Pistons Mailbag - April 3, 2019

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

A little postgraduate study of the luxury tax, Thon Maker’s future position and gauging the playoff chances for the Pistons with five games remaining are on this week’s Pistons Mailbag menu.

O11O (@O11APIDE): Could some playoff success – a competitive first-round series, maybe two or three wins – push Tom Gores and the front office into spending more money this summer on a big-time free agent and going into luxury tax?

Langlois: It doesn’t work that way. You can be willing to spend $1 billion, but the salary cap gets in the way. Teams that have blown past the luxury tax had to have cap space at one point. Take Golden State. Yeah, the Warriors are way over the cap now – at $145 million, they’re more than $20 million over the luxury tax line and they’ll go well past that if they are able to retain both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant this summer – but in the summer of 2016 when they signed Durant they were under the cap. That’s why they were able to sign him. Klay Thompson was their highest-paid player at the time at $16.6 million. Draymond Green was on the books for $15.3 million, Steph Curry for $12.1 million and Andre Igoudala for $11.1 million. Next season Curry will earn $40 million. Thompson, a free agent, will be eligible for a maximum contract that for a player of his service time will start at $33 million a season. The Warriors won’t be able to sign any significant free agents other than their own – and that’s how teams get so far over the tax line, by being able to re-sign their own free agents even when they’re above the cap – this summer. The Pistons will go into July 1 above the salary cap. That means they can’t sign a free agent (except for their own, Ish Smith for example) for anything more than the mid-level exception, which is pegged at $9 million for 2019-20. Gores has said he’s willing to go into the luxury tax if the opportunity presents itself. So he could, theoretically, go over for Smith. But you can’t do it outside the rules. As to your larger question – whether winning a few games in the first round would fundamentally alter the off-season plan – no, I don’t think they’ll base big-picture questions on whether they go out in six games as opposed to four or five. They’ve had a full season to observe what they have. They know what they need. A postseason win or two – or, hey, advancing to the second round, for that matter – isn’t really going to alter how they approach their off-season planning.

James (@JamesVos): Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are consistent and Reggie Jackson has been playing well. What other Pistons player is going to make the difference between a disappointing end to the season and a playoff series win?

Langlois: Griffin said something that rang true after the throes of December and January when Ish Smith, Andre Drummond, Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson and Glenn Robinson III all missed time with injuries. To paraphrase, he said the Pistons are the type of team that needs all of their parts. There’s not a clear answer to your question for the same reason. If he weren’t dealing with a foot injury, perhaps I’d be tempted to say Luke Kennard because he can have a big impact when he’s right. Smith is very important to the second unit. Wayne Ellington has had four games of 23 or more points in the last eight. He could be the guy. The point, I guess, is that the Pistons need positive contributions from 1 through 7 or 8 to be able to beat playoff teams.

Deviaire (Pontiac, Mich.): Is it possible we draft Bol Bol? He’s a 7-foot guard that we can play at small forward along with Thon Maker.

Langlois: Swell idea. And I can see the wheels turning over in the marketing department now: a charity event with Bol and Maker as the stars where they take a large, heavy ball and roll it down a wooden alley to attempt to knock down 10 wooden pins arranged as an equilateral triangle. We shall call this event a Bol-a-Thon! (Trademarked.) I’ll show myself out. But not before taking another stab at your question. Bol is almost, but not quite, as much an enigma going into the draft as Maker was. He played nine college games before suffering a foot injury that, as I understand it, is similar to the one Joel Embiid suffered. He was considered a possible, perhaps a likely, lottery pick. And he put up really good numbers at Oregon: 21 points and almost 10 rebounds a game while shooting better than 50 percent from the 3-point arc on nearly three attempts a game at 7-foot-2. Teams will want to pore over his medicals, to be sure, but if there’s a reasonable chance he’ll return at 100 percent – even if it means he loses all or most of next season – then someone will roll the dice on him in a draft that isn’t considered especially deep. Whether he makes it to the Pistons, wherever they’re drafting, is anybody’s guess at this point.

Charles (Redford Twp., Mich.): Thon Maker is not a great rebounder. He doesn’t have bulk and judging by his frame he probably never will. He’s got long arms, quick feet and seems to be able to handle the ball pretty well. With his 3-point shot progressing, do you see his future at small forward? That would make for a long frontcourt.

