Maximizing the Pistons’ Lineup Versatility

Mar 21, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; (Left to right) Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) forward Marcus Morris (13) head coach Stan Van Gundy forward Tobias Harris (34) and guard Reggie Jackson (1) stand during a timeout during the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 92-91. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; (Left to right) Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) forward Marcus Morris (13) head coach Stan Van Gundy forward Tobias Harris (34) and guard Reggie Jackson (1) stand during a timeout during the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 92-91. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

As Stan Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons look for answers in the midst of a losing streak, they should be using their versatility to make changes.

When the Detroit Pistons acquired Tobias Harris at last year’s trade deadline, it was a clear win for the Pistons’ lineup versatility.

Harris and fellow forward Marcus Morris can both play multiple positions and are on team-friendly contracts through 2018-19.  At guard, the Pistons already had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson, both who can defend multiple positions and will be under contract with the Pistons beyond 2018-19 if the Pistons want them.  Then, this offseason, the Pistons signed Jon Leuer to a 4 year, $41 million contract, which now looks like a great deal.  Leuer, a guy who can defend bigger power forwards and smaller centers, was the final piece in the Pistons’ quest for a strong, versatile rotation.

Versatility is king in today’s NBA.  Teams have seen the success of the Spurs’ motion offense and have hired coaches like Mike Budenholzer, Quin Snyder, and Brad Stevens to emulate those motion concepts.  Even teams who haven’t adopted motion offenses still run a large percentage of their sets out of pick-and-roll action.  Whatever system a team may run, modern NBA schemes require a group of players who can be versatile on both ends of the floor.  Whether it’s a big man being able to shoot or a wing needing to provide some rim protection, NBA players in today’s game need diverse skill sets more than ever.

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The Pistons have players with those diverse skill sets.  Their power forwards shoot and can handle the ball, and nearly every defender on the team has the ability to switch screens and hold their own against what may be a much bigger or much smaller opponent.

Having defenders with these diverse skill sets is very important, especially when it comes in the form of lineup versatility.  On top of being able to switch screens consistently, it’s critical to being a great offense in today’s NBA that you can adapt your lineups to your opponents.  On one night, you have to go small and match up with the Warriors’ Death lineup.  The next night, you might have to go to Philadelphia and go big to defend Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor.  Many nights, you’ll run into a team who can go both big and small successfully in the same game.

Stan Van Gundy’s comments the day after the Warriors game indicate that he recognizes the importance of the adapting his lineups to his opponent.

Fortunately, for the Pistons, their coach and front office have built the team with that lineup versatility in mind.  And, now, with the starting lineup in flux, that lineup versatility may be more important than ever.

Against the Golden State Warriors, the Pistons shook up the starting lineup, replacing Tobias Harris with Jon Leuer.  Often times, major decisions to change a starting lineup involves more than just Xs and Os.  There’s some politics involved.  Some guys respond better to “demoted” to the bench than others.  That combined with SVG’s comments that Harris was supposed to start against Memphis makes it’s best not to read too much into Tobias Harris’s “demotion” to the bench.

After all, the starting lineup really just defines who plays the first 6 or so minutes of the first and third quarters.  That leaves approximately 75 percent of the game that a coach still has to make constant decisions on how he’s going to match up with a given opponent.  For Stan Van Gundy, those decisions become easier because of the many different lineups he has at his disposal.

The Offensive Minded Starting Lineup

Stan Van Gundy, with his comments about the Memphis game, implied that when the Pistons are facing a great defensive team, Leuer and Harris would start, with Morris coming off the bench.

The Harris/Leuer combination has been the best of the forward combinations with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope offensively, this year.  The Caldwell-Pope/Harris/Leuer lineups are shooting the most efficiently of all of the three combinations, and the Pistons are grabbing a very high percentage of offensive rebounds with those three on the floor together.  Caldwell-Pope, Harris, and Leuer are all threats from the three point line, but more importantly, they are all threats to cut to the basket without the ball.

The need to defend those off-ball cuts puts more pressure on opposing defenses, and opens up the perimeter for more open shots.  This is a lineup that you will probably see in fourth quarters when the Pistons are trailing and need to score efficiently.  It’s also likely to be the starting lineup against a team like the Charlotte Hornets, who are strong defensively but don’t have major offensive threats at the forward positions.

