Friday’s 91-87 loss to Cleveland was an unbelievably terrible basketball game to watch — both teams shot below 38 percent, they combined to shoot 91 (!) free throws (making less than 70 percent of them collectively) and the Pistons had six guys who would’ve probably fouled out if they were playing the minutes they’ll most likely be getting in the regular season. I can’t stress enough, though, how unbelievably excited I am to be writing about basketball, even bad basketball, again.
I’m guessing most eyes were on the point guard spot for the Pistons tonight. It’s the position that features the team’s most intriguing young player, Brandon Knight. It’s also the position where the team’s most conspicuously absent player, Rodney Stuckey, is the incumbent. But if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I’m going to hold off writing about either of those guys until later to start what is sure to be a spirited debate in the comments (this one’s for you, detroitPCB and Laser) about my favorite Piston over the last three seasons, Will Bynum.
Bynum has been a rarity on the roster during his Pistons career. He’s physically limited because he’s so short. He plays a position that has been loaded with big names — Chauncey Billups then Allen Iverson his first year — and young players projected off the bat to be major stars — first Stuckey and now Knight. Bynum has turned himself into a legitimate player through sheer hard work. He went overseas and got better. He fought his way onto the Pistons’ roster despite the fact that the team had a lot of guard depth. When he’s played extended minutes, he’s been productive and, more importantly, his contract to production ratio makes him a good value.
But the problem is, despite that work ethic, despite the fact that bigger name players in front of him have faltered or are no longer on the team, despite the fact that the team has for two years now supposedly been trying to rebuild itself based on character, work ethic and toughness, despite the fact that there has been open competition at other positions, Bynum has never really had an honest chance at winning the starting point guard spot and keeping it for an extended look.
Consequently, for three years now, despite having a guaranteed contract, Bynum has played just about every second he’s stepped on the floor like a man on a 10-day contract fighting his way onto the roster. He plays largely at one frenetic speed. He often looks for his own shot at the expense of involving others. He hasn’t ever really made an attempt to consistently run a halfcourt offense.
And none of this affinity for Bynum is meant to overlook or gloss over his shortcomings. Namely, he’s short. He’s not a good defensive player. He doesn’t have a reliable (although it has improved) outside shot and frequently relies too much on his athleticism. It’s debatable whether or not he’s a starting caliber guard in the league or just a really good change of pace guy off the bench. But the point is, we don’t really know because he’s never been given the chance to fail. And on a team like the Pistons, one that has been plagued by poor chemistry, poor attitudes and a poor overall product on the court over the last three seasons, a player as hard-working as Bynum at the very least deserves the chance to fail.
Which brings me to the present. All of a sudden, with Stuckey’s contract status unclear and the fact that he’s probably going to miss training camp and the crash course in Lawrence Frank‘s offense, Bynum finds himself as the most senior point guard on the roster. And according to Ben Wallace, Bynum has also asserted himself as a veteran leader so far in camp. He started Friday against Cleveland. I was excited for him but also found myself wondering: can Bynum change that quickly after spending three years as an afterthought to in-over-their-head coaches?
Results were mixed. Bynum was bad defensively. Kyrie Irving had a big first half with 14 points, many of them against Bynum (Knight couldn’t successfully stay in front of him either, but since he’s bigger, he was able to bother Irving’s shots more than Bynum could). He shot the ball well and had a couple nice passes — particularly a patient feed to a cutting Greg Monroe early in the third quarter. He also pushed the pace too fast a couple of times when it wasn’t there and got caught in the air once, couldn’t get a shot off and threw the ball away, a problem he’s had at times in the past.
Knight is clearly the future and as I wrote above, Bynum is probably not a starter on a good team, but the point is, his opportunity to have a shot at the job is overdue. He’s earned this audition.
So what about Knight?
In college, Knight was a streaky shooter who sometimes struggled with turnovers. In his debut for the Pistons, he shot just 3-for-9 and had four turnovers for his four assists.
But I have to admit (and Ben Gulker and the other stats guys will kill me for saying nonsensical things like this), Knight had something. He looked more comfortable than I expected this early on offense, playing within himself, especially early in the game. He forced a few drives late that weren’t there, but all young players do that. The form on his jumper looked great, even though his final shooting numbers weren’t great.
He really stood out on defense in the second half though. He dove on the floor a couple times to save loose balls and his defense on Irving got much better as the game wore on. Irving was blowing by every defender in the first half. Knight adjusted some in the second half, and Irving started missing more.
Knight still has a ways to go and there was more bad than good with his (and really, the Pistons’) performance tonight, but he did show flashes of the elite talent that make him an intriguing prospect. We saw that Knight can do the spectacular. But the real excitement will come when he can do the mundane — take care of the ball, score efficiently — well.
Austin Daye needs to play shooting guard
I’m convinced that Daye’s most successful NBA position will be shooting guard. Daye struggled on defense when there was contact involved — he’s simply weaker than probably any forward in the league. But he excelled on defense when his man was facing up, trying to shoot over him. Daye had five blocked shots and although he’s not as quick as most shooting guards, his length allows him to recover and bother shots even if he gives up a step off the dribble.
On offense, he shot 6-for-12 (3-for-4 from 3-point range) and had 18 points. Daye still has significant weaknesses that will hinder him against stronger players, but Frank clearly needs a way to get Daye more minutes since the Pistons showed they have very few players capable of scoring as efficiently as Daye is.
That’s the world’s least surprising header. Monroe picked up where he left off, feasting on rebounds and using craftiness around the basket to finish with 12 points on 5-for-11 shooting. The positive for Monroe was his presence on the defensive glass. Last season, he was an elite offensive rebounder (one of the best in the league) and a so-so defensive rebounder. Against Cleveland, 10 of Monroe’s 13 boards were on the defensive glass. Now, I certainly don’t want to suggest defensive rebounding is more valuable than his activity on the offensive glass, but if Monroe can improve as a defensive rebounder while maintaining the dominance on the offensive glass, he could make a huge leap this season.
The absent power forward position
Jonas Jerebko looked very much like a player who hasn’t played a NBA game in over a year. Charlie Villanueva looked every bit like the Villanueva that has become the bane of Pistons fans’ existence. Jerebko was a step slow defensively, fouling out in just 17 minutes. The bulk he’s added was apparent — he looked much stronger than in the past. But I hope that doesn’t come at the expense of quickness that helped him become such a solid player his rookie season. Offensively, he was terrible, shooting just 1-for-7 and getting no offensive rebounds.
Villanueva’s 2-for-11 shooting will stand out, but I have to admit, he had moments where I began to hold out some hope for him on defense. Whereas Jerebko was overly aggressive and created too much contact on defense, it was good to see Villanueva mixing it up. He typically shies away from contact, but against the Cavs, he did fight and get a few in-traffic rebounds and twice his man was setting screens on the perimeter and Villanueva hedged aggressively, something he’s rarely done as a Piston. His main skill is offense though, and he just doesn’t do enough well to justify staying on the court if he’s shooting as poorly as he did against Cleveland.
This was ugly. Cleveland upgraded it’s talent a bit wit Irving and Tristan Thompson, but the Pistons’ interior was abused by Samardo Samuels. That sentence doesn’t bode well for the season. Samuels shot 16 free throws. He, Anderson Varejao, Thompson, Alonzo Gee and Antawn Jamison were all much scrappier and quicker to the ball than the Pistons’ frontcourt. Wallace and Tayshaun Prince being in the regular rotation will help some in that regard, but the Pistons need a lot more defensively out of Monroe and Jerebko in particular.