Pistons Mailbag - August 31, 2016

Lots of chatter about Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s improvement, ceiling and contract status as well as the futures of Stanley Johnson and other Pistons wing players, including Darrun Hilliard and Reggie Bullock, in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Ced (@cedhorton): Are the Pistons comfortable with Stanley playing shooting guard if KCP leaves? Or sticking with him at small forward?

Langlois: You ask a question that raises another question, Ced. Stan Van Gundy alluded to it when he discussed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s contract status earlier this month, mentioning there were considerations to weigh for extending his contract now or pushing negotiations into next summer. There was a clear-cut advantage to the Pistons in pushing Andre Drummond’s contract talks to July 2016 instead of agreeing to an extension with him last October; it gave them cap space they used to strengthen their bench this summer in addition to swinging the trade for Tobias Harris in February and assuming the last three-plus years of his contract. But they’re not going to have cap space next summer, regardless. You can make the argument that waiting gives the Pistons more time to not only gauge Caldwell-Pope’s worth but also the readiness of Stanley Johnson to assume an even greater role as a starter – and, to a lesser extent, of their depth on the wing with Darrun Hilliard and Reggie Bullock. At the same time, Van Gundy made clear how much he values Caldwell-Pope and would like to lock him up for the long term. The question your question begs, then, is this: Would the Pistons be best served to hold off on a Caldwell-Pope extension until next summer? It should surprise no one if both sides decide that’s the best course. Caldwell-Pope and his team surely saw the overheated market for wing players this summer. Unless the Pistons give them an offer they know they couldn’t top next off-season, they might very well be encouraged to wait to see what another impressive season does for his market value in restricted free agency. It’s worth remembering that restricted free agents rarely change teams unless the home team is at a competitive disadvantage. That won’t be the case for the Pistons.

Josh (Indianapolis): With all the excitement surrounding Stanley Johnson, people are soon to toss KCP to the side. But let’s not forget he is 23 and will surely still develop his playmaking and team defensive awareness. Is KCP primed for yet another spike in annual progression?

Langlois: Not sure what “people” you mean, Josh. Not the ones who matter most – Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Bower and Pistons ownership and executives who’ll be involved in contract talks. And I don’t think a majority of Pistons fans are of that mind. Fans who really follow the Pistons and have heard Van Gundy and his teammates talk about him know Caldwell-Pope is held in high regard. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that Caldwell-Pope will have his best season yet based on age and career arc. Whether that means he emerges as one of the top 10 shooting guards in the league really comes down to one thing. As Van Gundy recently said, the biggest factor in whether he takes the next step in his development will be his shooting efficiency. He needs to bump up both his overall and his 3-point shooting percentages to around league average. But you’re right that there’s palpable excitement over Stanley Johnson’s future all the way around. As there should be.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris handle the ball better than Kyle Singler, Anthony Tolliver and Ersan Ilyasova. That happy fact gives Reggie Jackson someone to pass to. Still, ballhandling at the shooting guard spot is average at best as of last season. How would you now rate ballhandling at shooting guard? That would include Reggie Bullock, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Darrun Hilliard and Michael Gbinije. It would be awesome if the Pistons had a shooting guard who could break down the opposing defense regularly. It would make Jackson’s job so much easier.

Langlois: Having multiple playmakers always makes an offense more dangerous, of course. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has made strides with his ballhandling starting with the final weeks of his second season. He’s now a threat to put it on the floor and make defenders who close out on him too aggressively pay. He also became a more effective passer off the dribble last season. As I wrote in response to Josh, becoming a more consistent shooter – and continuing to refine his shot selection and his mechanics – is the most critical factor for Caldwell-Pope’s development. But continuing to improve as a ballhandler will help, as well. It doesn’t ever need to get to the point that Caldwell-Pope becomes a player the Pistons isolate and expect to break down defenses, but being able to exploit lanes created by rotating defenses will help push him forward, too. Hilliard has real potential to be a playmaking wing player. He’s got a little bit of a Manu Ginobili quality to him in his ability to use both hands and weave his way around defenders. Gbinije played point guard for Syracuse last year and the Pistons hope to get a look at him there in training camp in spot situations, so he’d be a legitimate secondary ballhandler when used alongside a point guard. Bullock knows his role as well as anyone on the team. He’ll put it on the floor occasionally, but most of the time the ball comes his way he’ll either get up a shot quickly or move it just as quickly.

Jeremy (@LLcoolJeremy): Excluding Stanley Johnson, which rotation player has the best chance of having a breakout year?

