Training camp position battles and how increased depth might affect the minutes played for players like Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are among the items contemplated in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Ian (Novi, Mich.): It looks like there will be a lot of competition for spots and minutes. Brown vs. McCallum for backup point guard. Bullock vs. Hilliard for minutes and backup shooting guard. Ellenson vs. Leuer for minutes as the backup power forward. Boban vs. Baynes for the backup center. Gbinije will be fighting for a spot on the roster. How do you think all of these will play out?
Langlois: It figures to be the most competitive training camp the Pistons have held in years, Ian. That said, I don’t expect any significant battle for starting positions and I would expect the top four off the bench are pretty well established, as well. It’s about a 90 percent certainty, barring injury, that Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are the starters on opening night. It’s almost as certain that the second unit will include Stanley Johnson, Aron Baynes and newly signed free agents Ish Smith and Jon Leuer. But both Reggie Bullock, as the team’s best perimeter shooter, and Darrun Hilliard, as the best playmaker off the dribble of any non-point guard on the roster, bring something to the mix, too. And while Stan Van Gundy last season was reluctant to push the rotation past nine on a regular basis, he might find it difficult to keep it at just nine this season. Bullock vs. Hilliard is probably the closest thing to a 50-50 call as there is. If I had to guess, I’d give Bullock a slight edge based on his shooting consistency and the fact Hilliard will be idled about two months this summer with his lower-back injury. But I wouldn’t bat an eye if Hilliard winds up getting first crack, either. It could be one or the other from game to game based on whatever the situation demands. I’d give Lorenzo Brown the edge over Ray McCallum Jr. based on familiarity and the impression he made in Summer League, but McCallum will have all of training camp to tip the scales in his favor. It would be a major upset if Henry Ellenson opens the season ahead of Jon Leuer in the rotation. Van Gundy is high on both players – he told me last week that Otis Smith, as general manager in Orlando, called Milwaukee about Leuer during his rookie season when he was barely playing – but Leuer is 27 and an established NBA rotation player; Ellenson is 19 and, while he has tremendous offensive potential, needs to add strength, consistency to his shot and show defensive improvement to warrant rotation consideration. I think Van Gundy would be fine playing Ellenson if a need arose, but he’s not going to rush things. The situation is similar at center with Baynes and Marjanovic. Van Gundy called Baynes the team’s most consistent bench player last season. Marjanovic was signed because the Pistons are planning for 2017-18 and beyond on the expectation that Baynes will opt out of his contract next July and likely earn offers beyond the Pistons’ ability to compete given the fact they’ll only have partial Bird rights that limit what they can pay him. The Pistons didn’t get to see much of Gbinije in Summer League – a half-dozen practices and one game – but they love his all-around skill set and poise. It’s very likely he’ll have a roster spot.
James (@jamesg965): With the new bench additions, do you think guys like Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope see less minutes?
Langlois: Yeah, I think there’s a fair chance that those two players in particular see their minutes per game tick down by two or three. I talked with Stan Van Gundy about exactly that last week, in fact, and he said it would – on paper, at least – be a good thing. That said, he’s still going to play the guys he thinks give him the best chance to win games. The Pistons played a ton of close games last season and he often played Morris and Caldwell-Pope heavy minutes, especially in second halves. He feels great about the depth the Pistons have developed, though. He thinks the versatility of players like Morris, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer, in particular, will allow greater lineup flexibility this season. Johnson could be in line for increased minutes if he makes the expected second-year leap. Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard both offer something unique – Bullock as the team’s best perimeter shooter, Hilliard with his ability at the wing to make plays off the dribble – and they, too, could allow reduced minutes for Morris and Caldwell-Pope.
Isaac (Irvine, Calif.): Since this is a somewhat boring time of year for Pistons fans, can you bring us up to date on events to come like when we might see Aron Baynes or Boban Marjanovic play in international competition? When is Pistons media day? Are there any other Pistons events between now and training camp?
Langlois: Baynes is playing for the Australian national team in the Rio Olympics, Isaac. He’s starting alongside Andrew Bogut in a big frontcourt and averaging 12.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in Australia’s 2-0 start with today’s game against the United States looming. Marjanovic would have been on the Serbian national team, but he declined the opportunity to play in Serbia’s qualifying tournament due to his status as an NBA free agent – standard practice, as players are wary of risking injury that could put millions of dollars at risk – and the national team coach resisted Marjanovic’s attempts to be added to the roster once Serbia, indeed, qualified. Media day has yet to be announced, but if I had to guess I’d go with Monday, Sept. 26. It’s almost always on a Monday and training camp usually starts in the final few days of September with the NBA moving the start of the season up a few days recently to accommodate its desire to reduce the number of back-to-back games. As for the “boring” days, well, yes, August is usually the slowest month of the calendar year for NBA news. By the week after Labor Day, Pistons players will be gathering in Auburn Hills to begin informal team workouts and that should generate some news to satisfy your thirst. In the meantime, I’ll have plenty of interesting content coming over the next few weeks from Stan Van Gundy’s point of view on a variety of topics.
Rick (Frederick, Md.): A number of local bloggers have criticized the Ish Smith contract, saying the Pistons could have done better (D.J. Augustin, et al). Given that Smith’s advanced stats – PER, BPM, VOR – were not the best and his limited shooting range, what did the Pistons see that we are missing?
