Pistons Mailbag - January 17, 2018

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Questions about the looming trade deadline, the track record of Stan Van Gundy’s front office in personnel decisions and the type of shots his offense creates are among our hot topics in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Darrell (Detroit): Why has Langston Galloway fallen out of the rotation? With injuries to Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson, it would seem like Galloway would get more playing time rather than less.

Langlois: Fair point, except once Dwight Buycks assumed backup minutes at point guard, then Reggie Jackson’s injury had little to no bearing on Galloway’s playing time and Stanley Johnson’s minutes had come virtually exclusively at small forward this season, which also has little impact on Galloway’s minutes. With Luke Kennard essentially backing up at both wing positions behind Reggie Bullock and Avery Bradley, Stan Van Gundy has been going with a nine-man rotation for the most part in Johnson’s absence. I suspect we’ll see Galloway again – perhaps tonight at Toronto with questions about the status of Johnson, Kennard and Bradley.

Paul (@Zybowskipjr): Why is this team so inconsistent? Is this going to be the core or are changes coming?

Langlois: Injuries are a big piece of it. For teams not dripping with All-Star talent, the margin for error isn’t very big. That describes two-thirds to three-fourths of NBA teams. Get a few key injuries and there’s a lot to overcome. The Pistons rely on chemistry, synergy and system to a greater degree than teams that can always revert to isolation for a star. So when guys like Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Stanley Johnson and Jon Leuer – four of the players in Stan Van Gundy’s top seven when the regular season opened – miss significant time, there’s an adjustment period to reset the chemistry and maximize the synergy. And the adjustment period has been virtually non-stop since Bradley missed seven games in early December. It’s probably not a coincidence that the Pistons opened 14-6 but since December – when all those injuries began to pile up – they’re 8-14. As to your second question, that’s tougher. There are precious few teams that have a core in place that would make them impervious to the temptation to tinker with it. And surely a team in the Pistons position – one on course for a playoff berth but not necessarily poised for immediate title contention – is open to the possibility of change. What that might look like is impossible to project. No one is more closely identified with the core of the Pistons than Andre Drummond. That said, if somebody put together a package that gave the Pistons some immediate return and some intriguing assets for the future, of course they would debate the merits of such a proposal. So would every other team in a similar position – and that, too, describes a large chunk of the league.

Paul (Phoenix): Hearing rumors the Pistons are interested in Nikola Mirotic from the Bulls and hearing the Bulls want a first-round pick. It seems like that would solve a problem at power forward as far as scoring off the bench. But the Orlando rumors involving Evan Fournier and the Bulls rumors are for players who don’t play defense. I can’t say I have much faith in this coaching staff or GM crew after four years of trades, drafts and free agency as well as in-game adjustments.

Langlois: Not really a question in there, so I’ll take a stab at addressing what I perceive would be your concern. After four off-seasons and four drafts, Stan Van Gundy and his front office have a sufficient track record to debate now. I’d say it’s fair to say their performance on trades has been their strength. Of their four top players – Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson and Avery Bradley – Van Gundy has acquired three in trade and the only significant player sent out to acquire any was Marcus Morris, whom he also acquired in trade for a 2020 second-round pick. Their three first-round picks came with a combined four years of college experience, so it’s too soon to judge that aspect definitively. Stanley Johnson’s experience the past season-plus has been frustrating, but his highs have shown the promise you’d expect of a mid-lottery pick and there is anecdotal evidence that he’s still viewed as an intriguing player around the league. Henry Ellenson was picked 18th as a 19-year-old, so let’s tap the brakes on whatever expectations you held for him to make an immediate impact. In limited opportunities, he’s certainly shown the offensive potential that drew the Pistons to him. They expected he’d have catching up to do from a physical maturity standpoint and that’s where we are. I don’t think anyone could have reasonably expected more out of Luke Kennard than he’s delivered so far. The area where Van Gundy’s front office is open to the most scrutiny would be in its aggressive approach to free agency, striking quickly for players not at the head of the class. It was a deliberate strategy and played on what Van Gundy believed to be a strength of the front office: evaluating NBA personnel to a greater degree than other teams by employing a four-man scouting staff charged with nothing else. There should be no debate that the front office was justified in its assessments of Ish Smith and Aron Baynes. Jon Leuer was tracking along the same path until the All-Star break last season, when he wore down. He’s been hurt since October this season. Van Gundy fully believes if and when he’s able to return, he’ll again justify his contract. Boban Marjanovic was signed as a hedge against the soaring market for backup big men in the summer of 2016. The way the market corrected – or overcorrected – in the summer of 2017 means the Pistons could have had a cheaper alternative. Hindsight, 20-20. Langston Galloway got off to a good start, had a mini-slump and temporarily lost his spot in the rotation. Kennard’s emergence is a big reason why. Way too soon to gauge whether the Pistons will get proper value for that signing. So for all the criticism they’ll take for free-agent signings, their record is in line with most teams – some clear hits, some that didn’t work out quite as hoped. That’s free agency in a nutshell.

