Pistons Mailbag - February 15, 2018

The future for the Pistons – coming out of the All-Star break and beyond – tops the agenda for this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

AlmostFamous (@brian_penoyer): What kind of roster flexibility do we have this summer to upgrade the team in the event they miss the playoffs?

The Pistons (likely) won’t have their first-round draft pick and they (also likely) won’t have any cap space. The good news is they will have rare roster stability next season given the number of players with contracts that go beyond this season. It’s typical for a team to turn over at least a third and as much as two thirds of the roster over an off-season, but the Pistons have 12 of their current 15-man roster under team control for next season. They’ll be well over the cap and bumping up against the luxury tax without doing anything other than retaining their current players. They will have the mid-level exception at their disposal, though unless they make other moves even using the full MLE would push them into tax territory. I don’t know that making or missing the playoffs will have much of an impact on off-season roster assessments. They’ll do what they can to improve the roster, of course, but Stan Van Gundy and his front office will want to use the season’s final 25 games – and, especially, however many games remain once Reggie Jackson returns – to gauge what this roster with Blake Griffin needs and might be capable of achieving and then proceed from there. Trades, obviously, will be the foremost means of tweaking of the roster.

JLW (@WolletBullet): What is Stan Van Gundy’s “hot seat” status? Would he be fired at season’s end if the Pistons miss the playoffs?

That’s something that only Tom Gores could answer meaningfully. The Pistons owner has been nothing but supportive of Van Gundy, and consistently, though he’s not an owner who speaks frequently to the media. Gores made clear his displeasure with the environment he inherited when he bought the Pistons, stating in emphatic terms that he found the disconnect between the front office and coaching staff disconcerting. It was a primary motivation for his decision to hire Van Gundy and install him as both president of basketball operations and head coach. Van Gundy appealed to him because he made a compelling case for a similar vision – pretty much the blueprint of the synergy between the front office and the coaching side Gores strove to achieve – when they met and Van Gundy wowed him with his presentation for how he envisioned his ideal operational structure. Through two seasons, there was clear progress as Van Gundy and his handpicked general manager, Jeff Bower, weeded out the roster and built to playoff status. I’d make the case that injuries to Reggie Jackson derailed a postseason return last year and has imperiled a playoff bid this year. If Jackson is healthy both seasons, is this a question you’d ask? I submit that answer would be no. The recent trade to add Blake Griffin – a move that Gores enthusiastically endorsed in his public comments – could be interpreted as faith in Van Gundy’s administration. It was an enormous financial commitment for Gores. Beyond the reported $173 million owed to Griffin over the life of his contract, it was a de facto statement of faith in Van Gundy’s ability to build a team around him. All of that said, Van Gundy is coming up on the final year of his original five-year contract and coaches don’t often go into what is perceived as a lame-duck year. Could that lead to friction? I don’t sense Van Gundy would be particularly squeamish about coaching out the last year of his deal without a clear resolution of the future beyond that. It’s fair to guess that the subject will at least be broached between the two sides because that’s the normal course of action. But it’s not something that would be publicly aired, in all likelihood.

Ian (Westland, Mich.): Never thought we would have the opportunity to get Blake Griffin. I hope this works out. I would like to see him shooting fewer threes, however. I think at 32 percent you should only shoot one or two a game. Too bad Ish Smith had an awful game against the Hawks on Sunday and Stan Van Gundy didn’t play Langston Galloway. I think otherwise we would have beaten them. Perhaps the best part of the Griffin trade is the effect on Andre Drummond, who is starting to play like a dominant center, and on Stanley Johnson. Any idea how we can get out from under Jon Leuer’s contract in 2019?

It’s going to take some time for the Pistons to figure out the best way to use Blake Griffin within the context of their current roster and lineup. Griffin and Stan Van Gundy agree that he shouldn’t be taking quite so many of his shots from the 3-point line – 37 percent of his shot attempts in eight games with the Pistons have been triples – but that’s the shot teams are most willing to give him and until the Pistons strike a better balance with the rest of their offense it’s a shot he’ll be fairly compelled to take on possessions that offer little else. Griffin’s 3-point attempts had risen sharply this season even with the Clippers, likely a result of him graduating to ball-dominant personality in the wake of Chris Paul’s departure. Only 11.6 percent of Griffin’s shots with the Clippers last season were threes; this season it was up to 33 percent, or not much different than what he’s done with the Pistons so far. He was hitting 34.2 percent of his triples with the Clippers – below league average, but not by much – so it’s likely he’ll see his numbers improve, a process that began with Wednesday’s return win over Atlanta when Griffin hit four triples. And, it’s reasonable to assume given the trajectory of most players who began to take their game farther from the basket, Griffin likely will become a better 3-point shooter over the next few seasons. But his bread and butter will remain taking the ball into the paint and either scoring, drawing the foul or making the pass to beat a double team. The Pistons have to achieve better floor spacing to fully exploit that ability. Johnson’s uptick began before Griffin – his career-high 26 points came the day after the trade but before Griffin had passed his physical and joined the team – but Johnson, to be sure, is thrilled to be playing with Griffin and believes it helps all of his teammates be more effective. Leuer’s contract isn’t much of an issue for the Pistons, though adding Griffin at power forward with the idea of using him at center doesn’t leave a ton of room for Leuer, Eric Moreland and Henry Ellenson to find roles.

