Pistons Mailbag - April 25, 2018

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Trade exceptions, mid-level exceptions, the draft – we’re looking at what lies ahead for the Pistons this summer in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Graham (@Exposfan27): How bad does this team look for next year? I’m so scared. I think Blake can be fine but they really need big production from Kennard and Johnson.

Langlois: I suppose someone who goes by Exposfan27 would be a little pessimistic about outcomes, but your fears are misplaced. If the Pistons stay healthy – and by “stay healthy,” I’m not suggesting key players have to suit up for all 82 games but somewhere north of 70 – then they’re a potential 50-win team with Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson as the headliners, two proven 40-plus percent 3-point shooters in Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard and the makings of a strong bench. The key questions, beyond Jackson and Griffin staying relatively injury free, as of April are (1) can Stanley Johnson take the jump on offense in year four that’s eluded him over his first three seasons despite signs, interrupted last season by nagging injuries, that it was close; (2) how much more of a load will Kennard be prepared to handle in his second season; and (3) how much tweaking of the roster will the Pistons be able to accomplish this summer without a first-round pick or cap space? But even if they come back with a virtually intact roster, augmented by vet minimum additions and the potential use of the mid-level exception plus a sizable trade exception, I think Stan Van Gundy is comfortable with the cast assembled.

Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): With so many teams at or near the cap this summer, will the Pistons have a chance to get a good player (Joe Harris, Danny Green) with the mid-level exception?

Langlois: A chance? Sure. There will be a lot more free agents hoping for a big payday this summer than there will be salary slots available to satisfy them all. It remains to be seen just how much of the mid-level the Pistons can spend without pushing themselves into tax territory, though it should be noted that teams can get under the tax line at any point before the trade deadline so there is no ironclad limit to their ability to use the full MLE in July. If they want to get the No. 1 or No. 2 target on their list, that’s what it could take. If they prefer to wait and let the market push bargains to them, then they might have to settle for the No. 4 or No. 5 prospect on their pre-July 1 wish list.

De-Von (Indianapolis): Can the Pistons use the trade exception to get an expiring contract for roughly $7 million, then trade that player’s contract along with Ish to get an additional player? I’ve been praying for them to get another tweener like Harris to start at small forward.

Langlois: In theory, yes. The trade exception the Pistons got from the Clippers – a result of the Boban Marjanovic component of that trade – could well become a key piece of their off-season roster tweaking. There are limits in how it’s used. The Pistons couldn’t use the trade exception plus another player under contract – let’s use your example of Ish Smith, who’ll make $6 million next season – to swap for a player making $13 million, for example. That’s a complicated route you suggest and trades that depend on other trades are a shot in the dark. But it wouldn’t run afoul of collective bargaining parameters. One other caveat: if the Pistons were to acquire a player in trade, as in your scenario, they could not trade him away in a multiplayer deal for two months. So if they made the trade now (they can trade with any other team not currently in the playoffs now) or even in July, they could make a trade like the one you suggest before training camp. But in that two-month window, the rosters of potential trade partners will have changed. So if your scheme involves getting a third party to agree to a deal at the time the Pistons make the initial move, good luck with that.

Ross (Irvine, Calif.): Did you like what you saw from James Ennis after the Pistons traded for him? What kind of production do you expect him to have and what kind of role do you see him having with the Pistons in the 2018-19 season?

Langlois: Ennis is a free agent – he and Anthony Tolliver are the two free agents from the roster that finished the season – but a reunion wouldn’t be surprising. Here’s what Stan Van Gundy said about Ennis two weeks ago before the Pistons played the Bulls to finish the regular season in talking about the trade-deadline deals to add Ennis and Jameer Nelson: “I like James. Those moves were made in anticipation of us getting Reggie (Jackson) back and having Reggie and Blake together for 20 games and we got four. But I think had we had everybody together, I think that move would’ve been one that would’ve helped us make a run.” Ennis is a career .359 3-point shooter – that’s almost exactly at league average for the season – who has the size to defend small forwards. He won’t create many scoring chances, but he’s a classic 3-and-D guy who runs the floor and knows what he can and can’t do. He might be a guy who can be signed for the veteran’s minimum or something near it, so teams – not just the Pistons – might not rush to sign him on July 1 and that could give the Pistons enough time to gauge potential upgrades. The Pistons have three wings under contract for next season: Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard. They’re probably going to want to add two more this summer. If Ennis is No. 5 on the depth chart instead of No. 4, the Pistons will feel very good about their depth at the position.

