Injuries – how they’ve affected the Pistons season and how they might affect Dwane Casey’s lineup and rotation once the dust settles – lead the discussion in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Derrick (@runderrickbean): Without citing injuries, why do the Pistons seem to have such a hard time breaking losing streaks? Win a bunch in a row, then lose a bunch in a row always seems to be the trend, even with a new coach.
Langlois: “Without citing injuries” is like asking me to explain why it gets dark at night “without citing sunset.” Injuries matter, ya know? There’s also the schedule to consider. During the five-game winning streak – that came when the Pistons were healthy except for Luke Kennard’s absence – the Pistons had wins over three likely lottery teams in Chicago, New York and Phoenix, beat Houston in overtime and downed Golden State, playing without Draymond Green. During the five-game losing streak – played almost entirely without Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith and Stanley Johnson, joined by Blake Griffin for the most recent game – they’ve played a murderer’s row of opponents and done it at way less than full strength. That matters for any team. Steph Curry and Draymond Green went out and Golden State lost six straight road games – actually, Curry returned for the sixth in that string, which was the loss to the Pistons, despite still fielding a lineup that included two All-Stars. The Pistons don’t have that much margin for error – neither does 90-plus percent of the league – so when they lose three of their top six players (Bullock, Johnson, Smith) of course their performance is going to suffer. It doesn’t mean they can’t win games, but they have less room for error.
Joe (@Joe_Truck): Is there any chance Dwane Casey signs off on a Bullock-Kennard starting wing pair long term?
Langlois: A pretty good one, I’d guess. I’ve said for the past few weeks that my expectation was that when Luke Kennard shows signs of hitting his stride coming off of the 16-game injury absence – and his career-high 28 points on Monday at Philadelphia is a pretty good sign – that eventually Kennard and Bullock would settle in as the starters alongside Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Coming into the season, my guess was that Kennard would be targeted for the bench because of the perceived need to have a scoring anchor with them. But until the rash of injuries struck, the bench had been playing exceptionally well without Kennard, thanks mostly to the uptick in production from Stanley Johnson to go with Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, Zaza Pachulia and Bruce Brown. Their success frees Casey to stick Kennard in with the starting unit and maybe that will finally allow the Pistons to turn the corner on their 3-point shooting. A one-game sample size isn’t to be trusted, but it’s worth watching how Kennard reacts to starting after he went off for 28 points in his first start since the season opener, when he was still working his way back from the off-season knee injury and got thrown into the lineup only because both Johnson and Bullock were out. Getting Bullock and Kennard functioning at a high level simultaneously is something the Pistons would love to see, whether they’re playing in the same unit or not. But, yeah, I’m curious to see how much different the starting lineup will look with those two hitting at 40 percent from the 3-point line.
Darrell (Detroit): If Luke Kennard were the go-to guy on the Pistons, as Donovan Mitchell is in Utah, I think he could eventually be a 20-points-a-night scorer. Last year’s draft is looking less “disastrous.” Kennard should replace Glenn Robinson III in the starting lineup, but I’m also inclined to start Jose Calderon. He’s a true point guard who can spread the ball to Blake Griffin, Kennard, Reggie Bullock and Andre Drummond more consistently. Dwane Casey can sell coming off the bench to Jackson in the same way he did for Stanley Johnson. The Pistons have talent and depth. Creating arguably the league’s best second unit by balancing the talent of both units will enable them to keep the pedal to the metal for 48 minutes, reminiscent of the ’04 Pistons.
Langlois: Does that squeeze Ish Smith out of the rotation? Casey’s played two point guards at a time, so not necessarily. Taking Jackson out of the starting lineup would take a little more deliberation than taking Johnson out. For the Pistons to achieve their goals this season, they need Jackson to be the guy performing closer to the top of his production spectrum. Casey would need to be satisfied that he can get that from him coming off the bench – and a big part of that consideration is how he thinks Jackson would respond to being removed from the starting lineup. I don’t think it’s quite the ego blow it might have been a generation ago, but it’s still a thing for a lot of players. I recall when Michael Curry took an aging Allen Iverson out of the starting lineup in his only season with the Pistons and couched it by suggesting Iverson would be a dynamic sixth man. Iverson bristled and it didn’t end well. Jackson doesn’t have an MVP on his resume but he’s been the guy the Pistons have trusted with the ball in his hands to win games. That doesn’t mean you’d hesitate to make the move if you felt it was truly in the team’s best interests, but it’s hard to see it being in the team’s best interests unless you’re convinced it’s a role that Jackson would thrive in. Calderon is 37. You’d need to be careful about overextending him. It’s one reason the Pistons signed him not as a backup but as a No. 3 point guard. He’s always relied more on savvy than athleticism, but Father Time catches up to everyone and there’s a reason 37-year-old point guards are few and far between. If this is a move Casey were to consider, I suspect it would be similar to the way Glenn Robinson III started – play the first seven or eight minutes of each half and then sit out the rest of it. It could work. Not sure it’ll ever get tested, but it’s not a crazy idea. Asking Calderon to guard NBA starting point guards would be the biggest red flag.
