The exciting thing about Rodney Stuckey is that, still not yet 25-years-old, he’s capable of having many more performances like his 24 point/11 assist effort off the bench to help the Pistons erase an early double-digit deficit and beat Charlotte on the road Sunday. The maddening thing about Stuckey is that he’s been capable of this all along.
Stuckey mentioned in his postgame interview that he just wants to close the season strong, and who could blame him? He’s headed into restricted free agency after a season in which he’s lost both the starting point guard job and the starting shooting guard job. He was suspended a game early in the season for insubordination and he was benched for two games late in the season for insubordination. If anyone needed to make an impression the final two weeks of the season, it was Stuckey. To his credit, he’s doing that.
In three games since returning from that last benching, Stuckey is averaging 23.7 points, 8.3 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game. He’s getting to the free throw line nearly eight times per game. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field. His turnovers are a bit higher than you’d like from a PG — 4.0 per game — but I think most fans would gladly trade a slightly higher turnover total if it means getting a Stuckey that plays in attack mode the entire game on offense.
Against Charlotte, Stuckey scored using an array of skills. He got to the basket. He had three really nice mid-range moves where he took a hard step in, as if he was going to the hoop, causing his defender to bite hard each time and giving Stuckey space to nail a step-back midrange jumper. He even confidently knocked down 2-for-5 3-pointers.
His passing was a result of playing faster and slower at the same time. Throughout the last two seasons, Stuckey has been begging to play at a faster tempo. John Kuester has wanted him to run a competent halfcourt offense. The philosophies were treated like the two wanted totally opposite things. What Stuckey appears to be learning (granted, over a very small sample size of games) is that excelling in the halfcourt doesn’t mean playing at a snail’s pace. Last season and this season, he’d walk the ball up, make a pass and often disappear the rest of the possession as the Pistons ran an iso for someone else. Or sometimes, he’d dribble the ball around for most of the shot clock before attacking and forcing a tough shot in the lane.
Playing so slow often caused Stuckey to play too fast when he did get opportunities to run, rushing passes or forcing his way to the basket when pulling the ball back out top would’ve been the better option. The Charlotte game showed that Stuckey is grasping that you can run the ball up in a halfcourt offense. You can drive inside without having to commit to taking a shot or make a pass even if one isn’t there. The result is he’s creating a few extra opportunities by catching the defense sleeping when he runs it up and he’s seeing a play more fully develop by exhibiting some patience if his first option isn’t there.
In the late first half against Charlotte, Stuckey had the ball at the top of the key with Tayshaun Prince calling for it on the wing. That’s a familiar scenario for the Pistons predictable offense, an iso for Prince, and Stuckey looked to get him the ball. But instead of just mindlessly tossing it to Prince and getting out of the way, as has happened so many times, he waited a second longer. He saw Kwame Brown down low cheating to Prince’s side and he saw Greg Monroe slipping to the basket. Stuckey hit Monroe with a no-look pass for a layup as Brown couldn’t recover quick enough.
This isn’t the first time Stuckey has put together a few games where he’s played great, only to fall back to Earth. So although it’s admirable that he recognizes the need to close the season strong, the true measure of how much growth he’s making as a player will come with how seriously he takes this offseason and what he does next season. It’s too late for him to change the impression he’s made this season — he’s the same inconsistent yet promising player he was to start the season, just a year older now. He really could’ve only responded two ways to the benching — he could’ve done exactly what he’s doing right now and playing his best basketball or he could’ve mailed it in, assuming he’d either be on a new team or have a new coach next year, so his performance down the stretch wouldn’t matter much.
His production is largely symbolic, but it’s clear he chose the better option.
Pistons could get to .500 against Central Division
The Pistons play Cleveland tomorrow, and they have a chance at something unexpected, via Chris Iott on Twitter:
Random fact: Pistons went 2-14 against division foes last season. A win Monday would — shockingly — make them 8-8 this season.
I would’ve never guessed the Pistons would have a .500 division record this season. It’s not really data that points anything relevant out, just another example of how absurdly strange the team has been this season. And sidenote: If you’re on Twitter and not following Iott already, just do it. We gotta get him to stop the shameless begging.
Charlie V at the three
It’s not odd that Villanueva played the three. Despite being a tad slow to play that position on a regular basis, Charlotte often featured lineups that had natural power forwards Boris Diaw or Dante Cunningham at the three. I’m just surprised that in a season that has seen virtually every lineup combination possible that one that I hadn’t noticed before could slip by me in game 80. That tricky John Kuester.
I don’t like Villanueva as a three. At all. But I do like the sentiment. If Villanueva is still on the roster next season, whoever coaches the team is going to have to figure out how to get production out of him. I think the best way might simply be moving him around. Treat him as a positionless scoring threat. Bring him off the bench to exploit smaller backup bigs in the post. Or to bring shot-blocking bigs out of the lane and force them to extend their defense. Or, like against Charlotte, take advantage of a team that has a really bizarre roster and put Villanueva on the court with two other bigs.
The results from the Charlotte game were obviously good ones: Villanueva was engaged and scored 20 points on 8-for-15 shooting. Villanueva will be the same story heading into next year as he was heading into this season: he has the talent to score 15-20 points per game. It’s just a matter of finding a role for him that allows him the freedom to freelance and do that. That obviously isn’t him playing solely a traditional big man role.
A hint for the bigs: PLAY DEFENSE
The latest Pistons big man to show up and have a good game after months of inactivity was Jason Maxiell, who had 10 points and 7 rebounds against Charlotte.
Maxiell has largely been an afterthought this season, but as is happening all over the court for the Pistons, guys are trying to audition for jobs next season. Wilcox has been doing it, Villanueva has been doing it and the guards have been doing it. The Pistons frontcourt is particularly vital, though, as it has been the team’s most obvious weakness for two straight years and could get even weaker if Ben Wallace retires.
But although the scoring of Maxiell or Wilcox or Villanueva has been nice, something notable has been missing: defense. All three have played as if their future either in the organization or with the team rests on whether or not they can score the ball. All three have had decent scoring games of late. Unfortunately, when you’re part of a rotation that allows Kwame Brown and Boris Diaw to combine for 39 points on 17-for-23 shooting, I’d suggest that perhaps that makes your own scoring numbers a tad hollow.
The fact that Brown and Diaw looked like All-Stars is nothing new. The Pistons have made a habit out of allowing limited big men to have career nights this season. What is surprising, however, is that no one seems to be catching on. The Pistons need interior players who exhibit some toughness, some willingness to contest shots and some ability to not cede post position. So far, no big on the roster is grasping that concept. Monroe gets a pass because defense is often the toughest skill for young bigs to pick up, but the other three who played big minutes Sunday have no excuse. All three are big enough, strong enough and have been in the league long enough to understand how to put up some minimal resistance inside, and if none can show any remote interest in doing that, the Pistons are going to have to bring in a whole new crop of players at that position next season if they weren’t planning to anyway.