Steven (@StevenGeorge113): Why didn’t we draft Donovan Mitchell and what can we do about it?

Langlois: Nothing to be done about it in hindsight. Mitchell will finish no worse than No.2 in Rookie of the Year balloting and looks like he’ll be a fixture in Utah’s backcourt for the next decade. Stan Van Gundy said the day after the draft that it was a close call between Mitchell, Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Luke Kennard after the Pistons had established 1-11 on their draft board. It’s exceedingly rare for the No. 12 team in the draft to wind up with the guy 12th on their board because it indicates their rankings were a mirror image of the consensus. Let’s be clear: Mitchell’s success took everyone by surprise, the Jazz included. And they obviously liked him a great deal because they traded up with Denver, giving up a useful player – Trey Lyles – to move from 24 to 13. But they did not see this coming and they’ll admit that. Even if the Pistons would redo that pick today – and I’m not suggesting they would – there’s a difference between taking Kennard over Mitchell and taking Hasheem Thabeet over James Harden or Jonny Flynn over Steph Curry. Kennard is already a very solid NBA rotation player and shows a strong likelihood that he’ll become a very skilled all-around offensive threat with elite shooting potential. He’s everything the Pistons expected, at least, from the No. 12 pick. Mitchell’s rookie year is as much or more than a team picking first could have expected.

Shawn (@greatmurbinski): We’ve had some time to think about it now. In terms of both the assets we traded away and future roster and cap flexibility, did this organization sacrifice too much for Blake Griffin?

Langlois: Interesting question but still way too premature to know the answer. Let’s backtrack a bit, though, and I think we’ll get a clue where it leads. The Pistons traded Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a No. 1 pick for Griffin and two bit parts used to acquire James Ennis and Jameer Nelson at the trade deadline. They got Harris for about 110 games of control of Ersan Ilyasova and the expiring contract of Brandon Jennings coming off of an Achilles rupture. They got Bradley for Marcus Morris, who was acquired – along with Reggie Bullock, who’s now a valued starter – for a 2020 second-round pick. So for almost nothing of consequence to their future, they acquired Harris and Bradley and threw in a protected No. 1 pick to acquire Blake Griffin, who until an assortment of relatively minor injuries cut short his last few seasons was seen as a top 10 or, at worst, a top 15 player. He’ll occupy a large chunk of cap space for the next four seasons, but that’s the cost of doing business in the NBA if you’re not one of the teams in a race to the bottom. The No. 1 pick isn’t an insignificant piece, but – again – the return was Blake Griffin. The risk was his injury history on top of the sheer weight of his contract. If he can avoid the seemingly random injuries that have dogged him of late, it’s an easy call to say the Pistons did the right thing in taking the risk. That’s something we can’t know today.

Bravo (@AlhamadaniBravo): Is it possible the Pistons get involved in another blockbuster trade which could involve Kawhi Leonard?

Langlois: It sure seems like the Leonard-Spurs marriage is in need of some remediation, doesn’t it? I’d still bet against the Spurs dealing him, but if they do I wouldn’t put the Pistons among the most likely destinations. It would more likely be a team with a few attractive players on rookie contracts plus more in draft assets than the Pistons have. To throw out an idea, how about Boston? The Celtics could start with offering Jayson Tatum, who’s shown All-Star potential as a rookie, and throw in one of the future first-round picks owed them, plus another useful part (Terry Rozier?) or two and maybe a more heavily protected first-round pick down the road. The Memphis pick owed the Celtics – unprotected in 2021 – looks especially appealing today. Boston would still have Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and Jaylen Brown in addition to Leonard. The Pistons would certainly have to part with either Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond. Griffin’s age might not make him the most appealing target for the Celtics if they’re going to trade Leonard, so I could see the Spurs asking for Drummond, one of Luke Kennard or Reggie Bullock and a future first-rounder as an opening bid … which, yikes. The complication for the Spurs has become Leonard’s injury. It’s a bit mysterious – surely the Spurs believe it’s something he can play on – but if it’s an injury that Leonard and his inner circle feel is threatening enough to virtually wipe out his season then do they also think it could affect his future? And would another team be sure it could handle the situation better than San Antonio, which has carried the reputation of the least dysfunctional organization in the league?

