Pistons Mailbag - December 13, 2017

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

How the East has managed to catch up to the West and lots of talk about the way the Pistons have drafted dominate the conversation in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag

Craig (Ann Arbor, Mich.): The Western Conference has been stronger than the East for years. This summer, free agents drifted to the West and it appeared the disparity might worsen. Yet, through Sunday’s games, the East is plus-five against the West. What do you make of that?

Langlois: That a lot of people who made a lot of very loud proclamations this summer – after Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Millsap, Jimmy Butler and others swapped conferences – look pretty silly right now? Not sure what else to make of it. Not sure I’m ready to say the East has pulled even, either. But it’s at least surprising that Indiana seems to have done much better in the George deal – getting Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis – than anyone thought at the time, when the general reaction was, “That’s all they got for PAUL GEORGE?” Are the results of this season – on top of how Oklahoma City fared when Russell Westbrook had to share the stage with Kevin Durant and then how it performed during Westbrook’s MVP season – changing perceptions about Westbrook? The fact Oladipo is having such a remarkable season after being overshadowed so fully by Westbrook is an interesting outcome. Golden State remains the overwhelming favorite to win it all and Cleveland, after first-month wobbles, remains the likely favorite to come out of the East at this point. We’ll see what moves Boston makes to shore up its roster at the trade deadline with the assets Danny Ainge still has to spare. Legit title contenders? I’d still say the West has the market nearly cornered on that. Golden State, Houston and San Antonio – which has held up as well as anyone could have hoped without Kawhi Leonard, who returned Tuesday – all look like legit. For as much as Oklahoma City is struggling, I’d still bet on the Thunder getting it together after the All-Star break and into the home stretch.

Jason (@Pug1988): Do the Pistons need to trade a legit power forward, move Tobias Harris to small forward and use Stanley Johnson off of the bench?

Langlois: I’m going to assume that your question dropped a word and you intended to say should the Pistons need to trade “for” a legit power forward. What do you propose they use as the bait? That’s the key. And keep in mind that they can’t absorb a contract without shedding one of similar value. So unless you’re talking about a deal that would require attaching a No. 1 pick, there aren’t a lot of easily identifiable options in play without causing a shortfall somewhere else on the roster. I don’t think Stan Van Gundy is willing to risk that to address what you, I assume, perceive as a need at small forward. Harris, for what it’s worth, has been more comfortable, according to Van Gundy, at power forward, so keep that in mind, as well. As much as Harris presents matchup problems at either position on offense, he’ll face some matchup problems from various player types at either position defensively. Johnson remains the best defensive option at the position and the Pistons can live with his offensive inconsistency, to a degree, as long as they’re playing with the energy and pace Van Gundy hopes to achieve in the half-court offense. That last bit, obviously, has been the biggest single issue during the current seven-game losing streak, especially obvious in Tuesday’s loss to Denver. They’ve got three other power forwards on the roster in Anthony Tolliver, Jon Leuer (when he gets back from injury) and Henry Ellenson and Van Gundy is comfortable with all of them. I don’t see them making a move to add another.

John (Birmingham, Mich.): Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell this year and Stanley Johnson over Devin Booker three years ago. I know a lot of teams made the same mistakes, but is Pistons scouting under any heat? They could have an All-Star backcourt here for years to come.

Langlois: Those were close calls, by all accounts. Van Gundy was open about saying it was an extremely close call between Johnson and Booker when the Pistons put together their draft board in 2015. Johnson was No. 7 on the Pistons board and Booker was No. 8. He said similar things, though not quite as conclusive, about the pick of Kennard over one or two others, Mitchell among them, last June. To be fair, Mitchell didn’t flash this type of scoring or shooting ability at Louisville. He’s been given a wide berth in Utah, in part due to injury, and he’s seized the opportunity. Kennard hasn’t had quite the same path to playing time with the Pistons after they traded for Avery Bradley and signed Langston Galloway and Reggie Bullock in free agency, but he’s emerged as the top wing off the bench of late and Van Gundy is bullish on his future. You weren’t the only one to formulate that question this week. Keep reading.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard are not playing at a high level. Stan Van Gundy chose Kennard over Donovan Mitchell. Do you think Tom Gores and/or SVG are rethinking their drafting prowess and strategy?

Langlois: Scouting comes under Jeff Bower’s purview and, more directly, Jeff Nix, assistant general manager. After another assistant GM, Brian Wright, left to become No. 2 in San Antonio’s front office in the 2016 off-season, the Pistons reorganized and Nix, previously in charge of the pro scouting staff, also assumed supervision of the college scouting staff. They evaluate everything they do in the spring, when the season ends, and there’s no question they’ll focus on their processes whenever this season is over, Ken. I’d caution that it’s still a wee bit early to declare a winner in the careers of Kennard vs. Mitchell.

