Pistons Mailbag - April 12, 2019

Welcome to Pistons Mailbag, playoffs edition, where we talk about Blake Griffin’s health, how the Pistons deal with MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo and what their chances are to pull off a first-round upset over Milwaukee.
Josh (@sipologyblog): Is there any hope for the Pistons vs. the Bucks?

Langlois: A seven-game series usually is won by the better team. The Bucks won 19 more games than the Pistons this season, had the NBA’s No. 1 defense and No. 3 offense and were No. 1 by a healthy margin over Golden State in net rating. The Pistons are playing a team that has every legitimate chance to be crowned NBA champions in a few months. It would be an upset only if you allow for Golden State’s pedigree and reputation. The Pistons are also going into the series with serious doubt as to whether Blake Griffin’s left knee will allow him to contribute at all, or to a meaningful degree. So the odds are steep, as you would expect in a 1-8 matchup when the lower seed might not have its All-Star available or near full strength. UMBC only had to beat Virginia once, not four times. But in any athletic contest, there’s a chance that conventional wisdom goes out the window once the game starts. If there’s a recipe to this, it’s finding a way to steal a win in the first two games, coming home to take care of business in games 3 and 4 and then taking your chances from there. What if Giannis Antetokounmpo rolls his ankle in the first quarter of Game 1?

Shaun (@greatmurbinski): What is Blake Griffin’s status for the Milwaukee series?

Langlois: I’d be surprised if we know anything definitive until 90 minutes before tipoff on Sunday night – and maybe not even then. What we know so far is that Dwane Casey has said test results showed no structural damage. But anybody who watched Griffin struggle to run or move laterally or jump in the Charlotte and Memphis games knows there’s something with the knee causing him pain and limiting his mobility to a point where he really shouldn’t be playing. If it’s tendinitis, which can be very painful, what’s the likelihood of it resolving itself in time for Griffin to recover enough to make an impact at some point in this series? That’s beyond my pay grade. They’ll do everything in their power to get him the right treatment, but there’s only so much they can control.

John (@NYYDETBOY27): With a healthy Blake Griffin can the Pistons beat the Bucks?

Langlois: He was healthy for all four regular-season meetings and Milwaukee went 4-0 and won by an average of nearly 15 points. But all of those games came in December and January when the Pistons were amid a 9-22 stretch. Ish Smith’s groin injury came in the first meeting of the teams on Dec. 5 and that was one of the triggering events for the two-month tailspin. The two games at Little Caesars Arena were more competitive, three- and 10-point losses. A healthy Griffin makes the Pistons a much different, more diverse team at the offensive end. Take him away and it puts the onus more on their 3-point shooters to generate scoring – a task that becomes more difficult without Griffin because his ability to draw multiple defenders and pass to open 3-point shooters won’t be a factor in creating shooting opportunities for those players.

LOQuent (@LOQuent): What possibly could the Pistons do to slow down this year’s MVP, a/k/a The Greek Freak? What’s a realistic goal for this series?

Langlois: Blake Griffin would be the matchup and his size and sheer strength would make it more challenging for Antetokounmpo to play in the space he loves to create and thrives in. Without him, Thon Maker is the matchup that Antetokounmpo can expect most often. Maker moves his feet well and his length will give him a chance – or as much of a chance as anyone has – to limit scoring chances or make them a little bit tougher around the rim than he’s accustomed to getting. The big thing is not allowing him to get out in transition, where he is head and shoulders above the field.

Ed (@edchungDC): Is Andre Drummond our best hope for guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo with Blake Griffin on Brook Lopez? And do you think Dwane Casey will try more zone concepts to limit their 3-point shooting?

Langlois: No, Drummond won’t be guarding Antetokounmpo other than when he gets switched on to him in pick and roll – though how much the Bucks are going to run pick and roll with him and Brook Lopez is debatable – and random rotations. Maker is the most obvious choice to guard him. The biggest challenge for him will be keeping Antetokounmpo from starting too close to the rim, where he can take one step and dunk, and Maker’s lack of strength causes him problems with many matchups in that regard – though not many (no one) can cover as much ground as fast as Antetokounmpo to do the most damage in those scenarios. The Pistons have been among the NBA’s best teams at limiting 3-point attempts this season. Milwaukee will challenge that. The Bucks were No. 2 in the NBA with 38.2 3-point attempts per game. The Pistons held them a bit under that, 35.8 per game. Milwaukee won’t have Malcolm Brogdon, though, and it’s unclear if Nikola Mirotic or Tony Snell will be available to start the series. Part of the reason the Pistons successfully limited 3-point attempts this season is Casey’s principles for defending the pick and roll. The simple version of the details of that strategy is he doesn’t want a third defender to be sucked into pick-and-roll defense and expose the Pistons to open 3-point shooters. So while all NBA man-to-man defenses employ traits of zone, the Pistons actually have moved a little farther away from that. As always, playoff series demand game-to-game adjustments. How the Pistons defend the Bucks in Game 2 might be different than how they open in Game 1.

