Pistons Mailbag - April 19, 2017

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

With the off-season’s arrival, lots of questions about the draft and what lies ahead for the franchise in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

PlanetaNba (@PlanetaNba): NBAdraft.net put Frank Ntilikina to the Pistons. What do you think about that?

Langlois: I’ve talked to a few people outside the organization who’ve seen him and like his potential. He’s long and athletic with high-end defensive potential and a jump shot that shows promise as an NBA 3-point threat. He’s right on the bubble to be available or not with the 12th pick, assuming that’s where the Pistons stay coming out of the May 16 lottery. If you go back and look at the last several drafts, some of the players who’ve outperformed their draft slot the most have been international players. One of them: Dennis Schroder, who was the 17th pick in 2013 and is a player to whom Ntilikina has been most often compared.

Josh (Ferndale, Mich.): There appear to be at least four potential transformational point guards in this year’s draft (Fultz, Ball, Fox, Smith). While Reggie Jackson, when healthy, is solid, all four of these prospects have much brighter futures. What other position has the greatest need?

Langlois: I’d put the above-discussed Ntilikina in the same group, Josh. All five have been considered possible or likely top-10 draft prospects at lease since the start of the season. But I think it’s dead wrong to say they all have “much brighter futures” than Jackson. In fact, the history of the draft tells us it’s pretty unlikely that more than one or two of them will have the type of career that Jackson has had – or at least was on track to have through the 2015-16 season. The 2009 draft was another that was billed as a strong draft for point guards. Steph Curry went No. 7 and obviously is on his way to a Hall of Fame career. But there were three other point guards taken in the top 10 and none of them are Reggie Jackson, never mind future Hall of Famers: Ricky Rubio went fifth, Jonny Flynn sixth and Brandon Jennings 10th. (From 17-21, five consecutive point guards were chosen and two of them, Jeff Teague and Jrue Holiday, have played in an All-Star game; two others, Ty Lawson and Darren Collison, have been productive.) I don’t know that the Pistons have a strong position of need in this draft, given that Stan Van Gundy has expressed supreme confidence in Jackson returning at full strength next fall and the presence of Ish Smith. Center, with Aron Baynes nearly certain to be gone in free agency, will be a position where the Pistons probably will look to add a player this summer, more likely in free agency but possibly in the draft, as well.

Bryan (@Bryan_10s): Is next season make or break for Stan Van Gundy? Are Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson too unstable for franchise success?

Langlois: Well, you win the award for “loaded questions of the week,” Bryan. Make or break? I’d have to know the reasons for why next season goes off the rails, if indeed it’s a season so disappointing as to call Stan Van Gundy’s job security into question. Pistons owner Tom Gores has been nothing but 100 percent emphatic in his support for Van Gundy consistently. By all apparent and available means of measuring the health of their relationship, it’s as solid as could be. Drummond needs to become more consistent. The phrase Van Gundy used to describe his desire for Drummond was “to have a greater sense of urgency.” “He’s got a chance to be really, really good to great, but he needs to do some work to get there. He needs to improve,” he said. “He needs to have a greater sense of urgency this summer to get where he needs to go.” I don’t think he’d say quite the same about Stanley Johnson. Perhaps he’d say Johnson needs to better channel his sense of urgency. Johnson wants to be great but needs to work on various skills aspects – shooting, footwork, ballhandling, shooting. Did I mention shooting? But as Van Gundy said last week, “The first thing is that he needs – and I think he understands this – to base his game and build his game around being an elite defender in this league. I do think he takes pride in it. He’s got to get better as a team defender, but he needs to be a guy that can impact the game on the defensive end of the floor first and foremost. He’s got to lock into that. Second thing is his offensive skills have got to improve.” Jackson mostly needs to come back healthy. I don’t think Van Gundy has any other wish – certainly no greater wish – for his point guard than that.

Zach (@zgarrow20): What would you say are the Pistons’ biggest positional needs and the ones most likely to be addressed in the draft?