That Guy (@DtownDgen): The interior defense has been pretty bad all year. Can we tighten it up in the paint?
Langlois: The Pistons came into the week 23rd in the NBA in opponent points in the paint at 50.3 a game, but it’s not really conclusive what that says about a team’s overall defense. The teams that slot in directly behind the Pistons are the Lakers, Rockets, Clippers and Pelicans – all pretty good teams likely to be in the playoffs. The Pistons are very good at limiting 3-point shots – they’re No. 5 in attempts with opponents averaging 29.1 and No. 1 in percentage with opponents making 31.5 percent. The Pistons, not unlike many teams, try to steer teams into taking contested 2-point shots. Focusing on limiting 3-point attempts, though, obviously means your defense will be stretched out and logic dictates that you’ll be at least slightly more vulnerable to allowing gaps to be exploited. Sometimes that results in shots at the rim simply because NBA players are really good and not every defensive possession can be executed to the blueprint. So as to “can we tighten it up in the paint?” Dwane Casey’s hope and expectation is that as the season progresses and his system becomes more ingrained, incremental improvement will result.
Patrick (@MrESPN): In your eyes, who has improved the most since last season?
Langlois: Stanley Johnson had a really good roll going before getting hurt. He’s the obvious choice. You could make a case for Langston Galloway, but with him it’s more about getting more playing time and opportunity than he had last season. Luke Kennard could be the call in another few weeks or so if he uses Monday’s 28-point outing as a launching point.
Korvus (@k0rvus): With all of the recent injuries, can we finally expect to see some playing time for Khyri Thomas?
Langlois: They can’t cut too much deeper into the wing corps without getting to Thomas. He is, quite literally, the next man up. When Jose Calderon appeared to have a serious injury at Philadelphia – the way he grabbed at his knee, my initial thought was ACL – Thomas was off the bench and at the scorer’s table ready to check in. So there’s your answer. One more injury, it’s time for Thomas. The Pistons are eager to see how he progresses – they’re very high on him with very encouraging results from his time in the G League – but they’re not so eager that they’re wishing to rush him into the lineup because of injuries to those ahead of him in the pecking order.
Jordan (@PassLikePavard): On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is Andre Drummond to the Pistons?
Langlois: If Blake Griffin is a 10 – he is – then Drummond is a 9.5. His absence for any length of time would put the Pistons in a tight spot.
Feed Kerryon (@FeedKerryon): When will the Pistons realize it’s a shooter’s league and having two bigs surrounded by nobody who can shoot isn’t going to work?
Langlois: “Two bigs surrounded by …” is a mischaracterization given that Blake Griffin leads the team in 3-point attempts at 6.3 a game and is shooting them at better than the league average. Just because Griffin is an accomplished post scorer doesn’t negate the fact that he’s also grown into a legitimate 3-point threat who shoots them frequently. The problem is a combination of injuries to their best 3-point shooters (Reggie Bullock has essentially missed nine games when you count the two he started but left early with a sprained left ankle; Luke Kennard has missed 16 games and was clearly not himself in the first four after he returned). Together, they’ve been unavailable for 50 percent of Pistons games. And, yes, the Pistons realize they need their best shooters to make Dwane Casey’s vision for his offense come to life.
Andrew (Grand Rapids, Mich.): What do you think about the Pistons trading for Josh Hart? He is on a good contract and seemingly does what Reggie Bullock does but has a more versatile game. We could offer Bullock and maybe a future lottery-protected first-round pick. The Lakers win in getting an expiring contract and the Pistons win by replacing Bullock before free agency.
Langlois: The Lakers have team control of Hart for the next two seasons on his rookie deal. He’s exactly the kind of player they need. (As an aside, how about getting Kyle Kuzma 27th and Josh Hart 30th in the 2017 draft? Spectacular results for the Lakers.) They want to position themselves to get a maximum-deal free agent next summer and it’s critical if you’re going to be paying that type of money to multiple players to have guys like Hart – players capable of playing an everyday role on the cheap. If Bullock gets over his twice-sprained left ankle, I would expect him to again prove himself one of the NBA’s elite 3-point shooters. But the Lakers are playing with house money this year, the first season with LeBron James when nobody expected a title run. Next year – after another go in free agency – they will expect to contend for the title. Bullock won’t be able to help them then unless they whiff on a max-level player and circle back to Bullock in free agency. But they could hold on to Hart and have a guy capable of playing in the rotation – either as the starter or a high-caliber sub – for comparatively little money.