Pistons Mailbag - August 18, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Cade Cunningham made his Summer League debut, Luka Garza opened eyes and the Pistons have a full roster – all of that made for a jam-packed edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Darrell (Detroit): I believe the Pistons should start five players who can average double-figures scoring and play solid defense. Therefore, I think Cade Cunningham, Hamidou Diallo, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant and Isaiah Stewart should start. I’m assuming Diallo will be a Piston next season since the team holds all the cards. Defense should be the team’s identity and an offense that makes it tougher for opponents to shade heavily toward the primary scorers when all five starters can average in double figures. A second unit consisting of Killian Hayes, Josh Jackson, Frank Jackson, Sekou Doumbouya and Kelly Olynyk should be able to hold its own against opposition second units.

Will Dwane Casey put that much on Cunningham? Not pairing him with a point guard really puts a lot on his shoulders and it wouldn’t be the move I would expect. I would be surprised if we don’t see one of Killian Hayes or Cory Joseph in the starting lineup. There could be times when Cunningham is on the floor without a true point guard alongside him, but I don’t think that will happen often, or at all, until he gets a chance to get his feet wet. I could see Cunningham playing alongside Frank Jackson in the backcourt even though the Pistons now clearly view Jackson as an off-ball guard. His long experience as a point guard, though, means Jackson could easily bring the ball downcourt to relieve Cunningham of that burden – and Jackson is also a logical and competent option to defend point guards. Using Cunningham as the point guard on a starting unit also means he’d be defending starting point guards, though I suppose you could assign Diallo that duty. In any case, it seems a tall ask to chase players like Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, et al, around at one end and also shoulder the duties of running the offense at the other end for a rookie. It will be tough to keep Cunningham out of the starting lineup, but I could see a scenario where Diallo starts and Cunningham comes off the bench to play alongside Frank Jackson for the fit they seem to provide on the surface. All of that will need to be tested to see which lineup combinations really work best.

The Exhibit 10 deal means Pickett will be in training camp with the Pistons and it essentially means he’ll be protected from the G League draft and assigned to the Motor City Cruise. He’d be free to sign to play in an international league, but staying with the Cruise for 60 days would give Pickett a $50,000 bonus atop his G League salary. The catch is that another NBA team could sign Pickett to a two-way deal (or a standard contract, for that matter) at any time. The Pistons already have two players, Chris Smith and Luka Garza, on two-way contracts, so unless one of those players is converted to a standard deal the Pistons don’t have another two-way contract to offer Pickett at this time. But I don’t believe the Pistons are finished tinkering with the roster quite yet with more than a month remaining before training camp opens.

@yanis_chr1t/IG: What is your goal for this year?

During the third Summer League game against New York last week, Dwane Casey was asked during the telecast by ESPN’s Mark Jones what steps he was looking to see out of the Pistons this season. I think his answer is instructive with regard to your question: “We understand. We’re under no illusion we’re ready to fight for the top of the Eastern Conference. Growth, taking a step forward, trying to knock on that play-in tournament but seeing individual growth first. See Saddiq (Bey) grow. Start to grow Cade (Cunningham), grow Killian (Hayes), see all of those young men grow and takes step forward. Next year, have some big-time cap room coming so we can go big-time game hunting for some veteran players we can add to this young talent we have going forward.” For the past decade-plus, it always seemed like the last spot or two was wide open in the playoff field. But that’s changed now. There appear more playoff-worthy teams than there are playoff spots in the East at the moment. Take a look at Chicago, which didn’t even make the play-in tournament a few months ago. With Zach LaVine, Nic Vucevic and DeMar Derozan, the full expectation in Chicago is to make the playoffs this season. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Miami and Atlanta probably view themselves as legitimate title contenders, and rightly so. New York was the fourth seed last season and has added Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. Boston surely expects to challenge for a home-court advantage in the first round. Washington has built a really deep roster around Bradley Beal. Indiana didn’t hire Rick Carlisle and expect to not contend for a playoff berth. Toronto still has a lot of pieces in place from its championship team. Charlotte expects to make a run this season. That’s 12 teams for 10 spots. Only Cleveland and Orlando – rosters with a few handfuls of recent high lottery picks between them – don’t have realistic expectations of competing for a playoff berth. The Pistons are quite possibly looking at a starting unit that includes three 20-year-olds (Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart) and a 22-year-old (Saddiq Bey). They’re going to play hard and make other teams earn it, but I think the way they’ve gone about their business this off-season – with an eye toward having ample cap space a year from now – makes their timetable pretty clear.

