Pistons Mailbag - December 6, 2017

A little about the Pistons’ tough road trip, a dive into the Stanley Johnson-Anthony Tolliver lineup move and one more debate about what the Pistons should do when Andre Drummond sits are among the topics hit in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Will (@Will_Michaels): How do you think Stan Van Gundy is handling the adversity of the first losing skid of the season?

Langlois: He appeared less than suicidal after Tuesday’s practice in San Antonio. He’s been in the NBA for more than two decades. Losing three games in a row doesn’t throw him into a depression. He always takes losses hard, but once he processes the disappointment he’s quickly on to focusing on the next game and what he needs to do to put his team in position to win that game. Coaches that stew in disappointment last about as long as Dick Vitale did when he was Pistons coach, a minute and a half.

Salee (Hamtramck, Mich.): Do you think the NBA should ban the hacking rules on players under five minutes of each quarter and overtime to prevent a slow pace during games?

Langlois: The thing Boston did with Ben Simmons, when the Celtics put him at the line 24 times in the fourth quarter, last week isn’t a good look. Adam Silver knows that. I sat through a similar abomination two years ago in Houston where J.B. Bickerstaff inserted little-used K.J. McDaniels to start the third quarter and he fouled Andre Drummond five times in the opening seconds to put the Pistons in the bonus. It’s not fun. It’s certainly not the product fans want, thus not the product TV wants, thus not the product the NBA wants to deliver. But if it remains as isolated as those incidents, then there probably won’t be enough momentum to fundamentally alter the rules. They tweaked it after the 2015-16 season to extend the rule that intentional fouls in the last two minutes of a game resulted in shots and possession to all four quarters. The thing is, unless there are a handful of prominent players – players who are valuable enough to their team that their subpar foul shooting offsets whatever else they contribute – in the league who shoot under 55 percent or so, the point past which the strategy is neutered, it’s not going to be an issue. And with Andre Drummond up to 64 percent this season, the most frequent target of the tactic the past few seasons largely has taken himself out of play. If memory serves, there’s been one instance of intentional fouling on Drummond this season – by Boston, also. They fouled him once intentionally, he split the pair to give the Pistons the lead, and that was that. We’ll see what happens on Sunday when the Celtics come to Little Caesars Arena.

Brandon (@SFHCommissioner): Do you see Stanley Johnson as the starter or will Tolliver start again?

Langlois: Asked Stan Van Gundy what his plans were for that fifth starter spot after Tuesday’s practice at San Antonio. The Spurs are an extreme example since they are virtually alone in starting two 7-footers who are versatile scoring threats in Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge is among the very few elite post scorers remaining, so the move to start Anthony Tolliver not only was based on sound reasoning but was proven the right call. But it doesn’t signal a change coming. “There’ll probably be other times (Tolliver starts for Johnson),” Van Gundy said. “Matchups – that’s what that was. And I thought that part of it, actually, we went pretty good with that. Aldridge is impossible to stop, but I think he did about as good a job as you can do. It wasn’t easy or comfortable for Aldridge and that’s about all you can ask.” Bottom line, I’d expect Johnson to be the starter tonight at Milwaukee in the impossible matchup with Giannis Antetokounmpo. Tolliver will get minutes against him, as well, but Johnson is best equipped for major minutes against the Swiss Army Knife Antetokounmpo. And I think Johnson is the starter much more often than not simply because the matchups will dictate as much.

Jason (Chicago): Stanley Johnson seemed confident coming into the San Antonio game off of the bench, but hesitant as a ballhandler and in his decision making. Anthony Tolliver was a good choice to start against the Spurs, but I think Tolliver is a more dangerous asset off of the bench where he’s able to take a more prominent role. With that in mind, I think Stanley should stay in the starting lineup for his defensive versatility. But how could he be better utilized offensively? Should Stan Van Gundy be running more plays for him to take advantage of his strength and athleticism?

Langlois: As Van Gundy noted, even though Johnson played well the second unit as a whole didn’t have a good night in San Antonio. That hasn’t been the norm for them – it’s been a distinct asset to the Pistons overall this season – so it would be an upset if Van Gundy tinkers with the lineup based on the success of his decision to have Tolliver start specifically to manipulate a matchup with LaMarcus Aldridge, a power forward with unique size and skills in today’s NBA. As for running more plays for Johnson, I doubt that’s in the cards at this point. Between action to get Avery Bradley to his sweet spots, usually in dribble handoffs or pin downs; Tobias Harris his shots and isolations; and the Reggie Jackson-Andre Drummond pick-and-roll sets the Pistons have a good deal to work with in the first unit. Johnson’s opportunities will come amid the attention those actions demand of opposition defenses. He’s going to have to be adept at hitting corner threes, cutting to exploit defensive overplays, running in transition and cleaning up on loose balls. And that’s plenty for him at this point given the responsibility he’s usually handed on the defensive end.

Deeptroit (@DeeptroitPiston): Do you think SVG regrets Boban’s contract? What about that empty roster spot?

Langlois: Regret is too strong. Boban has proven himself a capable fill-in and that’s the biggest thing. If the Pistons were in a position where he had to play, Van Gundy would be comfortable playing him and making whatever alterations to defensive scheme a steady dose of Marjanovic as the backup center would require. When Jon Leuer returns – probably by the end of the month or very early January – Van Gundy will have another arrow in his quiver to further increase the flexibility of a bench that is among his team’s strengths. As for the empty roster spot, I don’t see any urgency to fill it at this point. It’s good to have that flexibility at least through the trade deadline to help facilitate trades – even if it’s just finding a landing spot as the third team in a deal where you can pick up an asset merely for parking someone’s salary on your cap sheet. And if it gets beyond that and Van Gundy and GM Jeff Bower see a specific need and there’s a veteran available, either unsigned or someone who pursues and achieves a contract buyout elsewhere, then having an open roster spot becomes desirable.

