Pistons Mailbag - December 18, 2013

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. Click here to submit your questions - please include your name, email address and city/state on the form. Return to the Mailbag homepage.

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Editor’s note: You can now submit Pistons Mailbag questions via Twitter. Include the hashtag #pistonsmailbag and, as always, your first name, hometown and state or country. Questions submitted via Twitter will also include the questioner’s Twitter handle.

Jeff (Windsor, Ontario): Josh Smith dominated against Portland and Indiana, which is great. I keep reading articles or comments online that say he’s not a good fit or that he needs to score or rebound more and he has delivered. But as he starts to dominate, Drummond and Monroe could possibly see a drop in points or rebounds. Then the articles or comments will say Drummond or Monroe have to step up. It seems like a never-ending cycle.

Langlois: You know what ends the cycle? Winning. If the Pistons put together the type of performances consistently that they produced against Portland and Indiana, Jeff, they’re going to start winning a lot more than they lose. And then I can’t imagine any credible criticisms of fit or concerns about where the numbers are coming from. As I wrote in Tuesday’s True Blue Pistons blog, Mo Cheeks and his staff are still figuring out how to massage the rotation to maximum effect and probably will continue to search for optimal results for the foreseeable future. When teams are losing or underachieving in the eyes of fans and critics, those types of analyses are inevitable. When they’re winning or meeting expectations, the narrative inevitably changes.

Francis (Manila, Philippines): With each passing game, people are starting to recognize the potential of the Pistons. Wins over the Heat and Pacers and the overtime loss to the Blazers, I really believe this is what Dumars and Gores envisioned when they mapped the blueprint for this team. My question is whether we will have enough money to retain Greg Monroe and Rodney Stuckey. My concern is securing not only Monroe, but Drummond for the future.

Langlois: Real short answer required here, Francis. The Pistons aren’t going to lose either Greg Monroe or Andre Drummond because of salary cap concerns. All teams fortunate enough to have an abundance of good players eventually have to make decisions about parting with a coveted asset, as Oklahoma City famously did with James Harden. I suppose the Pistons would love to find themselves in a situation where they’d someday have to debate the merits of Drummond and Monroe vs. two other All-Star caliber players on their roster. Perhaps that will be the case in a few years, as Drummond comes closer to free agency, given Josh Smith’s salary and the possibility that Brandon Jennings commands a more lucrative deal following the 2015-16 season. There’s no question the Pistons are aware of the timelines, but they have plenty of time to sit back and make assessments before any hard decisions come due.

Johnny (Sterling Heights, Mich.): With the great start to the season that Stuckey has had (and I don’t see it stopping), what will the Pistons consider in the off-season? I think it would be great if we kept him around. He’s a sure scorer and is one of the few to create his own shot. I’d hate to see him go.

Langlois: Stuckey will be an unrestricted free agent, Johnny. That means the ball is really in his court. But let’s say the season continues as it has begun and Stuckey remains the anchor of the second unit, playing starter’s minutes and scoring in the mid-teens. He’d be a coveted commodity, of course. He’d explore his options, absolutely. It certainly figures that the Pistons, given the role Mo Cheeks has carved out for him, would make an honest stab at retaining him. Were he to leave, the Pistons would be left with a void in their backcourt, but also a sizable chunk of money under the salary cap to seek his replacement. They also, I’m sure, are banking on a significant leap forward from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at shooting guard. There’s a long way to go until July 1 and much of the decision will be informed by what happens between now and then.

Shadd (Southfield, Mich.): I remember reading that next off-season we could have around $9 million to spend. With Stuckey playing better than I’ve seen him, if we were to re-sign him to an agreeable contract would that eliminate most or all of the our cash? Also, would we be able to sign Greg Monroe to a maximum contract if he held out for one?

Langlois: If the Pistons clear Stuckey’s contract off their books, they’ll have somewhere around $10 million in cap space on July 1, Shadd. But Stuckey’s cap hold would more than eat up all of that cap space. It’s possible that the Pistons could get back under the cap by coming to terms with Stuckey for a figure less than his cap hold (approximately $13 million, or 150 percent of this year’s reported salary). But it’s unlikely Stuckey would be taking a pay cut from his current reported $8.5 million, so if they have any room under the cap after signing Stuckey (and factoring in Greg Monroe’s cap hold of about $10 million) it would be negligible. As for having the money for Monroe, the Pistons will be able to go over the cap to sign him provided they don’t renounce his rights – which they have no intention of doing. As a restricted free agent, Monroe can solicit offers from all teams; the Pistons would have 72 hours to match. I can’t imagine a scenario in which they would fail to do so.

Chilton (Ortonville, Mich.): Since the Pistons are doing pretty well offensively but not defensively, what if we traded Greg Monroe to Oklahoma City for Serge Ibaka? I’m not sure the Thunder would do a trade like that because Ibaka is having a great year. But if it did happen, it would help the Pistons immediately as he is amazing defensively and scores well.

Langlois: ESPN just published a list of the top 25 players under 25 years of age, for what it’s worth, and Ibaka and Monroe were ranked right next to each other at 12 for Ibaka and 13 for Monroe. So it certainly isn’t a trade that would appear to be one-sided in either direction, Chilton. If the Pistons are going to dangle Monroe – and, for the 1,000th time, I have no reason to believe that’s the case – I don’t know that the target would be another power forward. The likelier scenario would be to acquire a high-impact perimeter scorer. But that, too, presents something of a quandary for the Pistons, especially if the trade is consummated during the season, as it would leave them with only Andre Drummond as a legitimate inside presence with Josh Harrellson the only other player on the roster even remotely equipped to guard big men. The other consideration, of course, is the contract status of Monroe, set to become an unrestricted free agent. Oklahoma City, which doesn’t have much wiggle room as a small-market team with two high-ticket players in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, might balk at the uncertainty of Monroe’s future sticker price.