Kumar (Novi, Mich.): Luka Garza seems to be putting in a lot of good work in Summer League. Good for him and I hope he can continue on his journey. Purely based on box-score stats, is Saben Lee a better point guard at this point when compared to Killian Hayes? If Sekou Doumbouya is out of Summer League, do you see him continuing with the Pistons this year or would he get traded before the season starts?

Let’s start with the Doumbouya question. Right now the Pistons have 15 roster spots filled and both two-way spots committed with Luka Garza joining Chris Smith on a two-way deal. I still anticipate Hamidou Diallo being part of the roster, so that obviously means a roster spot needs to be cleared by one means or another. The signing of Trey Lyles in free agency adds another player at Doumbouya’s best position, power forward. I think a trade to resolve the roster crunch is a logical expectation, but it takes two to make it happen and there aren’t a lot of roster spots left across the NBA. As for Lee and Hayes, they’re different players, for sure. Hayes has 670 minutes of NBA experience and one year as a starting point guard in a mid-level European pro league, Germany. Experience is critical for him. The Pistons are pretty clear-eyed about where they are in the evolutionary process, so player development, I suspect, will remain the overarching goal of the 2021-22 season with an eye toward 2022-23 – after taking a considerable war chest into 2022’s free agency – for when the equilibrium starts to shift toward winning games for a playoff push. That’s another way of saying I expect the Pistons to remain invested in Hayes’ development even at the cost of chasing wins to some degree.

Robert (Albany, Ore.): Luka Garza is worth the price of admission. Troy Weaver has to sign him, whatever it takes – petitions, rallies. Jamorko Pickett and Spencer Littleson are deadly shooters. How will the Pistons stock their G-League team?

The Motor City Cruise should be a fun, interesting team in their maiden voyage this season. With this week’s news that Garza is signed to a two-way deal, the Cruise will have a player with four years of high-level college exposure, an All-American and the consensus national Player of the Year. They’ll also figure to have Isaiah Livers, Michigan’s former Mr. Basketball and a four-year player from the nearby University of Michigan. I would expect the Cruise will also have Saben Lee in the lineup for several home games, made possible by bringing their G League affiliate to Detroit to allow for much easier freedom of movement between the two teams. Chris Smith, rehabilitating from an ACL injury suffered last January, probably will be ready to go by mid-season if his recovery follows a normal timeline. He, like Garza, will play on a two-way contract. Sekou Doumbouya could also be a frequent Cruise performer. The Pistons can sign three players to Exhibit 10 contracts to bring their training camp roster to the maximum of 20 and those players can then be protected onto the G League roster. Pickett is reportedly one of them. He said following Monday’s Summer League finale that he will be at training camp. The roster crunch is on. With 15 standard contracts, Hamidou Diallo likely to be signed, two two-way deals and Pickett on an Exhibit 10, that’s 19. And that doesn’t include Tyler Cook and Deividas Sirvydis. The maximum allowed for camp is 20, so something’s got to give or someone is getting left out.

@elliottechoate/IG: Who is surprising you in Pistons Summer League?

Jamorko Pickett is the easy answer. He wasn’t on most top 100 lists I saw despite a four-year college career at Georgetown where he would have been seen and evaluated plenty. But he sure looked the part in Las Vegas with size, athleticism, shooting ability, well-rounded skills and feel for the game. He fits the modern NBA, too, as a rangy wing who can guard multiple positions. A year in the G League and he might be ready to compete for playing time in the NBA.

1/3 of the #PnP (@ASky1284): Will Luka Garza play significant minutes this season?

He’s currently on a two-way contract and No. 4 on the depth chart at center behind Isaiah Stewart, Kelly Olynyk and Jahlil Okafor. But things always change. Injuries, roster moves … who knows what the situation will look like in December, let alone March? Garza’s Summer League went about as well as anyone could have possibly anticipated – he averaged 17 points and 13.7 rebounds in his three starts and shot it well from the 3-point arc while also continuing to show the ability to score in ways he did in winning college Player of the Year awards – but the quality of big men in the NBA regular season will be a few cuts above what he saw in Las Vegas. A year spent largely in the G League while he learns the vast differences in NBA defensive coverages and adjusts to his newly reshaped physique can only help him.

JD (@jdgn22): What is Saddiq Bey’s ceiling?

