Pistons by Position Countdown: 1
Jennings, Billups turn point guard into position of strength for the Pistons
Having a basketball team without a gifted playmaker at point guard isn’t quite like having an NFL team without a star quarterback, persistent analogies aside. The right mix of players, guided by a coach not hidebound by convention, can yield offensive attacks that rank right up there with the best of them led by more traditional point guards.
But it’s a lot easier for things to fall into place when the guy who brings the ball across the time line is also the one best equipped to initiate half-court offense. Joe Dumars never thought differently, even as he was building a team around a backcourt of Brandon Knight and Rodney Stuckey – two players who began their NBA careers as point guards yet played mostly off the ball after the Pistons sent Tayshaun Prince to Memphis last January in a deal that returned Jose Calderon, long one of the NBA’s most accomplished playmakers.
When Calderon left the Pistons to sign with Dallas as a free agent, Dumars didn’t waste much time plugging the hole. First he lured Pistons fan favorite Chauncey Billups – Mr. Big Shot, MVP of the 2004 NBA Finals – back home in free agency for what figures to be more than just a victory lap. A few weeks later, he dealt with his former first lieutenant, Milwaukee general manager John Hammond, to bring restricted free agent Brandon Jennings to the Pistons in a deal that cost him Knight, Khris Middleton and Slava Kravtsov.
The Pistons also retained Will Bynum, whose connection with Andre Drummond on the pick and roll was one of the highlights of their 2012-13 season, and drafted Louisville’s Peyton Siva, who led the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA title.
Add it all up – and keep in mind that they’ll all be mentored by new coach Maurice Cheeks, a textbook example of the point guard as consummate quarterback – and the Pistons fully expect point guard to be a position of strength in the season ahead.
Jennings, of course, is the headliner, a player who turns 24 next week yet has four years of NBA starting experience and one year in Italy on his resume. He made a run at an All-Star berth last season in a crowded Eastern Conference point guard field while averaging 17.5 points and 6.5 assists a game. By his own admission, he forced too many bad shots with the Bucks, but Jennings says his nature is to be a playmaker and with more options around him in Detroit than he ever enjoyed in Milwaukee – Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond and Josh Smith, for starters – he’ll gladly return to his roots.
“I haven’t been able to play with a guy who’s a post presence since Andrew Bogut, somebody you could throw it down to. Now that I have a post presence (in Monroe), and another guy like Josh, who can go get a bucket, Drummond, we can do pick and roll – just all type of options now.”
The book on Jennings dating to his days as a transcendent player at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy says he has extraordinary court vision, pick-and-roll feel and open-court ability. When Dumars and his staff pored over videotape as they pondered Hammond’s trade offer, that became apparent to them. The pick and roll, in particular – given its place in today’s NBA and the presence of Drummond, a player who drags defenders with him as he rolls to the rim as a lob threat – was an area in which the Pistons needed to feel strongly about Jennings.
“We watched a lot of film on that before we made the trade,” Dumars said. “Just what he does on the fast break, does he see the floor, what he does on screen and roll. We watched everything. We broke down film for a week. We felt comfortable at the end of a week of watching nothing but hours of tape, we felt like he can step in and play for us. He’s a threat coming off of screen and roll to either shoot it, drive it or pass it. We felt very comfortable he can step in and be a really good pick-and-roll player for us.”
Since joining the Pistons in early August, Jennings has given off nothing but positive vibes about his appreciation for the opportunity coming to them represents, assistant general manager George David said.
“He has expressed that excitement of playing with Andre, Greg and Josh, for sure,” he said. “What Brandon is going to bring to this team in particular is going to be his feel for the game but also he’s somebody who we definitely feel is a very young player who still has a lot to prove. In the short time I’ve gotten to know him, I would say the singular most impressive thing to me has been his dedication to basketball. He’s a guy who truly loves being in the gym. I think he’s going to be a tremendous fit.”
As Dumars looked at his roster in mid-July, after first reeling in Smith, he saw a startlingly young team – only Bynum, at the time, was 30 or older – and one that needed another shooter. He was hoping to solve at least one of those needs – a shooter or a solid veteran who could plug in as needed. Billups offered dramatic help in both areas, a two-birds-with-one-stone grand slam.
“The first thing Chauncey and I talked about was his ability to still impact the game on the floor,” Dumars said of Billups, who also has a birthday next week, his 37th. “That was first and foremost. But second was his ability to bring guys together and be a great leader and a great teammate. We don’t shy away from that with Chauncey. That’s a big part of who he is and we think that’s going to bode well for our team. He’s a uniter. He pulls people together. He has a special way about him. He has the ability to get guys to listen and buy in and speak about the right things. He’s going to be huge. Just as much as he can help us on the floor, we think he’ll help us off the floor.”
The Pistons figure to monitor Billups’ minutes carefully – 20 a game is expected to be the maximum – which probably argues against him starting next to Jennings at shooting guard. But don’t be surprised if Billups winds up finishing games for his clutch shot-making and big-game experience.
“We felt like we added a great shooter and not only a great veteran, but to put it as well as I can, he’s one of the best ambassadors of the game,” David said. “To have Chauncey here, not only in a mentoring role but somebody who can really shoot and somebody who’s been a champion, we could not have picked a better person for that role.”
With Jennings likely to get more than 30 minutes a game and Billups behind him, there’s not a certain role for Bynum. But he’s faced the same daunting odds before and always found a way to work into the rotation. Arguing in his favor this time around is his proven synergy with Drummond. Cheeks also made his preference for retaining Bynum known, admiring not only his fearless offensive plunges but his ability to be a pesky on-the-ball defender, as well.
“Mo sees him as somebody who can really get into people and can really disrupt opposing point guards,” David said. “His ability to connect and do what he did well with Andre last year as well as with that unit – Will, Andre and Charlie (Villanueva) together had some really good moments often for us last year – was a consideration. But a big part of Will coming back was we see him as somebody who can really disrupt opposing point guards with his defensive effort.”
Siva finds himself in a similar situation to Tony Mitchell, taken 19 spots ahead of him in the second round last June. Mitchell’s path to playing time is blocked by Monroe, Smith, Jonas Jerebko and Villanueva at power forward, just as Siva will sit behind Jennings, Billups and Bynum. But the Pistons love what they’ve seen from Siva since Summer League, where he had 24 assists against just six turnovers in four games and consistently played spirited defense.
“Love his toughness, love that he’s a winner, love that we think he’s going to be a great teammate here,” Dumars said. “He’s another young guy that we don’t have to rush. What better way for him to develop than to come every day and watch Chauncey Billups, Brandon Jennings and Will Bynum. Long term, that’s going to make him a better point guard in this league – and to have Mo Cheeks as his coach. He’s surrounded by really good point guards.”