Langlois: Tough question. “Breakout” is kind of a subjective category. Stan Van Gundy recently told me that he thinks Stanley Johnson and Andre Drummond are the two players with the greatest chance to show significant improvement. I don’t disagree with him. Even though Drummond made the All-Star team last season, I still see vast room for improvement in his game at both ends of the floor but particularly on defense. His continued maturity and the strong environment Van Gundy has created give Drummond the right conditions to realize his potential, too. Reggie Jackson could take the leap to All-Star this year – he was close last season – but I don’t know if that would constitute “breakout” status, either. Tobias Harris could emerge as the team’s leading scorer and – if that happens and the Pistons continue their team ascent, as well – that could lead to him being thrust in the All-Star discussion, too. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as discussed above at length, is another candidate. That’s a surprising number of players in the mix, but it reflects the youth of the Pistons’ roster and the importance of their young players to their success.

Scott (@brodiegames): I’m curious what you think of the many coaching and front-office changes – Otis Smith as assistant coach, Brendan Malone to scout, etc.

Langlois: Smith is filling big shoes, not just in taking over Malone’s spot on Van Gundy’s coaching staff but also serving in a dual role as director of player development, last held by Quentin Richardson. Van Gundy valued the job Richardson did in that role and didn’t want to lose him. (Richardson wanted to move back to Orlando with his family and oversee business ventures he’d launched just before Van Gundy came to the Pistons in May 2014 and offered him the job working with Pistons young players in a mentoring role that is largely focused on helping them adjust to life away from the court.) Malone was a valuable sounding board for Van Gundy, who greatly valued the depth of Malone’s coaching experience. It went beyond Malone’s X and O acumen and his ability to work with big men to his uncanny insights into the psyches of NBA players dating to his days with the master of that craft, Chuck Daly. The other losses of the off-season were assistant general managers Ken Catanella and Brian Wright. Both left – Catanella for Sacramento, Wright for San Antonio – to take jobs as No. 2 men in other NBA front offices. Even though their titles remained the same, they’ll take on greatly expanded roles and be candidates for future general manager positions after being somewhat limited to a specific role with the Pistons – Catanella in charge of salary cap and analytics, Wright in charge of scouting for the draft. Van Gundy told me losing them has caused him and general manager Jeff Bower to rethink the structure of their front office. He said he believed the Pistons still had tremendous front-office depth and would replace Wright internally. (Catanella was replaced earlier this summer by Pat Garrity, formerly the director of strategic planning who assumed the same “assistant general manager” title.) Well-run organizations expect to lose employees to promotions offered by franchises looking to tap into their collective institutional knowledge. Van Gundy’s Pistons have proven to be extremely well run so far. A little turnover is often a good thing, too, at least in organizations that encourage free thinking – another staple of Van Gundy’s front office and coaching staffs. Van Gundy obviously made a bunch of good hires the first time around; I suspect his reconfiguring made necessary by departures this summer will prove equally spot on.

Jason (Chicago): I recently read an article about Hassan Whiteside ranking 80th in assists for centers and how Miami wants to become a more “inside-out” team. How well does Andre Drummond keep the ball moving compared to other centers? And is this something Stan Van Gundy would like to see more of or would he prefer Drummond to finish at the rim more often than not?

Langlois: Van Gundy has called Drummond a “good passer.” He’s clearly a work in progress at the offensive end but a player who has already come so far in four NBA seasons that there’s no reason not to expect continued progress. He’s not yet at a point where his post moves draw routine double teams. If he keeps progressing with the efficiency of his bread-and-butter jump hook moves – mostly with his right, but sometimes with his left, as well – and develops a more effective counter move, that will change. And once Drummond is drawing double teams, then his next progression will be to spot open teammates and deliver passes on time and in spots that give the recipient an advantage. There was progress shown last season in Drummond’s recognition of times he held no advantage – maybe he’d established position too far from the rim and didn’t gain any ground with his initial probe – and whipping the ball back out to the 3-point line and then trying to re-establish deeper post position. Opponents are always going to be most conscious of getting bodies on Drummond when Pistons shots go up and bumping him with multiple defenders when he rolls off of screens. But teams no longer invite a steady dose of Drummond post-ups. He’s come a long way since coming to the NBA four years ago.

JB Sports (@jbsmoove627): With all the rave for the Celtics, Knicks and Pacers for their free-agent moves, are the Pistons the biggest sleepers in the East?

Langlois: They made the playoffs last year and everybody who really pays attention expects improvement this season. That profile doesn’t really fit the “sleeper” label in my view, but having said that I also think the Pistons have as much of a shot as anybody to take the biggest step forward of any team in the Eastern Conference pecking order. It also depends on how you measure progress. They finished eighth last year and could conceivably finish in the top four this season. But that might not mean a huge leap in wins from the 44 they posted last season. (The 44 wins they registered last season were the most – tied with 1997 Washington – of any No. 8 seed in Eastern Conference playoff history.) They go into training camp with momentum at their backs. If they go into the regular season at full strength and enjoy reasonable fortune with injuries over the season, I like their chances of a top-four finish and a 10 to 20 percent increase in wins over last season. But there’s not a lot of margin for error in a tightly bunched conference. Any slight regression could see a 10 to 20 percent reduction in wins total, too. And I’m pretty sure Stan Van Gundy would concur with that.