The fact he was invited to be part of the United States Select Team last month says it’s pretty high. I don’t think it’s possible, or wise, to get more specific than that this early in his career. Careers go where players take them. Seven years ago, after Giannis Antetokounmpo’s rookie season, would anyone have said his ceiling is multiple-times MVP and franchise cornerstone for an NBA champion? If anyone had thought Luka Doncic was on a similar path just three years ago, would he have lasted to third in the 2018 draft? Bey was the 19th pick in the draft and wound up first-team All-Rookie. The same folks who would say his ceiling is capped because he lacks elite athleticism today were the ones insisting he wasn’t worthy of being a lottery pick less than a year ago. He’s proven he’s worthy of being an NBA starter so far and he’s 22 years old with a work ethic that everyone who’s known him says is at the very high end of the bell curve. I think we saw in Summer League evidence of how he’s worked to expand his game this off-season. I’m excited to see how that’s going to translate to NBA games this season and beyond.

@mcphersoniv/IG: Do you think Jerami Grant could be traded by the end of this upcoming season?

Could be? Sure. Do I expect him to be? No. I think it’s far likelier Grant winds up extending his tenure with the Pistons beyond the 2022-23 season when the three-year deal he signed in November 2020 is set to expire than be gone before that time. The Pistons are frightfully young and Grant gives them a scoring bellwether to give order to their offense. They need him – now and for the foreseeable future. He’s the type of player almost every roster could use and he’s on a reasonable contract, so of course other teams are going to ask and there is always going to be speculation about his availability. That doesn’t mean the Pistons have any interest in trading him – with the caveat that there’s always a price that moves the needle. If I were betting, I’d bet on Grant being a Piston for a while yet.

Anthony (Kansas City, Mo.): I know there is a numbers crunch in Detroit, but I really think the Pistons need to find a way to get Luka Garza and Hamidou Diallo on the main roster next season. Garza earned it this summer in my opinion. Do you think the Pistons can or will make room for both?

Looks like half your wish has already been granted with Garza agreeing to a two-way deal. I think playing on a two-way contract is ideal for Garza. It will give him plenty of playing time with the Motor City Cruise while also allowing him to participate in most Pistons practices, another benefit of having the G League affiliate housed in the same city as the parent team. If all goes well, Garza would be in line to be signed to a standard contract next season – perhaps sooner if other moves make it possible and beneficial. Re-signing Rodney McGruder brought the Pistons to 15, the maximum, standard contracts. But, yeah, my money is still on Diallo re-signing with the Pistons and then Troy Weaver doing what must be done to clear a roster spot for him.

Robert (Nashville, Tenn.): Let’s assume two NBA teams are for sale. Which two teams in your mind are likely to move out of their current location and find a home in Seattle or New Jersey? Both Seattle and New Jersey have been without an NBA team for years and both places would love to have new teams.

Seattle, yes. New Jersey? I don’t think that would be the next place in line. The Knicks and Nets would have something to say, I’m sure, about bringing a third NBA team into the greater New York (and New Jersey is firmly within that footprint) television market. I’m curious whether the NBA would now entertain Las Vegas as a destination given the presence of NHL and NFL teams in the city. Kansas City built an NBA-quality arena in 2007 in hopes of drawing an NBA or NHL franchise and is still waiting. St. Louis and Cincinnati are other cities with NBA histories which would bear investigation. Tampa hosted the Toronto Raptors, though I wonder if resistance from nearby Orlando would eliminate the likelihood of another Florida entrant. I would guess Vancouver and Montreal would be looked at. Is the NBA ready to consider Mexico City? As for which NBA teams might be relocated, there was speculation that Minnesota would be a candidate but incoming owners Marc Lore and Alex Rodriguez insist they have no intent to move the Timberwolves. Other franchises that have had some uncertainty over their long-term futures include New Orleans and Memphis, though there has been no recent mentions and no expectation of imminent action on that front.

J Roze (@Det2UP): Who is the player most likely to be waived or moved if Hamidou Diallo re-signs?

A trade is always preferable to waiving a player, so long as the cost of the trade doesn’t exceed the cost of swallowing the contract. The contracts that are easiest to trade are usually ones that carry the least obligation going forward, so look for minimum deals or short-term, modest contracts. The three most obvious on the Pistons are the veteran minimum deal of Jahlil Okafor, who has one year left; the rookie deal of Sekou Doumbouya, with an option that doesn’t require being picked up for 2021-22; and the last year of Josh Jackson’s two-year deal at $5 million. Trey Lyles is also on a modest contract but he was just signed as a free agent and can’t be traded until Dec. 15.

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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