Will (Northport, Ala.): Longtime Pistons fan from Alabama. There aren’t many Pistons games I get to watch on TV except Hawks games – and I’ll be at the Dec. 14 game for my first-ever NBA game – and the occasional game that gets picked up on national TV. My question, from seeing highlights on NBA TV of home games, is it me or does Little Caesars Arena look empty most nights? It could be how the camera is angled, but behind the benches looks sparsely populated.

Langlois: I’m told ticket sales, attendance and revenue are up, Will. Prices on secondary ticket markets reflect that. I’ve also seen the same pockets of empty, red seats when the Red Wings play. There is at least anecdotal evidence that many fans who’ve purchased those prime seats and have access to the all-inclusive clubs in the new arena are choosing to watch the game from those vantage points. I’m sure once the novelty of the new arena fades and the Pistons occupy a larger place in the consciousness as they continue to win, the scales will begin to tilt the other way. Also those red seats are hard to miss. If they were a deep blue or black, which they are in most arenas, it wouldn’t be quite as stark a picture. The parts of the arena the camera doesn’t find nearly as often are much more densely populated.

Kevin (Winona, Texas): Correct me if I’m wrong, but the Pistons were up 36 points going into the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns last week. Yet all Stan Van Gundy can do for Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson is give them a measly five minutes of playing time? He might not be sold on their defensive abilities, but how are they going to develop without real-game reps?

Langlois: The same way NBA players have developed for decades: in practice and on their own, both in and out of season. Ellenson has already come a long way since being drafted by the Pistons and he’s made that progress with scant NBA exposure. Asking either of them to play a 12-minute stretch at this point, when they’ve played limited minutes, wouldn’t be wise, either. I’d say seven or eight minutes at a time would be all you’d want to expose them to and then you could gradually ramp it up from there. Stan Van Gundy has also been around long enough to know that to throw little-used players into a game against an embarrassed opponent still playing their regular rotation could invite an avalanche. The last thing you want is to see a 25-point lead turn into a 10-point lead with five minutes to play. That snowball gets hard to stop even if you bring your starters back in.

Keith (@Charlottean28): Eric Moreland can’t play. Doesn’t belong in the NBA at all. The Pistons play four on five when he’s on the floor. But Boban Marjanovic can’t defend 30 feet from the hoop, so let’s keep ignoring everything else Moreland can’t do.

Langlois: You’re giving guys named Keith a bad rep, my man. “Doesn’t belong in the NBA at all” seems a little harsh, don’t you think? It’s the kind of thing you start a debate with when you don’t really want to have a discussion, so my answer isn’t so much directed at you because you’ve already staked out your ground. For everyone else, Moreland has easily identifiable NBA skills. He’s got tremendously quick feet for a big man and that – in this era – is invaluable. Moreland does a really good job smothering pick and rolls and he’s an aggressive and instinctive shot blocker. (His block rate per 36 minutes is nearly twice what Andre Drummond’s is.) He’s also a skilled passer and helps facilitate offense deftly with his dribble handoffs, similar to Drummond in that regard. He’s not a low-post scoring threat and he’s not going to take a shot outside the paint, so that limits his potential to be more than he is right now – a perfectly functional backup center. He’s part of the puzzle Stan Van Gundy can use when Drummond’s off the floor, along with Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer, when the latter returns from injury. Leuer, recall, had emerged as the primary backup for Drummond over the first eight games and might regain that role after he’s able to settle in upon his return – especially because Anthony Tolliver has proven such a good fit at Leuer’s power forward spot with the second unit. Marjanovic has almost the completely opposite skill set as Moreland. In another NBA era, his would have been the more valuable; in today’s game, Moreland is a better fit for more situations. That’s why he’s getting more playing time. But Van Gundy has shown within the last week that he’ll still use Marjanovic, too, playing him in important minutes against both Washington and Philadelphia.

Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Do you think the Pistons will make a play for Jahlil Okafor? He is a lottery talent who can be had for cheap and would be a great scoring option off of the bench. If they can get him for a second-rounder, why not?

Langlois: But they can’t get him for a second-round pick. The Pistons are over the cap and limited to what they can take on in additional salary. The entire NBA has known for a calendar year, essentially, that Okafor could be had in trade. The fact it hasn’t happened yet has to say more about Okafor’s value than anything else. It’s an uncomfortable situation for Philadelphia at this point. If the 76ers had designs on fetching a No. 1 pick for him, it’s well past the point where management has come to accept that won’t happen. So I’m guessing the 76ers aren’t all that picky about a return on Okafor about now, but more draft picks for a team loaded with picks and young players probably doesn’t hold the same appeal to this regime, at this time, as it did under the Sam Hinkie front office during the thick of “The Process.” The 76ers, ideally, probably want another versatile wing player where they’re a little short right now. I think they’d probably like to get their hands on Reggie Bullock, for one example. If you’re asking me if the Pistons would rather have Okafor or Bullock – never mind the disparity in their contracts and cap parameters for the moment – I wouldn’t have a guess whether they’d go for that or not. And the fact that there’s not a clear answer from the Pistons’ perspective on that deal tells you something about how Okafor’s stock has fallen.