Diplu (Wayne, N.J.): Do you think the Cleveland Cavaliers new roster looks good enough to win the NBA East?

As long as they have LeBron James, yes. The early returns are most promising. And the biggest positive effect seems to be the re-engagement of James. It was pretty clear from his body language he had zero faith in the Cavs as constituted to get anything done. It’s too soon to say the Cavs are again a definitive favorite – Toronto looks very good – but if they get to the postseason with a healthy James, nobody would bet against them coming out of the East.

Solomon Van Grundy (@RyanJK1984): Does Coach have any plans to fine tune his pick-and-roll philosophy given the influx of new players? They seem to have the same defensive principles that may not suit their new personnel.

He’ll be busier than usual over the All-Star break. He usually unplugs through the weekend and gets back to poring over videotape on Monday, he said, but this year he expects to get back to work on Friday. He said he’ll watch tape of the Pistons, tape of how Blake Griffin was used in Los Angeles and tape of teams that frequently employ two big men as the Pistons do now with Griffin and Andre Drummond. He said they’re fairly confident of the defensive adjustments they want to make but he needs to get a better handle on what offensive changes he wants to implement. It’s not so much a matter of coming up with ideas – as he said, “I’ve got a million ideas and you can’t have a million ideas; you’ve got to get it down to some things you can really work on” – as it is paring down the list of possibilities and honing the ones that offer the most promise.

Neil (Austin, Texas): After all of our trades, what draft picks do we have left in coming years. Should this be a concern?

The Pistons owe their 2020 second-round pick to Phoenix as a result of their 2015 trade for Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock, which goes down as one of the heists of the decade. As a result of last month’s Blake Griffin trade, they owe the Clippers a No. 1 pick that’s top-four protected, which probably means it gets conveyed this year. (Even if the Pistons miss the playoffs, they’ll be very deep in the lottery with a minuscule chance to pull a top-three pick.) And they won’t have their 2022 second-round pick. When they traded for Jameer Nelson, they gave Chicago the right to swap second-rounders that season; and when they later traded for James Ennis, they agreed to ship that pick to Memphis. That’s it as far as outgoing picks. The Pistons have the bulk of their roster under team control for next season: Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, Jon Leuer, Eric Moreland, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard and Dwight Buycks will all be back unless they’re used in trades. Anthony Tolliver is the only player who’s been in the rotation – aside from the two newcomers, Nelson and Ennis – who will be a free agent after the season. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if the front office tries to keep Tolliver or Ennis by using part of the mid-level exception. So while you’d always prefer to have your first-round pick, it’s not a bad time to be without it. Bottom line, the Pistons don’t have their No. 1 pick (probably) this season and don’t have No. 2 picks in 2020 or 2022. That’s it. They don’t have any incoming picks. The No. 2 pick they had coming from Orlando in 2019 was used in the package to get Blake Griffin.

Deviaire (Pontiac, Mich.): After signing Jameer Nelson, who has looked decent, did we attempt for a few others? We have some exceptions available – trade and disabled player exceptions – and having a bench of Derrick Rose, Tony Allen, Joe Johnson and Marco Belinelli would have looked good.

The Pistons had a full 15-man roster after they converted Dwight Buycks to a standard contract from a two-way deal and still had a 15-man roster after their three trades. So what you’re proposing would have meant waiving four players – and still having their salaries count against the cap – and adding four new players who would have all pushed the Pistons into the luxury tax. There was no reasonable expectation that all four players – or any of the four players – would have been a fit or interested in signing with the Pistons. The Pistons probably won’t wind up using the disabled player exception they got for Jon Leuer’s injury as the trades for Jameer Nelson and James Ennis addressed their most pressing needs – depth at point guard and on the wing.

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