Pistons Mailbag - December 20, 2017

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, Avery Bradley – you had questions, we tackled them in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Aaron (Quincy, Ill.): Who do you think is the emotional leader of this team? It seems as if Reggie Jackson usually speaks of himself as a leader when he speaks in postgame interviews. From what I am able to see as a League Pass subscriber, it is Tolliver and Bradley that are taking care of business and acting as leaders. When I see players giggling and dancing on the sidelines during games (Drummond and Jackson), I don’t think that I’m looking at leaders.

Langlois: Like many teams – probably most teams – leadership is something that coalesces from the collective. Great players are thrust into leadership positions whether they possess great leadership skills or not. The Pistons have only one player who’s appeared in an All-Star game – Andre Drummond, when he was 22 – and so leadership doesn’t fall to a single player for them. Reggie Jackson has the ball in his hands more than anyone else, so of course he has a disproportionate share of shaping the direction of the team. Avery Bradley arrived from Boston as someone with an esteemed reputation in the locker room for his devotion to the gritty little details of winning basketball, defense foremost. So Bradley’s actions are as important as anyone’s in forging a team identity, which is really what leadership entails. Anthony Tolliver is the most naturally vocal leader on the team and – as the only player 30 or older – his experience, intellect and judgment automatically stamp his opinions and observations as credible with his teammates. Drummond has played with more focus and consistent effort this season than any other and so that gives him a broader platform to flex his leadership desires. And be careful how you interpret actions – giggling and dancing or anything else – that don’t occur within the confines of 48 minutes and the playing dimensions. Play hard and do your job between the lines and the whistles and you’ll always have a stake in team leadership. The rest is white noise.

Charles (Redford, Mich.): Stan Van Gundy is not going to let Stanley Johnson flourish. With that in mind, do you go for a swap of Paul George and hope he stays?

Langlois: Not buying the first part of your premise, Charles. It’s nonsense, in fact. By and large, players are who they are. Did Stan Van Gundy prevent a rookie Dwyane Wade from flourishing? As for the rest of your question, I’d be careful about a trade package for Paul George, never mind that there’s no reason to believe Oklahoma City is anywhere near willing to give up on the viability of a Russell Westbrook-George core. I sure wouldn’t be ready to do so if I were Sam Presti.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): I watched Stanley Johnson play and I was intrigued. He stopped a guy slashing to the basket. He knocked a ball out of bounds. He deflected a pass. He bumped a guy off track. He came up with two loose balls. He jumped into a passing lane and stopped a play. I am wondering if Pistons coaches couldn’t get with him QUICK and put him through a little one-week intense intervention and get his shooting back to acceptable, a mid-season course correction – now!

Langlois: It’s easy to be intrigued watching Stanley Johnson. But refining his shooting mechanics has been a mission for the Pistons since drafting him more than two years ago. It’s something that you devote off-seasons to correcting. There have been signs of progress. Johnson had a good nine-game stretch before missing three games with injury early in the season when he hit 39 percent from the 3-point arc. It will be instructive to see how he shoots over a decent sample size now that he’s coming off the bench and not playing as the fifth option offensively, his role when starting. He seems more comfortable in general playing with the second unit and over time let’s see how that translates to shooting consistency.

SVGoat (@DET_pride_): Thoughts on Kennard so far and his first start? I think he’s looked great and I always see him making good decisions with the ball.

Langlois: Kennard has a rounded offensive repertoire – he can shoot with range, he’s good off the dribble, he’s good with either hand around the rim, he’s a good and a willing passer. Those are all things that blend well with just about any playing group. The more pressing concern with Kennard as a starter will be some of the matchups he’ll face eventually. Against Indiana, in Kennard’s debut, Stan Van Gundy cross-matched so Reggie Bullock guarded Victor Oladipo and Kennard was able to check the less explosive Bojan Bogdanovic. There will be nights they won’t be as able to accommodate Kennard. That said, I don’t recall a team blatantly targeting Kennard and exploiting the Pistons defensively. He’s been good enough defensively, evidenced by the fact he’s won rotation minutes from a coach who doesn’t have much tolerance for consistent defensive shortcomings.

Joe (@MaxAMillion_): Avery Bradley has the lowest TPA on the team. Thoughts? How do we fix that?

Langlois: I think the fix needs to come with the TPA formula – whatever it might be – if the result it spits out is that Avery Bradley is the least functional player on the Pistons roster. And don’t misinterpret my response as a blanket indictment of analytics. But when a formula produces a result that is inconsistent with the eye test, inconsistent with the defensive matchups assigned a player by his defensive-oriented head coach, inconsistent with NBA All-Defensive team voting and inconsistent with the overwhelming anecdotal testimonials from his peers of a player’s ability, then is the right question “What’s the matter with Avery Bradley?” or is it “What’s the problem with the code that underlies the TPA formula?” I’d vote for the latter, but that’s just me. Bradley’s going to miss some time – a minimum of a week, but likely more – so we’ll get a better handle on his value to the Pistons in his absence.