Langlois: As alluded to previously, there is no real position of need. More relevantly, smart teams don’t really draft for roster need. That doesn’t mean the roster doesn’t hold any sway on draft night. It does when the choice comes down to two players at different positions valued relatively equally when one has a clearer path to playing time than the other. As an example, the Pistons knocked Willie Cauley-Stein down a peg or two on their draft board in 2015 because they had Andre Drummond at center, knew they would be adding a veteran big man in free agency (who turned out to be Aron Baynes) and didn’t see the value of using the No. 8 pick on someone who was likely blocked for the foreseeable future at his optimal position. That said, it’s a strong draft for point guards and the Pistons could easily justify spending the No. 12 pick on a point guard to spend a season much the same way Henry Ellenson spent his rookie year – getting lots of practice time and a healthy dose of D-League run. It might also be a better time to draft a young big man given that Drummond will be 24 when next season starts and is no longer on his rookie contract and any center the Pistons add in free agency this summer won’t be coming in penciled in as Drummond’s backup, as it was two summers ago. It doesn’t mean the Pistons would be drafting a center with the intention of him ultimately shoving Drummond aside, but a center who offers a different skill set could, at minimum, give them the viable backup they’ll need in two years when Boban Marjanovic’s contract is up and a rookie picked 12th this season might be then ready to assume rotation minutes.

Stephen (@lneck25): Who was responsible for the team quitting down the stretch? What happened?

Langlois: Well, it appears I will need to fire the Pistons Mailbag accounting firm of Price Waterhouse for handing me the wrong envelope in the “loaded question of the week” category. Sorry, Bryan. Stephen is our new winner. They didn’t quit. Their season-long offensive weaknesses – primarily, lousy shooting – finally caught up to them. The Pistons finished 25th in offensive rating this season, with the most significant factors being both poor (28th in percentage) and infrequent (26th in attempts) 3-point shooting. It’s difficult to say how much of that was due to Reggie Jackson’s injury, but the Pistons were 10th in 3-point attempts the previous season and there weren’t nearly enough changes in core personnel to explain the difference. There’s no question that the Pistons looked flat for a stretch of two or three weeks beginning in mid-March through a string of dispiriting losses, but they fought through it as best they could and were still playing hard through the season’s final games, registering wins at Houston and Memphis.

D’Bidnesz (@Discomfort_): Who gets us back the most value given their disappointing seasons: Reggie or Andre?

Langlois: Drummond would more than likely have greater trade value at the moment due to the uncertainty some teams might have over Jackson’s physical status. The Pistons are thoroughly convinced he’ll be back as good as new based on the evidence they’ve seen from his medical reports, including a recent MRI that showed all clear with his left knee. Drummond’s greater price tag might limit the number of teams who’d pursue a deal, but in the current marketplace – given his minutes played and rebounding dominance – it’s not a deal that would make any team with a need at center blanch. The question I’d ask in return is what would the Pistons do at center without Drummond or at point guard without Jackson? They got a taste of the latter scenario last season and it didn’t go all that well.

Frank (@FrankSc56158120): Why does Stan deserve to continue? His players, his trades, below .500. I bet Stan would fire himself.

Langlois: Because Tom Gores has a memory and recalls what the roster looked like before Van Gundy arrived? That’s my best answer. Van Gundy put together a top-shelf front office – the fact two of his assistant general managers have moved on for promotions and a third front-office executive, Pat Garrity, is rumored in the running to become Orlando’s GM, offers pretty compelling proof – and has made a string of positive personnel moves. They were firmly in playoff position in mid-March, at .500 despite seriously missing peak-form Reggie Jackson all season. I bet Stan wouldn’t fire himself. Rash moves like that derail franchises that then pay the price for impatience and upheaval.

Campbell (@Camtaylor_4): Do you see the Pistons trading Drummond and drafting his replacement, either Patton or Allen?