Steven (@steven_welling): It’s been 1½ years and Ellenson still isn’t sniffing playing time. Is it too soon to say Stan Van Gundy botched this pick?

Langlois: Yes, for the reasons enunciated above. The next two players to be picked were Malik Beasley by Denver and Caris LeVert by Brooklyn. Beasley visited the Pistons a few days before the draft but couldn’t work out for them due to an injury. He played one season in college, like Ellenson, and played sparingly as a rookie before carving out a rotation role with Denver this season. He’s averaging 3.4 points in 11 minutes a game and shooting less than 30 percent from the 3-point arc. LeVert was a four-year college player who also had little impact as a rookie but has made a favorable impression in his second season with a team in position to give him plenty of opportunity. Stan Van Gundy volunteered that the Pistons had LeVert rated highly and had Ellenson not been available LeVert was in a very small circle of players to be considered. Beyond them, the three players with roles of varying degrees for playoff contenders are Timothy Luwawu-Cabarrot (Philadelphia), Pascal Siakam (Toronto) and Dejounte Murray (San Antonio). I don’t think any of those players should have the Pistons front office flogging itself for misjudging the draft class.

Eric (@Eric_Chase): Should the Pistons consider a “process?” How would you go about it?

Langlois: The Pistons aren’t about to embrace anything like what Philadelphia did if anything Tom Gores has said since buying the team remains his guiding principle. So will they? No. Should they? Also … no. It remains to be seen where it takes Philadelphia, but it’s conceivable the 76ers wound up with two franchise-altering players in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons for the misery they signed up to endure. And, trust me, it was misery there. But Embiid’s injury history – serious back, knee and foot problems on a very large man at a very early age – would scare me if I was charged with tying my franchise to his future. Simmons, too, has already missed one full season with a lower-body injury. And we’re only talking about Philadelphia, which you could argue had the “process” turn out as it desired. What about the other teams that have taken that route? Is there any evidence of a bright future in places like Phoenix or Sacramento yet? If I’m a GM, I do what Stan Van Gundy has done. Try to acquire undervalued assets, protect your draft choices, aim to get incrementally better while acquiring high-character players with high competitive spirit and hope you hit on your first-round draft picks and then hope you have enough in the way of assets to land a big fish when teams make highly talented players available because something went wrong in their blueprint.

Kenny (@Kenny_623): What teams are the Pistons talking to and which players are the Pistons interested in?

Langlois: All teams? Yeah, probably. All teams. And any players who roughly fit the above description – tough, talented, high-character guys whose skill set might be a better fit than what they have now. It’s the way every front office worth its salt operates – keep kicking the tires. Even teams on track to win 50 or 60 or more games keep talking and keep looking for upgrades wherever they can find them.

Neil (Austin, Texas): You or Stan Van Gundy said there was a fine line in the difference between Henry Ellenson and Anthony Tolliver. Why, then, with over eight minutes to play and a 40-point lead at Brooklyn was Ellenson not in the game? It makes no sense to me.

Langlois: Ellenson entered with five minutes to play. I don’t think those three minutes are going to alter the course of his career. When a player is out of the rotation for as long as Ellenson has been, you also have to weigh how many minutes he can play in a burst like that. They don’t want to put him in and not be able to play as hard as he needs to play to build some confidence. A good five-minute run is a fine place to start.