Langlois: The Pistons had three point guards on their list and reached out to all three, but Smith was the guy they went after first and they feel like they have a great handle on what they’re getting. Van Gundy coached him in Orlando and several of the people who were with him in Orlando and came with him to Detroit all gave the Smith pursuit their enthusiastic endorsement. Van Gundy told me that assistant coach Bob Beyer had firsthand experience with all three of the point guards the Pistons’ personnel department identified as candidates for their backup spot and that gave them further confidence that they were making the right choice. They love Smith’s aura – Van Gundy said he makes everybody feel better about coming to the gym every day, and don’t underestimate the value of that type of camaraderie – and they love the pace at which he plays. Van Gundy thinks he’ll be a terrific catalyst for the second unit. As for his shooting, last year he shot 34 percent from the 3-point line. It’s certainly not his greatest attribute, but that’s just a tick below the NBA league average. They’ll take that from him again in a heartbeat.
Ken (Dharamsala, India): SVG seems to be keeping the age of all his core players roughly equal. They should mature at about the same time. Does this careful garnering and maturing lend itself to long-term franchise success a la San Antonio? Is long-term success like this even possible in the NBA any more? Championships are great. Long-term sustainability is greater still.
Langlois: San Antonio is an anomaly. Throw that one out the window, Ken. You can point to at least a handful of factors – Gregg Popovich foremost – but nothing contributed more to the sustained success of the Spurs than Tim Duncan. Not just his talent, but his temperament. He was the most unassuming superstar the NBA has ever seen and it made it that much easier to construct a great team around him. The Spurs won’t fade away quickly because there’s still plenty of talent on that roster, but they’ll find themselves in the lottery one of these days. In an era of shorter contracts and a salary cap, you really can’t look at teams beyond four- or five-year increments these days. And for the Pistons, the next four or five years are set up very nicely. They have a window of opportunity. To make the most of it, it will require some good fortune on the health front, plenty of hard work and internal improvement from the players already on the roster and more wins than losses on the transactions front. Van Gundy deliberately targeted younger players who could grow together and he’s accomplished that now. I think that will be less of a concern in future transactions. If they spot an opportunity to trade for an older veteran who could fill a perceived need at some point in the future, they’ll go for it.
Tasos (Cypress, Calif.): We keep reading about the increases in the salary cap, due to the increase in the money received through the new TV agreement. My questions are (a) do all teams get an equal share or does it vary based on popularity issues; and (b) is this enough to cover their salary cap and all other expenses or do the owners contribute the rest from their own pocket?
Langlois: Teams get equal slices of the national TV money regardless of how many national TV appearances any team might make, Tasos. But the money teams generate from other sources – local TV and radio deals, ticket sales, revenue generated from suit leases and parking and concessions, merchandise sales, corporate partnerships, etc. – can and does vary widely from team to team. Most of those revenue streams are lumped under the “Basketball Related Income” umbrella that determines how the money is split between owners and players and that, in turn, sets the salary cap and the luxury tax limits. Teams have many financial commitments beyond player payroll – salaries for coaches, executives, sales and marketing staffs, etc., in addition to arena leases or facility maintenance costs and many other things. The NBA in past contract negotiations with players has contended that a number of teams lose money in a given season. In that case, ownership would be responsible for making up shortfalls.
Kamal (Detroit): If Stan Van Gundy wants to keep Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as he’s indicated, it’s only logical that Aron Baynes can’t be on the roster next year. I know he’s likely to opt out of his contract, but what if he doesn’t? He could get injured and opt in for recovery time. Can you think of any team that would take his contract to free us up to re-sign KCP and do you see it as likely?
Langlois: The Pistons made their move for Boban Marjanovic with the expectation that Aron Baynes will opt out of his contract next summer, Kamal. They will be limited in what they can offer him given that they will have only partial Bird rights and they felt it was better than 50-50 that another team – understanding the position the Pistons would be in, just as the Pistons gauged the difficulty San Antonio would have in matching an offer sheet to Marjanovic – would shape an offer that would hamper their ability to retain Baynes. If Baynes is injured and opts in, it wouldn’t have any impact on their ability to retain Caldwell-Pope. They’ll have his full Bird Rights and can go over the salary cap to keep him. It might require them to exceed the luxury tax limit, as well. That will be a discussion Stan Van Gundy and Pistons owner Tom Gores will need to have, but Gores has indicated he would be willing to do so if circumstances dictated its logic.
Sham (@shameeknmecrazy): What is this team’s floor, barring injury?
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy would say the playoffs aren’t a given, not in an Eastern Conference where he looks at improvement from five teams – Washington, Chicago, Milwaukee, Orlando and New York – that didn’t make the playoffs last season. He also expects improvement from Brooklyn and Philadelphia. So he thinks that the win totals for the middle of the pack in the East are likely to tick down. In other words, the eighth seed probably won’t finish with 44 wins, as the Pistons did a year ago. Van Gundy’s full hope and expectation is that the Pistons improve this season. All of their core players have either recently entered or aren’t yet in their prime physical years and the roster stability they’ll enjoy this season for the first time in Van Gundy’s reign should benefit them, as well. But he also knows improvement isn’t inevitable. It will require everyone’s full attention and vigilance. And, as you alluded to, a little good fortune on the injury front.