Langlois: Patton or Allen might well become fine NBA players, but it’s a wish and a prayer to think they’ll be capable of starting in the NBA next season and producing at anything approaching the levels of Andre Drummond or any center starting for a team with postseason expectations. Now, I think both of the guys you mention – Jarrett Allen and Justin Patton – are going to be on the list of players the Pistons seriously poke and prod and might ultimately consider drafting. And if they do, then somewhere down the road they would be players good enough that the Pistons would have the luxury of considering a trade of one or the other – Drummond or the younger guy – to help address another position of need.

Luke (@WolthuisLuke): Do you think UNC’s Justin Jackson would fit well into SVG’s offense if indeed the Pistons draft him?

Langlois: Jackson has a body of work – three years of games at North Carolina – that should give scouts a pretty good handle on his game. I like the fact that he scores in a number of ways and has an especially keen knack for scoring via floaters at his size. He’s a little thin – 6-foot-8 and under 200 pounds – and doesn’t have the frame that looks like it will support a lot more weight, but there have been other players with similar builds who’ve held up just fine. He’s another who looks to fall squarely in that late-lottery draft status where the Pistons figure to be picking.

Preston (@pmills_55): Can Baynes opt in to his contract but only for a sign and trade? If so, who are the suitors and what would we get back?

Langlois: Baynes is not – no way, no how – going to opt in to a contract that pays him $6.5 million and runs out after next season. Conservatively, he’ll get double that as an annual average and he’ll get a three-year deal if he wants it. Who opts in for $6.5 million when doing so would put at risk the $40 million (and that’s a conservative estimate) he is virtually assured of receiving otherwise? It’s conceivable Baynes opts out and he doesn’t get an offer that blows away the cap the Pistons are limited to offering him ($11.375 million) and he comes back, though the Pistons would have a pretty bloated cap sheet if they retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as they anticipate, plus Baynes. Remember, they’ll already have about $31 million invested in centers Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic for next season – about 30 percent of the estimated salary cap. Adding Baynes back would push that to more than 40 percent of their salary cap for one of five positions.

Ari (@AriHoopsWagner): Could Stanley Johnson slide to be a productive shooting guard? I feel that would open a lot of financial and draft possibilities for the summer.

Langlois: According to BasketballReference.com, Johnson spent 45 percent of his 2016-17 minutes at shooting guard and, frankly, my sense is that’s an underestimate. For at least the first half of the season, Johnson didn’t get many minutes at small forward as Stan Van Gundy went many games splitting the 96 minutes available at the two forward spots among Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer. Johnson, as mentioned above, needs to hone his skill set with the ball in his hands and once that happens, where he fits best will sort itself out. He can guard multiple positions and those guys are increasingly valuable in today’s NBA for the roster flexibility and creative possibilities they provide coaches. But if what you’re getting at is if the Pistons would let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk on the faith that Johnson is ready to assume his 35 minutes a game, I don’t think the Pistons are leaning that way.

Aaron (@ahs22): Any sense SVG would bring in a more established assistant coach as a “defensive coordinator?” Hard to imagine it but worth a look after this year.

Langlois: Van Gundy is and always has been a defensive-oriented coach. He’s also been credited for his offensive creativity, going back to his ability to figure out how to make it work in Orlando with a roster of less-than-ideal positional fits. The Pistons finished No. 11 in defensive rating this season and have shown year-over-year improvement since Van Gundy arrived at that end despite the fact that, aside from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, they don’t have anyone likely to draw any individual votes for the All-Defensive team. Offense was their great undoing this season, the defense suffering most when the Pistons allowed frustration at their inability to score to affect their focus and intensity at the defensive end. Van Gundy’s always open to input and, in fact, said by watching a weekend’s worth of NCAA tournament games he had some coaches he hoped to contact and visit over the summer to get their input on offensive schemes and wrinkles. But, no, I don’t expect he feels the need to bring in a “defensive coordinator.”

Sasa (@ozmo_sasa): Will Boban get meaningful minutes next season and what do you think of his game?