Arthur (Hamtramck, Mich.): Your comments from last week’s Mailbag about reviewing all calls – if all calls are not addressed in the game, then how do you fix the game to make it fair for all teams?

Langlois: You hire the best referees you can find and train them as assiduously as possible to administer the game as the rulebook intended. How far do you want to take the review process? You could spend five minutes looking at every possession, on which there could be a dozen different screens set and encountered. Would you have referees judging whether they were all set legally and whether any defender committed an infraction in getting past the obstacle? Or whether one defender lingered in the lane for three seconds without guarding someone? Or whether the point guard lifted his pivot foot one frame before putting the ball on the floor? I mean, we could review a hundred things, easily, on every possession and make the game impossibly tedious if your goal is to have a textbook-definition perfectly called game.

Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Avery Bradley for Channing Frye and Brooklyn’s first-round pick? Who says no?

Langlois: I suspect Cleveland would. The Cavs are no doubt mindful of a delicate balancing act – doing everything in their power to win titles while LeBron James is in his prime and playing on their dime against preparing for a future that won’t include him. In either case, that Brooklyn pick is a powerful tool. I suspect they’ll use it when it will have the most leverage, which isn’t very likely to be at this year’s trade deadline. It will hold a lot more possibilities as the draft nears and many more teams are ready to outbid each other for a particular player they covet in a draft that looks to have three or four potential franchise-altering talents.

Andres (@Man_zanares): Why is Avery Bradley taking so many mid-range jumpers and handoffs? Especially considering he’s not a consistent shooter and lacks dribbling and passing ability?

Langlois: I asked Stan Van Gundy about the quantity of dribble handoffs that produce a high volume of mid-range shots – shots that analytics will say are not among the most desirable. He said, in part, that in Monday’s game Bradley did a better job of turning the corner and getting shots near the rim but struggled to convert, which led to issues with transition defense. Here’s part of his answer: “We’ve talked about not wanting to settle for the mid-range jumper as first option. As the ball moves, you start getting down to 12 seconds and below on the shot clock, now he’s got to take a good, balanced shot. But we don’t want our first look to be a quick pull up. We had, until the last two games, really gotten into habits of doing a lot of that. The last two games we’ve done a better job of not taking those shots early in the shot clock. We simply haven’t converted. We were 18 of 36 in the restricted area in Chicago. Those are killers because that makes it much tougher to get back in transition because you’ve got the guard and Andre (Drummond) at the rim if you miss. Our inability to convert in the paint has hurt us. It’s hurt us over the course of the year but it’s really hurt us the last two games.” So, bottom line, the dribble handoff isn’t designed necessarily to produce a mid-range jump shot; it’s an action that creates an array of opportunities, the first option of which is for Bradley to take the handoff and try to exploit an opening to the basket.

No. 1 Boban Fan (@brgulker): Avery Bradley has led the team in shot attempts over the past four games. Does SVG the coach manage shot selection and shot volume? In other words, if Bradley is forcing too many shots, would SVG approach this with him? And, if so, how?

Langlois: He doesn’t micromanage shot selection and says he learned early in his career not to do that. He doesn’t want players looking over their shoulder, in effect, worried about a negative reaction to every shot. But in a broader sense, yes, as reflected in the previous answer. The Pistons under Van Gundy are usually among the best at getting shots in the paint and from the 3-point line and limiting those at the other end. That doesn’t come about by happenstance.

Kevin (@KevinWoodson): What are the realistic chances Detroit can snag Kemba Walker from Charlotte?

Langlois: Exceedingly slim. A deal would almost have to contain Reggie Jackson for both cap and roster purposes. He’s currently injured. Charlotte isn’t about to deal the face of the franchise for an injured replacement unless the Pistons were to attach a few unprotected No. 1 picks and maybe a Luke Kennard or a Stanley Johnson on top of that. Walker’s really good, a much better player than I expected him to become. He’s also almost 28 and you’d have to expect that he’s got maybe two or three peak seasons left as an undersized guard who relies heavily on quickness. You have to be careful sacrificing that much. The Brooklyn experience is a cautionary tale.

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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