Pistons Mailbag - March 30, 2016

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

How critical is it for the Pistons to make the playoffs this season? And which team – Cleveland or Toronto – would you rather they meet should they get there? Lots to chew on in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Tim (@sometimes777): I tend to think that the road the eighth spot will take us is better than the seventh spot. Do you think we match up better against Cleveland or Toronto?

Ryan (Alisa Viejo, Calif.): Given that the Pistons make the playoffs this year, do you think they have a better matchup against Cleveland compared to Toronto?

Langlois: A two-fer because your questions were identical and arrived at nearly the same time. The Pistons are 2-1 vs. Cleveland and 1-2 vs. Toronto this year, though they’ve had two games at The Palace vs. the Cavs (1-1 there, 1-0 at Cleveland) and beat the Raptors at The Palace – Toronto sat Kyle Lowry in that game – but lost twice on the road. Not sure those regular-season results are especially meaningful, but I do think they at least show there’s not a particular lethal matchup issue for the Pistons against either team. That said, there’s a reason those two teams have separated themselves from the pack in the Eastern Conference. If I had to choose, I’d take Toronto as the opponent, even if they often look like the more cohesive team than Cleveland. Put another way, Toronto is the team more likely to play at or near its potential over a seven-game series but Cleveland has the higher ceiling. LeBron James’ playoff experience and ability to put a team on his shoulders goes a long way. Even after losing Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injury last postseason, James made Cleveland competitive against Golden State in the Finals. Either team would be heavily favored against any of the teams that finish in the seventh and eighth spots, of course, but the teams that get in this year are going to be better than almost any season in the past decade in the Eastern Conference, when a .500 (or below, many seasons) record won those spots. I’m not sure Cleveland or Toronto is fretting the identity of their first-round opponent, though the Raptors are probably delighted to see the Bulls slipping in the standings; Chicago finished 4-0 against Toronto this season.

Gee (Clinton Twp., Mich.): I am very disappointed we gave Reggie Jackson that big contract. This guy makes every point guard in the NBA look like an All-Star. He’s getting abused on the defensive end and comes down and jack up 3-pointers. He’s a backup point guard at best who can fill in as a starter. Also, why is Jodie Meeks still on this team? Every year before the season starts he’s hurt. Why are the Pistons holding on to him?

Langlois: The Meeks answer is pretty easy: Because they signed him to a three-year contract and there’s one year left. He missed the first 22 games last season after suffering a back injury in the preseason. He broke his foot in the second game of this season, got cleared to return earlier this month, then banged up a shoulder in practice. When he’s healthy – and there were zero concerns about durability based on his NBA career before the Pistons signed him – he’s a valuable weapon off the bench with an above-average 3-point shot and the type of offensive game that has spinoff benefits for teammates. The Pistons have plenty of depth at his position, where Kentavious Caldwell-Pope soaks up 38 minutes a game, backed by Stanley Johnson, with Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard both having proven capable rotation players. If Meeks were healthy and playing, given that depth, it’s fair to assume the Pistons would be either shopping him or others or listening to offers. But it’s tough to trade an injured player. I’d be a little surprised if the Pistons came to training camp next season with all five of those players – Caldwell-Pope, Johnson, Meeks, Bullock and Hilliard – but certainly don’t expect Caldwell-Pope or Johnson to be going anywhere. As for Jackson, he was borderline All-Star material this year in an era where the NBA is stacked at the position. He’s averaging 18.6 points and 6.2 assists while shooting .438 from the field and .354 from the 3-point line. He’s hit a rough patch offensively, for sure, but every player does over the course of 82 games. Last week, I saw a story about Steph Curry’s recent “struggles.” But just for fun, I checked out how many players in the league have equal or better numbers than Jackson in those categories. The list is Curry and Chris Paul. If that’s a backup point guard, let me know what team you run. Because I’d like to bet on their chances to win the NBA title this year.

Bryan (@Bryan_10s): How critical is making the playoffs this year?

Langlois: I’d say it’s less than critical – critical implies not making the playoffs would deal the franchise a crippling blow, and I’m not going there. Not when they have taken major strides in both winning games and bettering their future. Let’s keep in mind that the Pistons have one of the NBA’s five youngest starting fives and the four others – Milwaukee, Minnesota, Orlando and Philadelphia – have effectively been out of playoff contention for several weeks or longer. It would be disappointing to miss the cut, of course. But turn the clock back to last October and remember how people had the Pistons pegged. Nobody would have said then that it was “critical” that they make the playoffs this season. Not only are they young, but every key player is under team control for the foreseeable future. They’re going to get several more stabs at this.

Keeb (@keebkahn): Would it be better for the Pistons to draft the best player available rather than for need? Is free agency a better place to fill team need? And with the way Marcus Morris has been playing lately, do the Pistons still need to add a stretch four?