Darrell (Detroit, Mich.): Next season, the Pistons will have an open starting small forward position available on a playoff team. A reasonable scoring threat would space the floor for our big three and make the starting lineup quite formidable if you add Luke as a starter. I believe the Pistons should try to use the mid-level exception to entice Rudy Gay or Trevor Ariza. Ish Smith is valuable, but I believe the team would be better served using the MLE on a starter and use the biannual exception on a serviceable backup point guard such as T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lin or even Smith if he’s unable to find a team willing to pay considerably more than what the Pistons can offer.

Langlois: You could be right, but backup point guard strikes me as too valuable a position in today’s NBA to trust that the biannual exception of $3.5 million for 2019-20 is going to get one good enough to elevate the second unit’s performance. Maybe that’s wrong. We’ll see. Especially because Reggie Jackson will enter the final year of his contract, I’d prioritize point guard above all else this off-season to make sure I’ve got someone capable of playing starter’s minutes if need be under contract for at least the next two seasons.

Bob (Albany, Oregon): Playoffs accomplished! Very positive growth this season up and down the roster. I hope they re-sign Ish Smith and get a small forward in the mold of Tayshaun Prince. What do you think?

Langlois: There’s a comfort level for both Smith and Dwane Casey, so I think a reunion is certainly possible. I’d stop short of saying it’s likely because free agency is nothing if not unpredictable. A team that also prioritizes point guard and really likes Smith – and anticipating that Smith and the Pistons will at least circle each other to explore a continuation of their relationship – might decide to throw a big offer at him at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 and sever that option. A small forward like Tayshaun Prince would be a windfall for the Pistons. Know where they can find one cheap? At his peak, Prince was a top-50 NBA player. Those guys don’t fall out of trees and land on your roster. It’s really hard to upgrade a starter’s position in the NBA. There are 450 roster spots in the NBA and 150 starters. To get one of those 150 is tough. To get one in the top-third of that 150 is tougher.

Kev (@kevin_gerke): Is it possible the Pistons have a higher offensive upside without Blake Griffin in the lineup?

Langlois: There’s a fine line between optimism and delusion, Kev. No, there is no possibility that over a reasonable sample size the Pistons are a better offensive team without the guy who averaged 24.5 points, led them in assists and was their most prolific 3-point shooter while shooting them at above league average. No. Just no.

Baba (@byanydream): What is the best way for Detroit to defend Giannis? Or do we let him have his day and defend the rest more, one against five?

Langlois: You start with not turning the ball over and taking good shots on offense. Bad shots – driving the ball into traffic and throwing up a prayer – are an invitation to get out and run and there is no defense on the planet that can contain Antetokounmpo in transition, especially if he has a numbers advantage because Andre Drummond and the guy who threw up the bad shot are trailing the play. Live-ball turnovers – bad passes, getting stripped at the rim or on the way to it – are devastating against the Bucks. If you make Antetokounmpo play the vast majority of the game in a half-court offense, you reduce him to (mostly) human terms. If the Pistons beat the Bucks, they’ll probably have to limit their turnovers to 12 or fewer.

Russell (@CCdaboss98): Can Pistons guards turn it up a notch vs. Bledsoe and Middleton to keep them in games or are the Pistons depending on a Hercules-like performance from Andre Drummond and/or Blake Griffin (assuming he plays) to take Game 1 or Game 2?

Langlois: I am going to assume Blake Griffin won’t play, at least early in the series, and then anything the Pistons get from him will be gravy. Yes, they’ll need Andre Drummond to be magnificent, which he’s been for much of the season. They’ll also need their scorers to score efficiently. I don’t think they’re going to win any game against Milwaukee if they don’t make at least a third of their 3-point shots and that’s the bare minimum. They might have to shoot 40 percent or better from the arc to put themselves in position to win. Tall order, but keep in mind the Pistons shot 41 percent from the 3-point line when they went 12-3 over a 15-game stretch not so long ago. If Wayne Ellington, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway all get it going, they could make it interesting.

Dishon (Westland., Mich.): Is there a chance of the Pistons drafting Ignas Brazdeikis of Michigan in the second round?

Langlois: As much as there’s a chance they’ll draft a few dozen other guys projected in the 25-60 range. Keep in mind that even the most credible media draft evaluators know that after you get past the most obvious few handfuls of draft prospects, the gap between players narrows and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The Pistons will be picking 45th overall with their second-round pick. More than two months before the draft and before the meat of draft evaluation has begun, that seems a reasonable range for Brazdeikis.

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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