The Defensive Minded Starting Lineup

The Pistons lineups involving Caldwell-Pope, Morris, and Leuer have been terrific this year, holding opponents to just 87.7 points per 100 possessions.  Morris provides a defensive presence that Harris just does not.  Morris is a physical defender who can body up larger small forwards like Kevin Durant and LeBron James.  Morris also provides valuable offense in a defensive-minded lineup.  When trying to slow great offenses, the Pistons will look to literally slow the game down and play much more in the half court.  Morris is by far the best non-guard offensive option in that type of game.  Morris is able to create offense for himself in tight spaces and late in the shot clock at a level that Harris just cannot.  Look for this starting lineup when the Cleveland Cavaliers come to town December 26, in an attempt to slow LeBron James down.

The “This Isn’t Working” Lineup

There comes times for every team in an 82 game season where you simply say: “this isn’t working.”  Sometimes your starters just don’t have it and they’re getting dominated on both ends of the floor.  Adding Ish Smith and Aron Baynes to the defensive-minded starting lineup is a good option in those cases.  It’s not a lineup that you’re likely to start barring injuries, but it’s a lineup that can certainly be successful in short-term situations.  Smith brings a combination of speed and energy that is hard to match for even the fastest NBA players.  Baynes brings a bit more rim protection and is a terrific screener to get open shots in pick-and-roll opportunities.  This lineup has the potential to be very good over small samples, and it’s certainly a lineup that deserves a chance when the starters aren’t doing much.

The Old Starting Lineup

Forgotten in all of the recent Pistons lineup talk is the fact that the Reggie Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Harris, and Andre Drummond were very good last year.  In 2015-16, that starting lineup outscored their opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions over a 462 minute sample.  The lineup has struggled this year, no doubt.  But it’s struggled largely because Reggie Jackson is fresh off an injury and working his way back into game shape.  That’s not to say that this should be the starting lineup once again.  But, it certainly can be a useful lineup in certain situations.  The lineup struggled a bit last year defensively, in large part because the Pistons struggled to defend more traditional power forwards.  When opponents don’t have a bruiser at power forward who can punish smaller defenders in the post, this lineup’s offensive abilities could give the team a solid advantage.  It’s a lineup that could be useful against the Raptors, who generally play stretch power forwards, and it’s yet another lineup that could be used against the Hornets’ smaller lineups.

The Small Lineup

For the Pistons, going small successfully largely depends on the productivity of Stanley Johnson.  If Johnson continues his good play as of late, the Pistons have the ability to go small and be very successful.  SVG can insert Johnson at small forward and go with a smaller lineup like Jackson/Caldwell-Pope/Johnson/Harris/Drummond.  When Johnson can stay on the floor, he is able to provide defensive versatility that the Pistons simply do not have without him.  He can competently guard three positions, which allows the Pistons to switch nearly every screen they might face.  If Stan Van Gundy’s comments about Johnson’s defense against Kevin Durant are any indication, we may see more small lineups like this in the near future.

"“I thought he guarded Durant better than anybody,” Van Gundy said. “At least he made it tough on him.”"

For any small lineup to be successful, it’s crucial that the defense’s smaller players can hold their own when switched onto opposing big men.  Johnson provides exactly that type of versatility to the Pistons’ smaller lineups.  This is a lineup that you could see against a team like the Boston Celtics, when they go small with Isaiah Thomas/Avery Bradley/Marcus Smart.

The Smaller Lineup

Then there are times where you need to go extra small.  It may be against the Warriors’ Death Lineup or it may be against the Cavaliers when Kevin Love is playing center.  In those situations, the Pistons again have an answer in the form of Jon Leuer.  Several times this year, the Pistons have been thin at center as a result of foul trouble.  On multiple occasions, Van Gundy has responded by playing Leuer at center.  The Pistons’ most-used lineup with Leuer at center (22 minutes) has come with Smith, Caldwell-Pope, Morris, and Harris surrounding him.  In those 22 minutes, the Pistons have outscored their opponents by 30.7 points per 100 possessions.  Now, that’s certainly a tiny sample size that isn’t hugely predictive.  But, the fact that such a small lineup has played so well is encouraging and certainly could play in a role in Van Gundy’s willingness to use such a lineup in the future.  With Reggie Jackson to provide a bit more size in the backcourt, this is a lineup to watch if opponents trot out a lineup without a true center.

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These are just six of many combinations that Stan Van Gundy has at his disposal this year to combat some of the Pistons’ recent struggles.  If Van Gundy is as willing to adapt his lineups to his opponents as he’s indicated in the press, the Pistons are sure to find lineup combinations that work long-term.  As those lineups become more defined and the players in those lineups get more chemistry with one another, the Pistons will have the ability to throw numerous different looks at opponents on a nightly basis.  The thought of that must certainly be comforting to Stan Van Gundy, as he looks for answers in a difficult stretch for the Pistons.