Be Prepared

Cheeks’ flexible approach to bench rotation working for Pistons

Peyton Siva
Siva and other bench players will get minutes with Cheeks' rotation
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
When Mo Cheeks sent the Pistons back out to start the second quarter Sunday night, not a starter was among the chosen. Will Bynum and Chauncey Billups were still in street clothes, nursing leg injuries, and they were joined this night by Rodney Stuckey. Kyle Singler, along with Stuckey the other staple of Detroit’s bench through the first quarter of the season, wasn’t out there, either.

That meant not a player among the preferred first eight was on the floor for a game the Pistons already trailed by eight points – against the defending NBA champion Miami Heat, bent on avenging a home loss against the upstart Pistons just five nights earlier.

To be sure, all five players Cheeks sent out to prevent their deficit from swelling had been outside his rotation at some point over the first 20 games.

Rookies Peyton Siva and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were the guards. Josh Harrellson was at center, surrounded by Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva. Cheeks kept that unit out for three minutes, and when he began rotating his starters back in, that eight-point deficit had shrunk to four.

The Pistons eventually lost to Miami, but it had little to do with Cheeks’ bench. The game ruptured on the Pistons early in the third quarter, when a six-point halftime deficit became double digits and then 20 points.

But that three-minute interlude remains symbolically important for the Pistons, underscoring the production Cheeks has been able to milk from a bench with an unorthodox approach. Singler and Stuckey are bench staples, but while Billups and Bynum are out, Cheeks has shown unusual flexibility. Bottom line, if you’re in a Pistons uniform on game night, be prepared to play.

Harrellson is the latest example. It was clear coming out of the preseason that there was no spot for Harrellson in Cheeks’ rotation. Harrellson didn’t play in the first eight games, inactive for four of them when the Pistons had 15 healthy bodies.

But on Nov. 17 at Los Angeles – the first game both Billups and Bynum missed – Cheeks threw Harrelson into the fray against the Lakers. He’s played in all games but one since then and had his best moments in Saturday’s win over the Bulls. The second half was a quagmire – the Pistons held a two-point lead with only 10 combined points scored in seven minutes – when Harrellson hit a 3-pointer that propelled the Pistons to a comfortable win. He finished with 10 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots and two assists in 13 high-impact minutes.

“He’s capable of making shots,” Cheeks said. “He’s a pretty smart basketball player. He understands how to play. He knows how to defend the pick and roll. A pretty smart basketball player with the ability to make a three thrown in there.”

Harrellson wasn’t sure he’d even play against Chicago and, in fact, it looked like he might not when Cheeks bypassed him during the first round of substitutions. Not only three minutes before halftime did Harrellson enter the game, but he played well enough that Cheeks went back to him early in the second half with the Pistons sputtering on offense.

“It’s tough,” Harrellson said of staying ready. “In my position, that’s what I have to do. No matter what time it is in the game, I’ve got to be ready to go because I never know when he’s going to call my name. Just be mentally focused throughout the game.”

What’s tougher, though, is when a player goes into a game night nearly certain he won’t play. More coaches than not have a set rotation – sometimes even down to the minute when substitutions will be made – and a player is either in or out of it.

Cheeks’ way seems to be working for the Pistons. Jerebko has drawn six DNP-CDs this year – Did Not Play, Coaches Decision – yet has usually played well when called upon. In 21 minutes against Miami, he had 12 points, three rebounds and two steals.

Charlie Villanueva played in only one of the first 12 games, though an injury played a role in part of that stretch, then played in four straight but sat the past four before getting thrown into the first half of Sunday’s game with Miami. He, too, responded well, scoring 10 points in 14 minutes.

The Pistons hope they get all three of their injured guards back sooner than later. And when that happens, a little more stability for Cheeks’ bench rotation is likely. But if you’re in uniform on game night, the best course is to adopt the Boy Scout philosophy: be prepared.