Tom Gores sold Monty Williams on how badly the Pistons wanted him to be their coach. Troy Weaver sold Williams because of the character he would find in his locker room. Williams himself spoke glowingly of the young talent he inherits from Dwane Casey.
Now it’s about facing the challenge of figuring out how it all fits together to maximize the young talent. And Williams, signed to a five-year contract, likely won’t enter another season as Pistons coach with as many options for lineup constructions to consider as he faced in season one.
And only a fraction of that challenge is because Williams has yet to coach anyone on the roster. It’s more about the number of players at similar stages of development, and the fact that there isn’t a whole lot of separation between that many players in the middle of the roster.
Here’s a look at that list and how it stacks up from the perspective of who will definitely be in the rotation, those likely but not locks to be in the opening night lineup and those on the rotation bubble. You could argue that there’s more uncertainty—and more promise—with this Pistons’ rotation than at any point in a generation.
LOCK (3) – Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Bojan Bogdanovic
There is little doubt that if these three are healthy, they will be in the lineup on opening night and take big minutes. It’s certainly possible they’ll be the only three players on the roster to average 30 minutes per game. game, though it’s also conceivable that Bogdanovic, 34, will have his minutes reduced some from last season’s 32, given the depth Weaver has given Williams.
Bogdanovic’s shooting, and really his ability to score all together, complements so many of his teammates—most notably Cunningham and Ivey—that it’s hard to see those minutes rolled back too much unless others like Isaiah Livers, Joe Harris and Ausar Thompson all bring their strengths to the table on a consistent basis.
The Pistons will likely be rightly cautious with Cunningham, who is coming off season-ending shin surgery last December, so it’s not likely he’ll flirt with 35-plus minutes. But he’s going to be on the floor to start and close games and carry a heavy offensive load while he’s in there. Ivey will be at his side for a significant number of overlapping minutes. And with veteran Monte Morris added, the Pistons can afford to stick Cunningham and Ivey together as often as Williams likes and let Morris run the offense the rest of the time.
LIKELY (3) — Isaiah Stewart, Jalen Duren, Monte Morris
Stewart and Duren are close locks, but there’s enough uncertainty given the presence of four young big men plus a new coach with a new perspective to list them as probable. The smart money would be on Duren to start at center and Stewart at power forward on opening night.
Even if Williams ultimately discards the big two starting lineup and opts for a starting unit with Bogdanovic at power forward and any of the group of Isaiah Livers/Joe Harris/Ausar Thompson at the other spot, it’s hard to imagine a rotation that doesn’t include both Stewart and Duren given what the Pistons know about Stewart’s immense potential and Dusren’s immense potential for production.
Morris may have the clearest role on the list. He’s a proven steady hand recognized as among the very best backup point guards in the league and a player perfectly capable of handling starter’s minutes if needed. His allergy to turnovers, remarkably consistent 3-point shooting and basketball IQ give the Pistons a head start on playing a dynamic bench unit.
ON THE BUBBLE (6) – Isaiah Livers, Marvin Bagley III, James Wiseman, Joe Harris, Ausar Thompson, Alec Burks
This is an unusually large bubble group, and it is very likely that four of them will be part of the opening night rotation if the roster remains intact and all hands are available.
If Stewart and Duren are the starters, then there is certainly room for one of Bagley or Wiseman as a center with the bench unit. If Williams decides to play two big men with each unit, then Wiseman and Bagley could conceivably play together.
If Livers can avoid the string of relatively minor injuries that have plagued his first two seasons, his defense, IQ and 3-point shooting make him a strong candidate for bench minutes. Burks’ pure scoring ability and ability to draw fouls make him arguably the front runner to play alongside Morris in the backcourt.
If Williams goes with a big man on the bench unit, then Harris, Burks and rookie Ausar Thompson are fighting for minutes at two and three, assuming Livers is the four. If healthy, Harris will be hard to keep out of the mix as a 1 percent among elite 3-point shooters. Thompson provides everything but 3-point shooting. It’s not out of the question that Thompson, Harris, Burks and Morris could play around a big man on the second unit against benches that play smaller lineups.
Williams could also extend his rotation to 11 by using Thompson for a specific defensive matchup as the situation dictates.
IN THE WINGS (2) – Killian Hayes, Marcus Sasser
Hayes had a great December last season and seemed to have turned the corner, then struggled with his shot for most of the rest of the season before finishing on a high. He turns 22 this week — he’s 10 months younger than Sasser — and is still far from a fully realized version of himself, but the Pistons have made it clear that their goals have shifted from player development as the clear priority. Hayes will need to outperform Morris in training camp to insert himself into the rotation picture, and he will need to prove his production can remain consistent. Because Morris, by the Pistons, is reliably consistent.
Sasser’s 40-point Summer League finale offered a glimpse of the impact he can provide, but time is on his side here. Burks is ahead of him heading into camp and has a long track record as an efficient NBA scorer. If everyone in the backcourt is healthy, the Pistons can afford to let Sasser marinate in the G League prematurely and pick their spots for him after that.
It’s also worth noting that the Stamps still have an open roster spot and the discretionary mid-level “room” exception. The list of available free agents has been whittled down at this point, so the list may not be filled with a signature. It could be that the stamps are leaving their options open to help facilitate trades. And that way could bring the rotation decisions into sharper focus.