rodney Stuckey Tayshaun Prince Tracy McGrady Will Bynum