Lorin (@NoBrandLogo): Should the Pistons play more zone defense?

Langlois: I’d be hesitant if I were calling the shots, Lorin. It can be a very useful secondary pitch, but nobody lives off of zone defense in the NBA. If the Pistons are going to make the most out of their season, they’re going to have to maximize their potential as a man-to-man defensive team. Once they make sufficient strides at that, then they’ll have the luxury of using the zone more frequently. But they’re using it. Once or twice a game, usually, Mo Cheeks sends the Pistons out of a timeout in a zone. On paper, they have the personnel – size and athleticism at virtually every position, especially with a Stuckey-KCP backcourt – to man a very effective zone defense. But on paper, pretty much any team that has the personnel to execute a solid man-to-man defense should also be able to play zone well. There’s also this to consider: Man-to-man defense in the NBA has become exceptionally sophisticated, so that every team’s base defense is, in effect, a man-zone hybrid anyway. And because of that sophistication – my theory, at least – it’s taking the Pistons as much time to figure it out on the defensive end as we expected it would take for them to figure it out offensively.

Trevor (Linden, Mich.): Should the Pistons trade for a higher pick if they don’t have their first-rounder because of the Charlotte trade?

Langlois: The Pistons are among the least likely candidates to be acquiring a No. 1 pick via trade with an in-season trade, Trevor. There are plenty of teams looking to acquire first-rounders in what has long been billed as a star-laden 2014 draft. They’re all the teams prepared to be in the lottery already and hoping to group multiple young star players together in large-scale rebuildings. The Pistons have already gone through that phase. Their goal is to make conceding this year’s No. 1 pick to Charlotte as painless as possible by winning as many games as they can and focusing on the playoffs. They’re more likely to look to add veteran help by offering a future No. 1 pick than vice versa, though the pick they owe Charlotte makes either scenario unlikely.

Darrell (Detroit): Given a weak free-agent market, the Pistons might be best served to use their cap space next summer on Stuckey and Monroe. Also, I understand the need for firepower off the bench, but wouldn’t starting Stuckey provide a starting five where each player is a threat to score 20 and allow the second unit to hold big leads via defense and 3-point shooting?

Langlois: Bringing Stuckey off the bench has been a stabilizing factor of their season, Darrell, one of the few things that I suspect is off the table to experimentation at this point. When Stuckey’s on the floor with the second unit, the Pistons put the ball in his hands and let him do what he absolutely does best. Put him with the first unit and those opportunities would be lessened. Besides, I think one of the underrated aspects of the improved play of the starters has been the defense and speed that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provides. And the fact the Pistons don’t have to run plays for either him or Andre Drummond provides ample opportunities to probe chances for Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Brandon Jennings – all of whom need the ball in their hands a fair number of times to maximize their gifts. Dilute their touches by bringing Stuckey into the mix and I don’t know that you’ll serve anyone’s interests.

Anthony (Clinton Twp., Mich.): I’ve been hearing a lot of talk that Greg Monroe is expendable and should be traded for a true small forward so Josh Smith can move to the four. Greg Monroe gets mistreated in this city and I personally feel he is our MVP.

Langlois: I don’t know about mistreated, Anthony, but I’d go as far as to agree that he’s perhaps taken for granted by a portion of the public. In many respects, Monroe’s maturity and his fairly advanced post skills for a young player have fostered a perception that he doesn’t have much room for growth. That’s a canard. Monroe, 23, is still getting better and still has much more room for improvement. I would hate to see Monroe, at 27, fully flowered with an Eastern Conference competitor after having polished a 15-foot elbow jump shot and continuing his evolution as a back-to-the-basket scorer. The good news is he’s not taken for granted by either Joe Dumars or Maurice Cheeks or their staffs. The Pistons know what they have.

Victor (Orlando, Fla.): Being a huge Pistons fan, I believe Andre Drummond is having an amazing season and think he will start for the Eastern Conference in this year’s All-Star game. Do you think he deserves it?

Langlois: He’s not going to start, Victor. The fan vote determines the All-Star starters and it would take a miraculous outpouring for Drummond to push his way into the top three vote-getters among Eastern Conference frontcourt candidates. (All-Star balloting has been changed. Fans no longer vote for “center” and “forward,” but for three frontcourt and two backcourt starters.) That means his All-Star berth will depend on the vote of NBA coaches. I think he’ll have a shot simply because he’s giving virtually every team the Pistons play an eyeful. But much will depend on how many wins the Pistons pile up over the course of the next six weeks or so. Coaches almost always reward players from winning teams.

Brady (Bowling Green, Ky.): I’m concerned about the futures of rookies Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva. When can rookies be traded? If a rookie is waived, does the rookie continue to be paid the amount remaining on his contract? How are rookies supposed to improve when they spend so much time on the bench or dressed in suits during games? Do player development staff have the opportunity to work with them or are they expected to hire their own shooting or other coaches?

Langlois: No one should have had any reasonable expectations that Mitchell or Siva were due to crack the rotation as rookies, Brady. They were both second-rounders, for one thing, and they came to the Pistons at the deepest positions on their roster, for another. Rookies can be traded now. You might be thinking about the Dec. 15 date that opens the door for free agents to be traded, but it doesn’t apply to rookies. As for pay, it all depends on the contract and how much of it was guaranteed. It was widely reported that Mitchell, as a high second-round pick, got two fully guaranteed seasons and Siva got one such guaranteed year. There is no expectation that either will be waived at any time before their contracts are up.