The Pistons have a Small Forward Problem

With Reggie Bullock taking over starting duties at small forward, the Pistons have to take a look at their long-term prospects for the position.

Stan Van Gundy recently made a change to his starting lineup by moving Stanley Johnson to the bench and putting Reggie Bullock in his place at small forward with the starters. Stanley was seen as the clear heir apparent for the small forward spot this year and his demotion is concerning for many, but should it be?

The biggest thing

First and foremost, Reggie Bullock can actually shoot. This is the biggest overriding factor in all of this. Johnson now sits at 28.3% from deep this year and 29.7% on his career from deep, Bullock, on the other hand, has shot 38.8% from deep in his time in Detroit.

Even now, Bullock is operating with a pretty small sample size, but he was an elite shooter in college at North Carolina, and while his career mark is still just 35.5% he never got any sort of regular minutes before arriving in Detroit. Bullock has the right combination of a quick release, high launch point, and size, that he could be an elite level spot up shooter. There will need to be more evidence to decide whether or not he will be just good or elite in that category, but if he continues to start this year the Pistons will find out. Regardless, even if Bullock is just good as a spot up shooter, he is a lot better than Johnson in that regard.

With Bullock in Johnson's place, and Tobias Harris seeming to have finally found a consistent deep ball, the Pistons can finally actually present a true "4 out look" where there are 4 shooters around Andre Drummond. People sometimes have a tendency to overrate the value of shooting and spacing, but it is certainly significant. Bullock opens the floor and makes the offense better simply by being on the court instead of Johnson. He gives Jackson, Harris, and Drummond more space to do their things since defenders are much less willing to sag off of him, and when they do he actually hits shots when presented to him. 

The even areas

There is an area where both Bullock and Johnson are pretty close to the value they bring, and that is in their general basketball IQ and movement. Both Bullock and Johnson are whip-smart players who can think a pass ahead, so when they receive a pass they already know right where to send it next which allows for the ping-pong perimeter passing that is required to get some of the juiciest looks in a motion offense. Both of them are also smart and effective movers off the ball, whether that be cuts to the basket or around the perimeter for space. Johnson is not quite as cagey a cutter as Bullock is, but Johnson's size advantage means that his cuts have more power behind them to pull in extra defenders and power through tough defense. Essentially Bullock is better at getting open off the ball, but Johnson is able to make it work more easily in traffic.

This is one of the better arguments for why it makes sense to start Bullock over Johnson. Because Johnson does enough on offense by being a smart passer and cutter that you can make an argument that it balances out his shooting, especially when you consider his ability to push the ball in transition, but the reality is that Bullock mostly does all that stuff too except he can actually shoot. 

The big question for Reggie Bullock

For Bullock to remain an effective long-term starter, the biggest question is going to be what sort of defensive impact he can have. While it is a bit uncertain exactly how good he will be offensively in a larger sample size and against opposing starters, he is going to be solid on that end and almost certainly better than Johnson.

From the moment Bullock arrived in Detroit he showed solid defensive abilities, he plays hard, has decent length, and he is as smart defensively as he is offensive. He doesn't have the sort of physical tools to allow him to be a really elite defensive player but he has enough tools to be good. He also appears to have put on some much-needed muscle this offseason which should help him.

The biggest thing Stanley Johnson brings to the table is, of course, his defense, and for all that some people have fretted about Johnson's negative impact on the offense, make no mistake about his defensive impact. It is huge. Johnson has filled a void that the Pistons have had ever since they traded Tayshaun Prince. Stanley is a proper elite wing defender who is capable of taking on guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, or LeBron James, and actually, stand a real chance. When combined with Avery Bradley, the Pistons have a fearsome pair of defenders which can, and has, swung games in the Pistons favor at times when they really lock in. Bullock drew the majority of the Victor Oladipo assignment a few nights ago and did really well, but how he does against other really good players will be telling for his staying power as a starter. Obviously, Stanley Johnson will get more run against elite wing players but if Bullock can do a mostly respectable job, or perhaps even better, then he will lock up the starting spot and the minutes to reflect it. If he struggles to play defense at a high level then even if he retains the starting job, SVG will certainly shift more and more back to Stanley in high-pressure situations. If Bullock wants to be a starter and play starters minutes then he has got to prove it on the defensive end. He won't be as good as Johnson, but he has to be able to come close. 

