What do Pistons fans expect from Stanley Johnson’s rookie season? That’s a good place to start in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Nick (@nick5cole): Is it in play for Stanley Johnson to start at the beginning of the season and maybe at shooting guard?
Langlois: In play? Sure. Would I bet on it? No. When Stan Van Gundy pulled the trigger on the trade with Phoenix for Marcus Morris, I’m guessing he was pretty sure that Morris would be the opening night starter at small forward. That was before Johnson had played a game in Summer League. By the time the Pistons left Orlando, Johnson had convinced Van Gundy he was headed for a significant role at some point in his rookie season. Van Gundy expects Johnson to come to camp intent on competing for a starting berth. I still would say the likeliest scenario is that Morris starts and Johnson comes off the bench, but I say that in part because I think Morris probably fits better with the first unit and Johnson with a second unit that has two players (Jodie Meeks and Anthony Tolliver) who stretch the floor and could use his all-around skill set, including defense and ballhandling. But we won’t know about fit, really, until we see the evidence of it. If Johnson starts, I’d bet on it being at small forward over shooting guard. Van Gundy maintains, as he did a year ago, that a team coming off a 32-win season doesn’t go to training camp with anything set in stone. Among the possibilities: Johnson starts at small forward, allowing Morris to enter the game at either forward position midway through the first quarter depending on matchups. Van Gundy mentioned the possibility of Johnson starting at small forward or shooting guard during his recent podcast with Grantland’s Zach Lowe. That’s in keeping with his contention that everything is open to competition. He also wants to see Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continue his progress and likely doesn’t want him to feel too comfortable at this point.
Kelvin (@KelvinDetroit): What should we expect from Stanley Johnson and is 41-41 realistic for this team?
Langlois: It’s tough to project stats or even the certainty of a role for a newcomer when it’s not only about his performance but the performances of others that will affect his playing time, Kelvin. Based on Summer League, Stan Van Gundy has admitted he sees Johnson grabbing a significant role at some point of his rookie season, as I mentioned above. Van Gundy has said the rotation could go 10 deep but could also be as short as eight deep. In any case, I think Johnson makes the cut. At a minimum, I see him getting the majority of minutes at backup small forward. But he could also steal some minutes at shooting guard and some as a small-ball power forward. He might even wind up with a starting position or play so well that he gets half or more of the minutes at small forward regardless of whether he starts or not. That question will only begin to be answered when training camp starts, but there are striking examples every season of how roles change throughout the course of the year. Johnson’s future is very bright, but he’s 19; he might not storm the NBA from day one. As for 41-41 being realistic, sure. But “realistic” covers a lot of ground. You probably would have told me a year ago at this time that 41-41 was unrealistic for a Milwaukee team that won 15 games the previous season. I might even have agreed with you. But the Bucks’ success was a useful reminder of how fine the line is between winning and losing, success and failure. Sometimes a team that improves itself by even 5 to 10 percent can see that lead to a much greater increase in its win total simply because being that much better every night is often the difference in winning by three points instead of losing by two. Even when the Pistons were off to their abysmal 5-23 start last season, they were in most every game with five minutes to play. Is 41-41 realistic? Wipe out that 5-23 start and they were 27-27 – and that includes the three-game losing streak after Brandon Jennings went down, when the Pistons had zero practice time to adjust, and the 10-game losing streak after the trade-deadline deals that cut into their depth and forced a major in-season adjustment. Yeah, a .500 record for this team is well within the realm of the realistic given even modest good luck on the injury front.
Carl (New York City): When Brandon Jennings hurt his Achilles, the Pistons traded for two point guards, Reggie Jackson and now Steve Blake. The Pistons also traded Quincy Miller, who was injured trying to find a roster spot and was prevented from playing in Summer League. Does the organization not feel much regard for injured players and are they worried about the league regarding Detroit as a place that treats players as objects and not people?
Langlois: If there’s a general manager in the league that reacts to injuries with a shrug of the shoulders instead of taking action intended to improve his team’s chances to win, get back to me. Stan Van Gundy told me recently that the Pistons didn’t anticipate being in the market for a point guard, but Jennings’ injury made them adjust their focus. The fact Jennings was about to enter the final year of his contract probably factored into that, given that the Pistons couldn’t be sure he’d be healthy for 2015-16 – they’re still not sure what his status will be, even though his recovery has gone according to plan so far – and then he’d be a free agent anyway. The Miller trade has zero to do with the injury he suffered that cost him Summer League. Brooklyn needed a non-guaranteed contract, the Pistons felt they needed protection (again, due to the uncertainty of Jennings’ availability and effectiveness) at a critical position and the teams found a match. Miller was the only non-guaranteed deal the Pistons had to offer. Money and contract terms in general are the overwhelming factor that determines where players choose to play in free agency. There are a mere handful of teams every off-season – in almost all cases, legitimate title contenders – that compete for top-tier free agents. Beyond that, the Pistons feel they’ll be able to compete for desirable free agents so long as they can offer a competitive product – and that includes taking steps to ensure a competitive environment like filling roster needs dictated by injury.