Dirty Dan (@sauersdaniel): Will the Pistons pursue Julius Randle when he becomes a free agent? Could be a good fit in the system.

Langlois: If he can be had for the mid-level exception, then put him on the list of players the Pistons will consider. Barring unexpected major personnel moves to clear cap space, the Pistons won’t have the money to pursue free agents above the MLE next July.

Daniel (@DanVanderMolen): Which (if any) small forwards are on the market right now that the Pistons could realistically pursue?

Langlois: For the sake of argument, every NBA player without an ironclad no-trade clause in his contract, which barely exists, is on the market. It’s always a matter of what you’re willing to give back. So that’s too broad a question to answer in a meaningful way, but keep reading.

Felipe (@fisferr): Are the Pistons one good small forward away from ensuring home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs?

Langlois: If his name is LeBron James, yes. There aren’t a ton of players who would guarantee such a thing and you can safely assume that the asking price for those who fit your description would be right on the doorstep of prohibitive. I don’t know how the Pistons would meet the asking price without creating a hole elsewhere – and likely a bigger hole than the one you perceive now at small forward.

Matthew (@matthewyo): Percent likelihood that Stanley Johnson is on the team at the end of the year?

Langlois: At the end of the year? Well, since there are 11 more days in the year, I’m going to say 99.9 percent. If you meant by the end of the season, I’ll go slightly lower: 95 percent. I’d say the chances of the Pistons making a significant trade by the Feb. 8 deadline are relatively small, surely less than 50 percent. That they made two significant trades in two seasons – for Reggie Jackson in 2015, for Tobias Harris in 2016 (and you could make it three if you want to include the rescinded deal for Donatas Motiejunas in ’16, as well) – was more the aberration. And the conditions that existed in those two seasons – the Pistons with plenty of cap space to be used in the coming off-season – no longer exists. In effect, the Pistons were allocating free-agent money ahead of free agency in doing those trades. They won’t have cap space next summer, so a similar deal isn’t in the cards. As Stan Van Gundy has said publicly many times, he’d never tell a player that they aren’t being traded because five minutes after relaying such news an offer might be advanced that’s too beneficial to turn down. It’s tough to gauge what Johnson’s trade value would be. He’s not been a consistent producer, but the flashes he shows – as has been noted above – are, indeed, intriguing. Everyone is looking for versatile wing defenders in an era of spread floors, drive-and-kick ballhandlers and proficient 3-point shooting, which induced the Pistons to draft Johnson in the lottery in 2015. As with any player, his trade value also is tied to his contract status. While Johnson is on a team-friendly rookie deal now, he’s not far removed from a second contract and the uncertainty of his contributions makes it tough to peg where that will come in. So unless a team is thoroughly convinced of what he can deliver, it probably would be reticent to part with an asset alluring enough to the Pistons to prompt a deal. But it only takes one trade partner with the right combination of assets to make a deal work. Bottom line, there are way too many unknowns in trade scenarios for Johnson – starting with how Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower would assess his career projection 2½ seasons since drafting him – to say with any degree of confidence what might happen over the coming months.

Eric (@EJohns_1004): What does Stan Van Gundy see in Henry Ellenson that he doesn’t like so much that it keeps him from ever seeing any playing time?

Langlois: He’s not judging Ellenson in a vacuum. He has decisions to make on playing time. To some extent, there’s enough wiggle room within a depth chart that a player whose primary position – like Ellenson – is power forward isn’t merely competing for minutes with other power forwards on the roster. But if it isn’t exactly a zero-sum game among the power forwards Van Gundy has at his disposal – Tobias Harris, Anthony Tolliver, Ellenson and the injured Jon Leuer – there’s not infinite flexibility, either. Harris is going to get his minutes, whether it’s at power forward – where he spends most of his time and where, according to Van Gundy, he’s more comfortable – or at small forward. Then it’s a matter of fit, consistency and reliability. Right now, Tolliver scores higher. He’s an experienced player who offers more consistent 3-point shooting than Ellenson – though it’s arguable that Ellenson would produce at a similar clip given greater opportunity – and more reliable defense against a greater variety of opposing scorers. But keep in mind that the gap between them isn’t nearly as great as the disparity in their opportunity. It was a 50-50 call for Van Gundy early in the season and he went with Ellenson initially because he felt the younger player’s ceiling could produce the bigger dividend. But when Ellenson struggled – defensively in some awkward matchups for him, but also at the other end – Van Gundy turned to Tolliver with immediate positive results. Tolliver has continued to play well and the team – the seven-game losing streak, in which the Pistons likely were only favored to win once (at home against Denver), aside – has functioned well with him as part of a generally cohesive bench unit. But it doesn’t mean the 50-50 proposition is suddenly 95-5. It’s more like 55-45, but there’s only room for one in the rotation so, right now, it’s effectively 100-0. If injury or foul trouble prompted Van Gundy to play Ellenson, he’d do it with confidence. Worth keeping in mind Ellenson is still 20, still the youngest player on the team.

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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