The big question for Stanley Johnson

For Bullock, the reality is that we kind of know what he is and what he would be capable of as a starter. He will probably be, to some extent, a perfectly acceptable 3 and D player who occasionally will be good and mostly just sort of stays out of the way to keep from screwing things up for others. Johnson as a bench player though is a lot more intriguing, especially after seeing it for a couple of games. I think that perhaps I (and many others) underestimated Johnson's abilities with the ball in his hands before the season, and if he continues to show that then perhaps the swap with him and Bullock could benefit Stanley Johnson and the bench just as much as Bullock will help the starters.

Johnson may not be able to shoot, but he has been a good ball handler and passer, especially out of the pick and roll, from the moment he arrived in Detroit. Remember in his rookie year when Steve Blake was so bad that he could barely manage to dribble the ball up past half-court so Stanley Johnson spent a lot of time as the de-facto backup point guard? I do. He and Aron Baynes got real chemistry in the pick and roll, and even though the numbers were not especially pretty there was clearly potential there. Last year in the year Stanley Johnson had the year from hell combine with actual competence at the backup point guard spot largely take playmaking duties out of his hands, and as a starter, he simply isn't good enough to warrant taking the ball away from the other starters to give him plays.
As a member of the bench mob, however, he is fully deserving of getting chances to run pick and rolls, and with the Pistons move to a motion offense the love is spread out more regardless. In two games off the bench, he has looked more aggressive and comfortable as a primary ball handler and it is reflected in the numbers. He has 9 assists against just 1 turnover, has taken 10 free throws, and scored 20 points in those two games, which are all above his season averages. I really want to emphasize the assists and free throws though.

Stanley has gotten plenty of assists this year but they are largely off-ball quick hitters. In these two games, he is doing it out of the pick and roll and it is coming from him being aggressive in attacking the hoop. Every one of those free throws the last two games was earned by putting his head down and going to the hoop, which in turn starts to draw extra defenders to allow him easy kick out passes.

It seems kind of counter-intuitive, and I'm still a bit worried about the long-term prospects of a bench mob featuring both Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith (and unless Leuer finds a real three-point shot back the center spot will not be providing much spacing if any) given their impotent jumpers, but Stanley's bull in a china shop drives to the hoop might be just what the bench mob needs to cure their half-court woes. Ish Smith is a great passer, but he isn't a great facilitator. He is never drawing extra defenders or making the defense bend in ways it doesn't want too, he is just such a good passer that if there are holes he will find them. Where he (and the bench mob) get into trouble is when defenses play disciplined defense by getting back on defense and not overreacting to the drives of Smith, which results in too many sets that end with Ish taking a mid-range jumper or one of the shooters (mostly Galloway, Tolly, or Kennard) hoisting contested threes. Sometimes that works because Galloway, Tolly, and Kennard can all really shoot and Ish can get hot from the mid-range on occasion, but it also can get very ugly. Stanley Johnson may be good enough as a ball handler to give them an option that can get good looks even against good defense.

The question is whether or not he actually is that good. He has never been as aggressive attacking the hoop as he has the past couple of games, and teams will make adjustments to it and likely will dare him to actually convert contested looks at the hoop which is something he has always struggled with in his career. There is also the issue of potentially giving significant minutes to a lineup that features 3 bad shooters (Ish, Stanley, whoever is center) which might be problematic. 

The Verdict

At this point, most of my issues with putting Stanley on the bench stem from the fact that I just want him to succeed as a starter so he should get more time. But the more I look at it objectively, this may work really well. I have always been a huge fan of Bullock and his game, and I'm really coming around on the idea that coming off the bench may be the best thing for Stanley. He clearly has not figured out how to shoot, so putting the ball in his hands more is playing more to his strengths which is always something you want to do with players.

What do you think? Should this be a permanent switch? Can Bullock hold up defensively? Can Stanley be a lead ball handler for the bench?

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