Parker (@PDub358): What moves do you see the Pistons making in the off-season? What holes do you see in the roster that need to be addressed?

Langlois: They don’t have a ton of holes, as you’d expect for a team with virtually everybody who finished the season under contract except for Anthony Tolliver and James Ennis. The glaring need would be for depth on the wings behind Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard.

Jackson (@jhave22): If Devonte Graham is available at 42, should that be the pick? With Ish Smith expiring after the 2018-19 season, it seems like a backup point guard that can shoot from deep and his “microwave” potential would be a smart choice.

Langlois: Decorated college career and that’s about his draft range; he’s currently 44th on ESPN.com’s top 100 list. He shot better than 40 percent from the college 3-point arc and averaged about 17 points and seven assists in a solid conference and carries a reputation as a great competitor. So there’s a lot to like there. But trying to project the draft past the top half of the first round – and especially this far out – is a crap shoot. Smith’s contact runs one more year and Reggie Jackson’s two more, so the Pistons could do worse than finding a point guard worth developing. History says the chances of landing a long-term rotation fixture in the 40s are slim, but there probably will be one or two such players to come out of this draft and if you’re picking 42 you’ve got a better chance to land one than if you’re picking 45 or 49.

Justin (Spokane, Wash.): What are your thoughts on Stan Van Gundy’s ability (or lack thereof) to develop young players (Henry, Stanley, Kennard)?

Langlois: Player development is his responsibility in so far as everything falls under his jurisdiction from the front office to the coaching staff, so it’s a fair question. But the assertion that those guys haven’t developed requires studying each case individually. It’s fair to say that Johnson hasn’t taken the steps expected off of a promising rookie season. His second season was particularly disappointing and Johnson admitted to a need to become more open to coaching. Van Gundy said Johnson became much more professional in his approach this season and, in fact, he showed in a few stretches real signs of breaking out. If his off-season conditioning regimen eliminates the core muscle injuries that stalled his momentum this season and he can improve his 3-point shooting by even 3 or 4 percentage points, he’ll get himself back on track. As for Ellenson, what did anyone reasonably expect of a 19-year-old big man drafted 18th? He’s got the stuff to grow into a very good all-around offensive player. We saw it in the rare stretches he was part of the rotation last season, but he was playing behind first Tobias Harris and Anthony Tolliver and then Blake Griffin and Tolliver – so, not playing much. If he makes the same incremental strength gains this off-season as last – and if the Pistons lose Tolliver to free agency – he’ll have both greater opportunity and a greater capability to capitalize on it next season. Kennard had a fine rookie season and finished strong. All three guys are 21. All three would still be in college in an era when players spent four years on campus. Development is an ongoing process; it doesn’t stop when a player turns 20 or 22 or 26, for that matter. Van Gundy talked last summer about the need to put more emphasis on player development and added Rex Walters, who’d been the Grand Rapids Drive coach, to the coaching staff while changing the way coaches interact with players over the off-season. Walters worked every day with Kennard. Bob Beyer devotes tremendous amounts of time to Johnson. Otis Smith was glued to Ellenson’s side. Patience is required, but it’s not for lack of purpose that the development of the Pistons three youngest players has failed to match your expectations.

Brent (@brent_shotwell): What do you see happening with Luke Kennard’s minutes next season? He was terribly underutilized as a rookie in my opinion.

Langlois: No, he wasn’t. Kennard, like almost every rookie, needs to find the balance between what he’s been able to do in the past and what he’s capable of doing immediately in the NBA. It’s why some games it all looks easy – like he’s back at Duke – and other games he barely dents the box score. But Kennard averaged 20 minutes a game as a rookie taken 12th in the draft. I would expect those minutes to tick up next season, probably to more than 25 a game if the Pistons don’t land an accomplished wing player by some means this summer. But 20 minutes a game hardly counts as underutilization for a rookie.

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