After last week’s two trades – and this week’s news that one of them had to be scratched – what’s next for the Pistons as Stan Van Gundy continues to build out the roster? Check out the latest in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Clark (Santa Cruz, Calif.): Can you give us an updated rough figure regarding our cap situation this off-season? And would you agree that our two needs going into the summer are a backup point guard and a stretch four? Do you have an idea of how those will rank in terms of importance?
Langlois: The best guess on how much cap space the Pistons will have this off-season is about $13 million to $14 million, Clark. In a typical recent summer, that would be a healthy sum. This summer it will put the Pistons in the bottom half, perhaps the bottom 10. You pretty much hit the nail on the head with regard to their needs – someone who can at least be a piece of the puzzle at power forward and someone to serve as the backup point guard. With 25 games left and Spencer Dinwiddie still out with a sprained ankle, he might not have the opportunity to prove to Stan Van Gundy that he deserves consideration for the No. 2 point guard job. And Van Gundy said earlier this season that they want to know if Dinwiddie can be viewed as something more than a No. 3 point guard when they make the decision on his contract for next season. Anthony Tolliver is a pending free agent and I think it’s fair to say there will be mutual interest in bringing him back next season. But the Pistons might want to explore other business first, including the backup point guard, and it’s always possible somebody else comes at Tolliver with an attractive situation and offer before the Pistons are in position to offer him a concrete vision for his role. How Tobias Harris adapts to playing the majority of his minutes at power forward also figures to influence the decision-making process on prioritizing roster needs. Joel Anthony’s contract status is another factor in which way the Pistons go. The Pistons hold a team option on Anthony. If they pick it up, then they might decide they need another power forward in the mix with Harris and Tolliver, should they bring him back. But perhaps they’d want to find someone more like Donatas Motiejunas – a big man capable of playing center or power forward – and consider him the third center behind Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes. It’s also possible, should the Pistons hang on to their No. 1 pick, that they would draft a point guard they feel ready to assume backup minutes, or a power forward ready to factor into the mix with Harris and Tolliver or someone who replaces Tolliver’s skill set and role.
Ken (Dharamsala, India): Tobias Harris is athletic, for sure. This means he can play defense if he wants to. Does he want to? And what about the defensive ability of the other new faces?
Langlois: Here’s what Stan Van Gundy said about Harris as a defender last week, Ken: “I think he’s improved defensively. He came into the league with Scott (Skiles, when Skiles was coach at Milwaukee) and he’s been with Scot in the last year and I think that’s really good. I think that’s really helped him defensively. But he’s got a ways to go, like most guys that age. He’s got a ways to go defensively and we’ll continue to work. Out team has a long way to go defensively as we’ve been talking about.” I’ve seen him play three games and here’s guessing he’s still feeling his way through the system and getting to know his teammates, but he’s made a few heads-up plays as a help defender already. No reason to believe his intent isn’t where it ought to be. With the trade that was to bring Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Pistons rescinded, there are no other new faces. Losing Motiejunas hurts, of course, first because he was not just a good player but one that Van Gundy envisioned as a good fit. Also because he would have given the Pistons tremendous lineup flexibility. From a defensive standpoint, that means he would have been a good matchup for teams with bigger power forwards or centers who play away from the rim.
Philip (Negaunee, Mich.): I see Terry Duerod just retired as a Detroit fireman. Any chance the Pistons will sign him?
Langlois: Well, there is no mandatory retirement age in the NBA, but I would suspect that anyone who’s reached the mandatory retirement retirement age of 60 for Detroit firefighters probably has outlived his NBA playing career. That said, my money might still go on “Sweet Due” in any type of shooting contest with anyone this side of Steph Curry. Duerod, who led Highland Park to the 1975 Class A state title, is one of the two greatest shooters I’ve seen among Michigan high school players. I don’t claim to have seen them all, but I’d feel pretty comfortable putting Duerod and Glen Rice up against any pair anyone else might suggest. (Sorry, John Long. Didn’t see you play at Romulus High or you might be on the list, too.)
Deborah (Detroit): Why are Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson still wearing the No. 1 and No. 3 that have been retired for Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace?
Langlois: Jackson came to the Pistons a year before the Pistons retired Chauncey Billups’ jersey (not necessarily the number, but the jersey). The NBA requires any player switching uniform numbers to initiate the process several months before it can go into effect the following season. Johnson took his number last June, about seven months before the Pistons honored Wallace. You might recall Greg Monroe was wearing No. 10 when the Pistons honored Dennis Rodman by hanging his jersey. Monroe continued to wear it throughout his Pistons career. I have not heard of any discussion about Jackson or Johnson changing their uniform numbers for next season. It would surprise me if they did so.
Rohan (Seattle): When is Jodie Meeks going to be ready to play and what can we expect from him upon his return?