Langlois: The full expectation is that he will be the backup center next season, Sasa. He’ll have to prove himself at the defensive end in order to be not only No. 2 on the depth chart behind Andre Drummond but also the guy Stan Van Gundy goes to every night in that role, regardless of the challenges he’ll face in guarding more mobile shooters. He’s just a fun guy – both to watch and to be around. Boban’s one of the rare individuals who walk this planet who makes you smile with every interaction with him. He’s an offensive force, as Van Gundy has said and as Boban proved over the final four games of the season when he got his first shot at extended playing time. And that includes as an offensive rebounder. The Pistons saw vast improvement over the course of the season, as well, with his lateral movement. It’s something I witnessed him working on tirelessly with Pistons strength coach Jordan Sabourin, too, in drills after practice. Whether he can sustain that level of productivity over the long haul will be one of the more fascinating storylines of the early season next year.

Kalsey (Hamtramck, Mich.): In college football, when a player wins the Heisman Trophy, he is mostly recognized by the media. How come the winners of the Wooden and Naismith awards are not recognized when they are in the NBA?

Langlois: The Heisman Trophy came to prominence in the 1930s when college football dwarfed pro football – and college basketball, for that matter – in popularity. That’s a big reason. Another is that it has no real challenger. Everyone knows the Heisman Trophy goes to the best college football player – or at least the one who has the best hype machine behind him – while no one can tell you which of several awards given to college basketball’s top player is really the most prominent. You mentioned two; there are several. The Naismith Award, given by the Atlanta Tipoff Club since 1969; the Associated Press Player of the Year as voted on by the hundreds of AP members – mostly print media – across the country since 1961; the Rupp Trophy presented since 1972 by the Commonwealth Athletic Club of Kentucky; the Wooden Award given since 1977 by the Los Angeles Athletic Club; the Oscar Robertson Trophy awarded since 1959 by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association; the NABC Player of the Year presented since 1975 by the National Association of Basketball Coaches; and The Sporting News Player of the Year, the oldest such award, given since 1943 by The Sporting News. The Wooden, Rupp and Naismith are probably the most well known of those, but there isn’t any one of them so well established that it dwarfs all the others. And there are some years where three, four or five players split those awards.

Garry (@GarryG_OU): In your view, what will be the short- and long-term effects of the move to Little Caesars Arena?

Langlois: That I’ll need to buy an electric car? Yeah, that’s the one that hits home first. Beyond that, I think the effects will be felt externally – by fans – more than internally, by those in the organization. Little Caesars Arena will feel foreign to the players at first, but soon become their second home. I suspect the composition of the fan base for home attendance will change some to more closely reflect the demographics of the radius of Little Caesars. Fans that wrote off coming to Pistons games because they lived Downriver, say, or perhaps western Wayne or Washtenaw counties or across the river in Windsor and nearby Ontario environs might make the Pistons a regular part of their entertainment routine. Fans from northern Oakland County, on the other hand, or Genesee or Lapeer or northern Macomb counties might be less inclined to make the trip downtown. Maybe it will mean more young professionals, reflecting the changing population of downtown Detroit, or more Detroit natives who rely on public transportation that will make Little Caesars accessible to them in a way The Palace never was given the paucity of public transportation options that has forever marked metro Detroit, and perhaps a few less families, reflecting the suburban population base within The Palace’s radius. Externally, I suspect the move will give momentum to the issues that matter most to Pistons owner Tom Gores – namely, using the Pistons as a platform to promote good civic deeds and help accelerate Detroit’s revitalization. Pistons players are genuinely excited for the move and the chance to feel a bigger part of that downtown momentum. Whether that connection has any impact on team chemistry or sharpening their collective will or focus, well, it sure can’t hurt. And for the 2018-19 season, when the Pistons will also have a new team headquarters and practice facility a short distance from LCA in the New Center area, that connection should only be amplified.

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. To have your question considered, submit it along with your name, email address and city/state using the form below.

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