Langlois: Except in rare instances, I think almost every NBA team is always best served by drafting the best player available. At the very top of the draft, you could be talking about the dropoff from superstar to serviceable starter if you draft based on need over talent. Where the Pistons figure to be drafting this year, either just outside or at the back end of the lottery, you could be talking about the difference between someone good enough to crack the rotation in his first two years vs. somebody who never leaves a mark on the NBA. The Pistons will absolutely be looking for immediate help via free agency – or, even more likely, the trade market – but they will just as certainly draft the best available player with only minor caveats attached. One might be if the best player on the board when they draft is a center but the dropoff between the center and an athletic perimeter player or a point guard of significant promise is close to indistinguishable. The Pistons have both Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes for at least one more season at center. Even with that said, if they can grab a center they see as being a nice complement to Drummond two years and longer down the road, they’d have no problem going that route if he’s clearly the best player per their draft board.

Vincent (@vince_micalef): Is there any chance Steve Blake is back next year?

Langlois: Free agent, so the ball will be in his court. I’d judge it similarly to the situation the Pistons faced last year with Joel Anthony. They wanted him back but told him they had other business they had to take care of first. Anthony was open to a return. Blake, I’m assuming, will feel similarly. And he has a long history of fighting his way into a role no matter how the depth chart looks going into training camp. But the Pistons are going to want to sign a backup point guard and then, depending perhaps on his status and the confidence Van Gundy feels in his ability to clearly win the job, maybe they’d talk to Blake about returning in a similar role that he faced to start this year, knowing Brandon Jennings would assume the backup job when healthy. He surely has to feel good about Van Gundy’s confidence in his ability to play a significant role and he’s said nothing but positive things this season about the way Van Gundy has managed the roster.

B. Nanners (@OBObrandon): Why do you think Tobias Harris’ free-throw percentage is significantly better in Detroit than it was in Orlando?

Langlois: Not only do I not have a clue, I’m relatively certain Harris couldn’t tell us why. He’s an 80 percent foul shooter for his career with relatively little variance – a low of about 75 percent, a high of about 82 percent – from season to season. Guys who shoot 90 percent from the line, as Harris has done since joining the Pistons – 91.2 percent in fact, with just six misses in 68 attempts – are exceedingly rare. So I’d expect him to trend downward over time. But I’d also expect him to stay at or above 80 percent for the duration of his career.

Neil (Austin, Texas): We have not heard much about Spencer lately. Do you see him developing into a keeper?

Langlois: Not really sure that’s a “yes” or “no” question at the moment, but that’s about to become an issue Stan Van Gundy and Pistons general manager Jeff Bower will have to address. The Pistons are going to be shopping for a backup point guard this off-season, for sure. They can’t go into the summer believing that Dinwiddie will have shown them enough to be the backup to Reggie Jackson. The injury that cost him pretty much all of the second half of this season was a tough one. He had begun to play very well for the Grand Rapids Drive when he was hurt in early February. He has just gotten back into practices recently. Stan Van Gundy, in fact, said Dinwiddie looked very good in Monday’s practice. If the Pistons draft a point guard and it’s a player Van Gundy feels has a chance to compete for the backup spot next season, it will be interesting to see how the Pistons handle Dinwiddie’s situation with regard to Summer League. They have a team option on his third year and the drop-dead date for picking up the option is almost always in mid-July to give the team a chance to evaluate the player one last time in Summer League. But if the Pistons were to draft a point guard in the first round – and, again, I don’t think that’s any more or less likely than drafting for any other position – they’d probably want to give that player the lion’s share of minutes in Summer League. That might have an effect on their decision with Dinwiddie.

Dawson (Three Rivers, Mich.): I’ve been keeping my eye on how Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova have been playing since the trade because I loved watching them when they played for Detroit. It’s out there but do you see any chance one or both of them possibly get brought back in the off-season? Another option at backup point in my mind could be trading for Trey Burke. He’s fallen out of the rotation in Utah and would be a fan favorite because he played at Michigan. What do you think?

Langlois: The Pistons’ off-season shopping list has two items at the top: backup point guard and power forward with some size. Jennings and Ilyasova almost certainly will be on those lists. How high? Don’t know. And the other factor is whether Jennings or Ilyasova will have better opportunities elsewhere. Jennings is in a more volatile situation simply because we know when he’s healthy he’s a starting-quality point guard. But he hasn’t yet shown he can return to that level since returning from a catastrophic injury in late December. It would take an enormous leap of faith for any front office to pursue and pay him as their starter at this point. It could be that Jennings and his agent pursue an opportunity where he comes in as the clear backup but on a short-term deal – perhaps two years with an opt-out after one – so he can re-establish his market value as he gets further out from surgery. Stan Van Gundy, I’m sure, would be open to a reunion with either player, though he’s going to weigh their merits judiciously against the field. He’s already acquired Ilyaosva once, though, and his affection and appreciation for Jennings are clear whenever he talks about him. Keep in mind that while Jennings will be a free agent in July, Ilyasova can only become a free agent should Orlando decline its option on him for next season. I’d be mildly surprised if that happens since it would mean the Magic would have traded Tobias Harris for less than 30 games each of Jennings and Ilyasova.

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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