Rick (Frederick, Md.): I have followed the Pistons a long time and am not trying to be negative, but have seen media reports that Marcus Morris’ legal trouble may be serious and cause loss of time in the coming season. What research did the Pistons do on Morris prior to the trade and what is the backup plan if Morris has to miss large parts of 2015-16?
Langlois: The Pistons indicated they were fully aware of Morris’ situation at the time of the trade and were comfortable making the deal. They didn’t divulge any specifics beyond that, but Stan Van Gundy talked about the voluminous reports he read on Morris – and that included background information – in the hours after general manager Jeff Bower reported the Phoenix offer to him. I’m not sure if you can interpret the Pistons’ confidence to mean they don’t expect his availability to be interrupted by the legal proceedings, but teams have “backup” plans in place all the time – it’s called a depth chart. Stanley Johnson almost certainly would be next in line at small forward, but Reggie Bullock, Cartier Martin and Adonis Thomas will all be in training camp fighting for a role, too.
Jeremiah (@pistons15): What number will Steve Blake wear?
Langlois: He’ll wear No. 22, Jeremiah, last worn by Tayshaun Prince. Blake has worn No. 2 – retired for Chuck Daly by the Pistons – three times, No. 5 three times and No. 25 twice. No. 5 belongs to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock was assigned No. 25. No. 2 hasn’t been worn by a Pistons player since Stacey Augmon 18 seasons ago.
Jason (@MisterJasonPTU): What kind of numbers will RJax put up? Can we expect the same as the end of last year? He was ballin’.
Langlois: Jackson averaged 20 points, 11 assists and five rebounds a game over his final 16. Here’s the list of players who’ve hit those marks over a full 82-game season in the last 25 years: Chris Paul. That’s it. That’s the list. He did it once, 2008-09. Expand it to all of NBA history and you add two more names: Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson, each of whom did it three times. So, no, I don’t think he’s going to hit those numbers over 82 games. That’s in large measure because the Pistons improved their depth significantly over the summer and they shouldn’t have to lean on Jackson quite as much as they did for the final few months of last season. But he’s still going to have the ball in his hands a ton and he’s going to be the catalyst for the offense for 30-plus minutes a night. He’s going to put up strong numbers, I suspect, but it’s not even so much about the numbers – let’s say he goes for 17, eight and four – as how he gets there. There are great point guards up and down the league today and you need a strong starter and depth at the position to survive. The Pistons feel they have both now with Jackson entrenched as the starter, Brandon Jennings and Steve Blake as veterans behind him and Spencer Dinwiddie looking to break through.
Lemar (Ann Arbor, Mich.): Any chance we make a play for Markieff Morris to keep Marcus happy? He is also at a reasonable $8 million a year.
Langlois: Not sure what the Suns might ask in return, but it’s hard to see a match unless it’s a straight swap of power forwards – Ersan Ilyasova, also making that amount, for Morris. No idea how the Pistons would view such a swap, but Stan Van Gundy was pretty clear when he engineered the June trade for Ilyasova that he was a player he’d long admired and tried to acquire from Milwaukee when he first got to Detroit in May 2014. The Morris twins have played together all of their lives except for the first 1½ seasons of their NBA careers. There’s an obvious comfort level for them in that arrangement, but I’m pretty sure they’d resent the suggestion that they can’t be effective without the other at their side. Down the road? Maybe. Ilyasova is 28 and while that’s still well within the prime of a player’s career, he’ll be the Pistons oldest starter and isn’t tied to them for the long term. The Pistons might have long-term answers in place at four positions – Andre Drummond (just turned 22 this week) at center, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (22) at shooting guard, Reggie Jackson (25) at point guard and Stanley Johnson (19) at small forward. The Morris twins turn 26 in a month. It’s a long shot that they’ll be able to spend the bulk of their NBA careers as teammates based on the simple dynamics of team building, but if it makes sense down the road for the Pistons to make a reunion happen, why not?
Joshua (Queensland, Australia): What is the likelihood of Aron Baynes getting solid minutes beside Drummond?
Langlois: He’s going to get most of his minutes at center, Joshua, in the 15 or so minutes a game Drummond sits. But Stan Van Gundy went out of his way to say he also envisions Baynes playing some power forward and especially against NBA teams that play with two big men predominantly, specifically mentioning Memphis and Chicago. Whether it becomes a thing we see for a few minutes in each half as a staple of the rotation or something that’s used only in response to how other teams line up, only time will tell. But the Pistons’ enthusiasm about landing Baynes is genuine. There were high fives all around when they learned they were landing Baynes in free agency.