Peter (Jackson, Mich.): The offense is struggling and so is the bench. Eric Moreland provides defense, rebounding and hustle but no scoring. Stan Van Gundy went to Boban Marjanovic and he can provide interior scoring. What about using Ellenson at backup center when other teams are packing the paint? Long term, his position in the league is going to be center. Also, while Van Gundy has made great trades and excellent decisions in free agency, he has taken the wrong player in at least two drafts. (The jury is still out on Ellenson.) Booker is clearly a better player than Johnson and Mitchell in Utah looks like a superstar in the making. Does the college scouting department need changes?

Langlois: Booker is a vastly different player than Johnson but, again, it’s too soon to call a winner on that decision. Johnson might be as far ahead of Booker defensively as Booker appears to be the superior offensive player. And keep in mind that Booker wouldn’t be the go-to scorer for many teams other than the one he’s on, which might wind up the worst team in the league this season. He’s a phenomenally gifted scorer. No disputing that. But put him in a different situation and you’d have a little better idea of how he’d fit on a playoff team. With Mitchell, the two big questions scouts had were if he could shoot well enough from the 3-point arc and, so far, all good on that score with Mitchell at 37 percent; and if he could play point guard. Jury still out on that one, but far less of a concern – or no concern at all, really – if he’s going to continue shooting at that clip. He’s shown things in the NBA he didn’t really put on tape in college, though. It’s why he wasn’t really considered a lottery pick – at least by conventional wisdom – until after the college season when he began picking up steam through the NBA draft combine and individual workouts. He was in play for the Pistons, but Kennard’s greater offensive polish was appealing to a team that needed shooting and playmaking. As for your question on Ellenson, here’s what Van Gundy said about that on Tuesday: “We have talked and worked with him at playing some at the five spot. There’s not a lot of minutes there and that would be in some different situations.” You could be right that Ellenson evolves – as the NBA game continues to evolve to one that places a greater premium on perimeter shooting – into a center. Van Gundy didn’t want to burden him with learning the more complex defensive responsibilities required of a center and risk impeding his progress at power forward in training camp so they didn’t work him at center then. There’s also the fact that, for as much as the game is moving farther from the rim in general, a physically overmatched center still invites teams to attack the basket. Ellenson isn’t physically ready for consistent minutes against the spectrum of NBA centers. As Van Gundy suggested, it would be in select matchups at this point.

Darrell (Detroit): Stanley Johnson played well coming off the bench against San Antonio. I’m still convinced that Anthony Tolliver should be starting and finishing games and allow Johnson to dominate opposing teams’ benches. It’s clear as day that defenses are playing 15 feet off of Johnson, which has affected the starters’ scoring over this losing streak. Having two non-scorers in the starting lineup is detrimental, but Andre Drummond is irreplaceable and can get his points from offensive rebounds.

Langlois: Stan Van Gundy attempted to inject some life into the suddenly moribund offense on Tuesday when he sat Johnson in favor of Reggie Bullock. Bullock offers 3-point shooting – though he hasn’t shot it well this season in a limited sample size – and, more germane to the immediate need, the cutting and ball movement Van Gundy was looking to add to the starting lineup. So Johnson might, indeed, be coming off the bench now. But whether he’ll “dominate” opposition benches remains to be seen. He had a very good stretch early in the season, before missing three games due to injury, and he hasn’t been able to get back to that level since. Johnson’s role is limited on offense right now and he’s struggling to adjust and find a way to contribute when the ball doesn’t come his way all that much for the first time in his playing career.

Nice (@Nice_Nice21): I’m baffled by how Langston Galloway’s minutes disappeared. I think he should be the first shooting guard off the bench. Any insight on why his minutes have been reduced?

Langlois: Have they? He averaged 14.4 minutes a game in October, 14 in November and 13.6 so far in seven December games. That’s not much of a pattern. Galloway has pretty consistently been Avery Bradley’s backup with Luke Kennard getting most of his minutes at small forward behind either Stanley Johnson or Reggie Bullock. Bullock has been the wing player most prone to yo-yoing minutes. Stan Van Gundy has three wing backup options: Galloway, Kennard, Bullock. There aren’t going to be minutes for all three in the rotation and, some nights, not even for two. So to the extent their minutes fluctuate, it’s a reflection of their performance to a degree in that three-player pecking order and of the matchup needs on any given night.

Tony (SgtAquado): The Pistons have played some really good teams during this current streak of losses in a lot of close games. What can they do to turn the corner against these upper-tier teams and how is morale?

Langlois: First things first. They’ve got to get their offense back on track and regain the confidence with which they played in rolling to a 14-6 start. They beat plenty of good teams – Golden State, Boston, Oklahoma City, Minnesota – on the road during that period. When they’re playing at their best, they’ve shown they can hang with anyone, anywhere. When they’re playing like they are now, beating anyone, anywhere is going to be a grind.

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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