Charlie Villanueva starting would be the best lineup option for the Detroit Pistons

After signing as a free agent last season, Charlie Villanueva had an up and down season to say the least. Painful injuries (broken nose and plantar fasciitis) severely limited his production in February and March, but it’s not like Villanueva’s season was without highlights:

  • In a five game stretch in November, Villanueva averaged 27 points and 6 rebounds per game while shooting 60 percent from the field and 43 percent from three.
  • In a six game stretch in December, he averaged 19 points and 6 rebounds per game while shooting 55 percent from the field and 41 percent from three.
  • In a five game stretch in January, he averaged 18 points and 7 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the field and 43 percent from three.
  • In a six game stretch in April, he averaged 15 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

Those 22 games (of the 78 he played in) represent more than a quarter of his season. The story with Villanueva has always been inconsistency, and last season was the perfect example — those above highlighted stretches of great offensive play were offset by 29 games in which Villanueva shot less than 30 percent, so despite those stretches of really good production, he still finished with either career lows or near career lows in points per game, rebounds per game, shooting percentage and minutes played.

Many Pistons fans grew frustrated with the inconsistency, particularly while he was struggling in February and March, and spent the offseason questioning the signing, so those fans ready to close the book on Villanueva probably weren’t super excited by this post by Keith Langlois entitled ‘Rarin’ to Go’ (brief sidebar: Seriously, someone needs to teach some Search Engine Optimization):

“That’s my mentality – to be a starter,” Villanueva said after a heavy workout Monday following a weekend spent celebrating his 26th birthday with friends and family. “But at the same time, I don’t want it to be given to me. I want to earn it. I believe I can be a starter in this league. I’ve done it before. When we get closer to training camp, I would like to sit down with (Kuester) and just share thoughts, expectations for my role, and just take it from there.”

At the risk of becoming the ‘lineup changes the Pistons will never consider‘ guy, I agree 100 percent that Villanueva should be the starting power forward next season.

From a skills standpoint, I love the diversity and unorthodox nature of Villanueva’s game. But him joining the starting lineup has less to do with what he can bring to the table (after all, he’ll have big scoring games whether he starts or comes of the bench) and more to do with what Ben Wallace brings to the lineup. A Villanueva-Wallace duo in the starting lineup offers much more balance than Wallace paired with incumbent starter Jonas Jerebko.

I’ve long believed that the two would compliment each other well. Here’s what I wrote last season on Full-Court Press:

Maybe if he’s (Villanueva) playing next to a guy (Wallace) with really good defensive instincts, he won’t have to worry as much about defense. If his guy gets inside him, Wallace is always there with help. It’s subtle, but it could take some pressure off.

That post was written when Villanueva was struggling and coach John Kuester had a quick hook for him, but the theory still holds true: Wallace’s greatest strengths are his defense, energy, his passing ability, offensive rebounding and ability to make cuts to the basket on offense. His greatest weaknesses are the ability to create his own shot and score. Villanueva’s greatest strength is his ability to score with a really diverse offensive repertoire. He struggles on defense with reaction time on help defense and holding his position against strong post players.

But it’s not just my OCD and weird need for pairing things up that make me crave a Villanueva/Wallace combo. When they were on the court together last season, the Pistons were actually a bit better offensively and defensively.

Here are some numbers with both on the floor (thanks to Dan Feldman and Basketball Value for compiling):

  • Minutes: 810.34
  • Pace: 88.4
  • Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possessions): 108.5
  • Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions): 109.5

Now compare to the overall numbers for the team for the season:

  • Pace: 88.5 (basically the same)
  • Offensive Rating: 105.6 (worse)
  • Defensive Rating: 111.4 (worse)

Playing Wallace big minutes with Jerebko seems redundant — they both do similar things (albeit Jerebko is not the rebounder, shot-blocker, defender or passer that Wallace is) by making hustle plays, bringing energy, getting on the offensive glass, etc. Also, neither is good at creating their own shot, so if Jerebko starts, the Pistons are starting two guys in the frontcourt who will not be a threat to score, allowing other teams to focus more attention on the team’s scoring options.

By all accounts, Villanueva has worked extremely hard to get in better shape this offseason. It remains to be seen whether that leads to a change in the all-or-nothing inconsistency he showed last season, but at the very least, even if his shot isn’t falling, teams have to guard him out to the three-point line and he will be able to take advantage of many defenders with his ability to post up.

Jerebko absolutely earned a key role on this year’s team after a productive rookie season, but moving him to the second unit allows him to play a Wallace-like role for however that group shakes out. He’d probably be paired in the frontcourt with a better offensive player (Greg Monroe), he’d have the advantage of going against second unit bigs who he could stand a better chance at guarding effectively than some of the starting caliber post players who are too strong for him and he’d be playing with a collection of guys who like to shoot but can also pass (Will Bynum, Ben Gordon and Tracy McGrady), giving him ample opportunity to crash the offensive glass and move without the ball for easy buckets.

As I’ve written numerous times, I haven’t given up on this collection of Pistons talent turning into a semi-decent outfit. There are legitimate question marks when it comes to health and rotation. I also have serious questions about whether or not John Kuester can mold his very traditional offensive system to fit guys like Villanueva, Gordon, Rodney Stuckey, Bynum and Monroe who all have non-traditional skills that don’t neatly fit into typical historical positional definitions.

Villanueva is paid like a starting player. He’s shown flashes of great productivity and versatility on offense. If he does the right things — and if this summer is any indication, he is doing the right things — and has a good camp, pairing him with Wallace in the starting lineup could simultaneously strengthen the first and second units.