Langlois: Uncertain on the first count. He practiced once in late January, experienced pain in the right foot that suffered a fracture of the fifth metatarsal on Oct. 29 and saw his surgeon in New York shortly after that, at which time it was said he would back off activity until March. He practiced again once last week, though it was on a day the Pistons were shorthanded due to their trades and other factors so it wasn’t a real test of his readiness as there was no full-court activity. At this point, with seven weeks left in the season, it probably isn’t realistic to expect Meeks to be able to contribute much. If he returns and proves capable of contributing, great. But the Pistons have played without him so long and adjusted to his absence. Stan Van Gundy goes with a nine-man rotation most of the time that means Stanley Johnson, when healthy, is the primary backup at both shooting guard and small forward. Or he goes with a 10-man rotation that also brings Darrun Hilliard into the mix behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. With Johnson, expected to miss a few weeks with a shoulder sprain, now needed more at forward with Anthony Tolliver also hurting, Hilliard has moved into the nine-man mix, as well – as has Reggie Bullock, presumably, at least until Johnson’s return.
Jymel (Detroit): When you hear Stan Van Gundy you hear a defensive coach, but his two best players are subpar defensively. Why do you think Reggie Jackson struggles to stay in front of people? No one is scared to go to the hole against Andre Drummond. He stands there and watches the play, especially on pick and rolls.
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy has acknowledged that both need to give the Pistons more on defense. Drummond had an encouraging start to the season but probably has slipped defensively as the Pistons have struggled at that end – though he was really good at that end in Monday’s big win at Cleveland. There is sometimes a moment of hesitation for him as he determines whether or not to cut off penetration at the risk of leaving his man free for a lob or drop-off pass for an easy basket. The timing has to be precise as to when to make the move. Sometimes he nails it, sometimes not. The more repetitions he sees, the more comfortable he’ll figure to get with it. A big part of it, I believe, is familiarity with and trust in the players around you. And in Drummond’s defense, he’s played with a staggering number of teammates in his three-plus NBA seasons. And the deck just got shuffled again for him with Ersan Ilyasova traded to Orlando and a new starting power forward, first Anthony Tolliver and then Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris effectively playing both forward spots. Had the trade for Donatas Motiejunas gone through, the Pistons might have been on the verge of roster stability. As it stands now, they’ve probably got another move or two up their sleeves this summer to give them the traits Van Gundy was looking to get from Motiejunas. As for Jackson, Van Gundy cited his defensive intensity when the Pistons won at Utah last month and said over the subsequent weeks that he’d picked up his play at that end. As the Pistons become a more diverse offensive team – the addition of Harris helps there for his one-on-one scoring ability – and the onus of creating scoring chances on Jackson is lessened, he should find it a little easier to pour consistent focus into the defensive end.
Byron (Detroit): If Brandon Jennings could be had this summer in free agency, would Stan Van Gundy consider re-signing him and what are his thoughts on bringing him back or getting another point guard?
Langlois: Since Jennings is now property of another team, Van Gundy can’t comment on his interest in signing him as a free agent. But before he was traded, Van Gundy said he had a vision for how Jennings would fit with the Pistons and had discussed it with him. You never really know what might happen in free agency until July 1 unfolds, Byron. Is there a team with an opening for a starting point guard that has interest in Jennings? If so, logic dictates they’re going to offer him more than any team that has a backup role in mind for him. But what was Van Gundy’s vision? Was it more than a conventional backup role? We don’t know. As it stands now, it figures that the Pistons are going to target a chunk of their off-season assets on acquiring a part of the puzzle at power forward, where Anthony Tolliver will also be a free agent. They’ll need somebody to help complete the picture at that spot. But a close second, at least, is acquiring a backup point guard to Reggie Jackson.
Nick (Brisbane, Australia): I heard a bit of discussion around the trade deadline that the Warriors have “scared” a lot of teams off of making moves as they don’t think they can compete with them. Do you think Stan Van Gundy and his team hold real fears that even though the core of Drummond, Jackson, KCP, Harris and Johnson are in place that the ultimate goal of a championship will not be achievable in the next three to five years? From an outsider looking in, we are going to need to see a lot of improvement from this core to entertain thoughts of winning a championship. I hope we get it.
Langlois: You can plan ahead from a salary cap standpoint and the Pistons have more rotation players on long-term contracts or under team control, at least, than most teams. But it’s speculative enough just trying to figure out what your roster is going to look like one or two seasons ahead, never mind what everybody else’s will look like, too. Look at how radically the roster has churned in the less than two years since Stan Van Gundy took over. With the trade of Brandon Jennings last week, the only two players left Van Gundy inherited are Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I think that the degree of turnover will lessen now and Van Gundy wants to inject a little stability to the equation. But he’s also repeatedly said the Pistons aren’t close to where they need to be. So I’d expect that the roster we see two years from now to be perhaps as much as two-thirds different than the one we see today. As for projecting what that team might be capable of, who knows? I can tell you that in June 2002, there was no way to predict the Pistons would be NBA champions two years later. The only starter on the ’04 champs who was with the Pistons at that point was Ben Wallace. Things tend to change pretty quickly. It’s entirely possible teams were hesitant to make trades for marginal immediate gains now at the expense of making more substantial gains later on the belief that it wouldn’t do enough to close the gap with Golden State. But the Pistons surely weren’t measuring themselves against the Warriors. They didn’t make their trades with them in mind. They’re just working toward improving the roster by trying to make incremental upgrades with every personnel transaction. I certainly expect significant internal improvement with this roster, given the ages of its most important players. But I’d also expect more tweaking from Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower. If they’re proven anything in less than two years on the job, it’s that they’re not afraid to shake things up.