New lineups the only constant for Pistons
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP)
There are over 3,000 ways an NBA coach can pick five players from a 15-man roster.
Detroit's John Kuester must feel as if he's tried almost all of them.
The Pistons debuted their 21st different starting lineup Saturday night, mixing and matching their way to a 100-88 win over the Indiana Pacers. It's been a season of uncertainty for Detroit, from the drawn-out sale of the team to the nightly guessing game over who will play and who won't.
''I've given guys an opportunity to play well, and if they're playing well, I'm going to ride them,'' Kuester said. ''We don't have LeBron James. We don't have Dwight Howard at center. We have a collection of good players that have to play at a high level, and on any given night, you look at all of our roster of players, they're capable of giving it to us.''
Detroit isn't all that unique with its 21 starting lineups. The Sacramento Kings had started 26 different lineups through Saturday, and the Washington Wizards had used 25, according to STATS, LLC. Those teams have struggled every bit as much this season as the Pistons, who are 26-47 and on the verge of elimination from the playoff chase.
In Detroit, however, the drama doesn't stop with the pregame introductions. Not only have the Pistons juggled their starting lineup, but every healthy player except Ben Gordon has received a DNP-Coach's Decision at least once this season, and the starting lineup sometimes bears no resemblance to the group on the court late in the fourth quarter.
There are 3,003 possible five-man combinations on a 15-player roster. Kuester's options have been limited slightly by season-long injuries to Jonas Jerebko and Terrico White, but every other Piston has started at least one game. The lineup has changed because of injuries and occasional signs of discord - as well as a roster full of seemingly interchangeable parts that has left the embattled coach perpetually searching for a hot hand.
On opening night, Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton, Ben Wallace, Austin Daye and Tayshaun Prince took the court for Detroit, but that group has started only eight games together, with the Pistons going 2-6. The most common starting lineup? The same squad from the opener, but with Jason Maxiell at power forward instead of Daye. Detroit went 4-9 with that combination, which was abandoned in December.
Hamilton was a starter, then became a backup, then was benched entirely. He is now starting again. Hamilton and Kuester had a falling out but now say they've worked out their differences.
Hamilton scored 23 points Saturday, a bright moment in an unusual season.
''Just being ready to play ... staying in tune with the game,'' Hamilton said. ''When the opportunity is there, just coming out and just playing. ... I know what I bring to the table. I know what I'm capable of doing.''
Lately, Hamilton has teamed up with Tracy McGrady in the backcourt, but a back problem sidelined McGrady against Indiana, forcing Stuckey back into the starting lineup. Injuries also have been an issue for veterans Prince and Wallace.
''It affects the chemistry. It affects our performance on the court, because you never know who you're out there playing with,'' guard Will Bynum said. ''You just have to be ready whenever your name's called.''
Bynum was ready on March 18, when he sat out the first three quarters before playing the entire fourth as Detroit rallied from an 11-point deficit to beat the New York Knicks. Hamilton missed that game because of the death of his grandfather, and the Pistons started an unusually tall backcourt of the 6-foot-8 McGrady and the 6-11 Daye. When that didn't work, Kuester benched four of his starters for the final quarter. The backups led the comeback.
''Just because you don't start doesn't mean you don't finish,'' Kuester said.
Of course, there was one night when the bench was a lot shorter. On Feb. 25, several Pistons missed at least part of a team shootaround. Kuester brushed off talk of a possible mutiny, but he used only six players in that night's game at Philadelphia. It was the only start of the season so far for Bynum and DaJuan Summers. Bynum played the full 48 minutes.
''I've never seen some of the stuff that's going on,'' Bynum said. ''I'm just learning on the fly.''
Now, the Pistons will try to make the most of the last nine games of the regular season. They played well enough to beat an Indiana team that's in the thick of the playoff race, and they'll take on the Pacers again on Wednesday. After that, Detroit faces Chicago and Boston, two teams fighting for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
With their postseason hopes dwindling, the Pistons might not have much to play for, but that won't stop Kuester from tinkering.
''One of the things I've done is given them all an opportunity to be in that crunch (time) situation,'' Kuester said. ''Sometimes it's worked out, sometimes it hasn't worked the way you want it.''