Langlois: He actually played a little small forward last week at Golden State, lining up alongside Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin to guard Kevin Durant. I expect it will be very selective when Maker plays that position – there aren’t many small forwards like Durant, after all. But Casey doesn’t rule out Maker getting to the point where he can be used at that position. I don’t expect it ever will be his primary position. As Dwane Casey said, “He can defend threes. Still learning to put the ball on the floor as a three, but there’s things we can do offensively that keep him from going that. He’s going to be a very, very versatile player.” As to your point about his frame, yeah, I don’t think he’ll ever look significantly different but that doesn’t mean he can’t make substantial strides in core strength to help him become a more effective scorer in traffic and low-post defender. He’ll always struggle to some degree with that because he has relatively small hands and will never be able to create a lot of space for himself, but even incremental gains will make him a more effective player. As he gets more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and develops a more consistent 3-point shot, he can round off his edges just enough to expand his role year over year for the foreseeable future.

Scott (@PAX EAST): Do you anticipate a shorter rotation in the playoffs? Does the opponent affect how short it gets?

Langlois: Playoff series take on a life of their own. Coaches are much more willing to break with their season-long conventions and tailor lineups and rotations to particular matchups. Other than core players, guys can go from starting at the beginning of a series to out of the rotation in the middle of it to starting again at the end. Coaches generally like to stick with a rotation during the regular season until enough of a sample size is produced to ascertain the veracity of results. They aren’t going to risk lineup continuity by making one or two starting positions a job-sharing situation to gain a matchup advantage on one night or the next. But in the playoffs, when you’re going against the same team from four to seven times consecutively, they will manipulate the lineup much more freely. If you have a bad first half, you might not get the chance to redeem yourself in the second. So what the rotation will look like in the playoffs is impossible to project without knowing the opponent and, even then, it can change from game to game. In general, though, yes, playoff rotations often get pared down. Even if a coach goes as deep into his bench as during the regular season, he might be more judicious with minutes parceled out to the seventh, eighth or ninth guys. There are no back to backs to worry about, for one thing. And it’s often a response to matching what the other coach does. If he’s leaving his starters out for 36 minutes as opposed to 32, you probably want your starters out to match their minutes.

Kzoo Culture (@TJacks_): Are the Pistons 100 percent going to the playoffs?

Langlois: No, it’s 99 percent according to 538.com, 96 percent according to ESPN.com, 96.6 percent according to BasketballReference.com and 97.5 percent according to TeamRankings.com. If the Pistons beat Indiana tonight, they won’t be able to pop champagne but they’ll be in very favorable position. Even should they lose their next two games – Indiana tonight, at Oklahoma City on Friday – they’ll be in decent shape. Wins over Charlotte and Memphis at home and on the road at New York to close the season – three teams that won’t make the playoffs and likely aren’t focused on winning games at this point – would put them in. The injuries to Blake Griffin and Luke Kennard and the fundamental truth that late-season games can be wildly unpredictable – guys who’ve sat the bench all season and suddenly get to play can have some randomly great nights – make it a little less certain for me than those 95+ percent projection models suggest. And I’m sure Dwane Casey won’t rest well until it’s officially official. But the odds are in their favor.

Tony (Warren, Mich.): C.J. Miles of Memphis comes to mind as a bigger wing who can shoot that the Pistons could hypothetically inquire about in trade and he has a history with Dwane Casey. What is his defense like? Is he a player who can guard bigger wings?

Langlois: Miles has a player option for next season at $8.7 million. He just turned 32. I don’t have a clear idea which way he’ll go, but that’s why players hire agents. If he opts out, it’s because he’s been given an indication that he can get a multiyear deal – maybe not for $8.7 million a year, but enough to make it worth his while to pass on that much for next season and taking his chances again in 2020 as a 33-year-old. He’s a career 36 percent 3-point shooter – I would have guessed he’s have been a few percentage points higher – who’s dropped to 33 percent this season. How Casey feels about him, in concert with the more recent reports from Pistons scouts, probably would determine how the Pistons prioritize him. They’re going to have to be selective and we know they’re going to have to pursue a point guard in free agency unless they close a deal quickly with Ish Smith on July 1. Wayne Ellington has fit so well that you’d have to believe both sides will kick the tires on a reunion. Reggie Bullock probably is hoping the Pistons are among the teams to pursue him, given his experience and comfort here. The Pistons can’t take more than one of those types and, in fact, how confident they feel about getting contributions next season from Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk will inform their priority list. As for Miles’ defensive ability, did we talk about his 3-point shooting?

Darrell (Detroit): I understand that both Ish Smith and Wayne Ellington are unrestricted free agents. But if the Pistons could retain only one player, who would be chosen?

Langlois: Proverbial gun to the head, I’d guess Smith only because backup point guard is such an important position. As discussed in my answer to Tony’s question, the Pistons will have options in filling the spot currently held by Ellington. They’re going to anticipate steps forward for Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Svi Myhailiuk. I anticipate they’re going to want to find at least one more in the mold of Ellington/Reggie Bullock on the free-agent market, but my guess is they’ll prioritize point guard.

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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