Pistons Mailbag - January 31, 2018

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

In the immortal words of Bob from Albany, Ore., “Blake Griffin – whoa!” Let’s start this edition of Pistons Mailbag right there.

Bob (Albany, Oregon): Blake Griffin – whoa! All respect to classy Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, but each is undersized. Stan Van Gundy puts Anthony Tolliver at small forward and Reggie Bullock at shooting guard and brings Dwight Buycks, Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson off the bench. Do you think they will deal for a point guard?

Langlois: Whoa, indeed. It will be interesting how Van Gundy balances his units now. My first hunch was that he’s going to want to put shooters at the wing spots, especially with Ish Smith not being a 3-point threat at point guard. That would suggest Luke Kennard or Langston Galloway at shooting guard and Reggie Bullock at small forward as the starters. But Stanley Johnson’s tour de force in Tuesday’s 125-114 win over Cleveland – a career-best 26 points and a career-tying 10 rebounds, all while defending LeBron James about as well as anyone can – suggests that no matter how he’s used, he’s going to have a prominent role. Van Gundy said before the game that a secondary motivation for the trade – right after the primary incentive of adding an all-NBA talent in Blake Griffin – was to create more opportunity for Johnson, Kennard and Bullock. Johnson and Bullock were superb against Cleveland. Tolliver can play small forward in a pinch, but he’s more likely to play small-ball center than he is to play small forward in today’s NBA. I don’t know what other moves, if any, are in store in the next week leading to the Feb. 8 trade deadline. The Pistons have some cap issues to consider and I doubt they’d want to deal another first-round pick unless it brought back a young starter with multiple years of team control and those guys aren’t often available in trade.

aTROLLthatShanks (@TROLLthat shanks): What do you think we do for a starting small forward and will Kennard break out with his new minutes?

Langlois: As mentioned above – and Tuesday doesn’t give us a huge clue because the Pistons were shorthanded without the availability of the three players dealt, the three coming back or the two who remain injured – I’m going to guess Reggie Bullock stays in the starting lineup to give the Pistons needed shooting with that unit. But that could well be at shooting guard with Stanley Johnson continuing as the starter at small forward. Stan Van Gundy has lauded Bullock’s defensive play this season, so a Johnson-Bullock starting wing contingent maintains defensive integrity while still providing some shooting. Enough shooting? Too be determined. A blueprint for how Van Gundy allocates the minutes of Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin might be found in how he played Drummond and Greg Monroe in 2014-15. When both started, Monroe would typically come out midway through the first and third quarters and then come back to start the second and fourth quarters while Drummond sat so they were only on the floor together perhaps 16 of the 48 minutes. Griffin will finish games, for certain, so Drummond and Griffin will likely spend more time together than Drummond and Monroe. But Griffin is a far more versatile player than Monroe, so some of the problems that pairing engendered aren’t an issue. Van Gundy is intent on using Griffin at center when Drummond is off, so there remains a significant role for Anthony Tolliver and it’s possible a lesser role will be created for Henry Ellenson by the deal. Yet it’s also possible Bullock will be used at small forward for the minutes Drummond and Griffin play together and Johnson remains an anchor for the second unit but plays starter’s minutes due to his defensive ability – even more critical now that Bradley isn’t around.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Griffin and Drummond may constitute an awesome front two. But I am wondering if Reggie Jackson can even come back to 100 percent this season to get them the ball. Jackson will be rusty. His ankle may affect his knees. It is easy to reinjure a sprained ankle. What news of Reggie?

Langlois: It was a bad ankle sprain as ankle sprains go, but I’ve not heard any undue concern about long-term ramifications. The expectation is that when he’s back, he’ll not require much more than the usual time to acclimate himself as when anyone returns from injury. He’ll probably have missed at least eight weeks or so when he returns – they’re still hopeful it’s for the first game after the All-Star break, Feb. 23 – which, you’d expect, will mean his timing will be off. His role will change somewhat, too, given the addition of Blake Griffin who will become the focal point of the offense. Ultimately, that should benefit Jackson by taking some of the stress of needing to create offense off of him, but there might be some initial dislocation for him as he adjusts to that role. He’s out of a walking boot but still has swelling in the ankle. He’s starting some light rehab work.

Scott (@brodiegames): Stan Van Gundy talked about how the offense will need to change to feature Blake Griffin. Any thoughts on how the defense will now need to change, especially considering the loss of our best on-ball defender in Avery Bradley?

Langlois: I think the biggest change on defense, when everyone’s available, is that the one luxury Van Gundy has had on defense since his arrival – a shooting guard, first Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and then Avery Bradley, who can and often did guard the opposition point guard – is no longer in play. I don’t think there will be any noticeable changes other than that.

Nick (@NickSpencer45): Think Stan is done making moves?

Langlois: Not necessarily, but as he admitted on Tuesday, in trading his two leading scorers and a No. 1 pick they don’t have a ton of assets left without putting Andre Drummond, Luke Kennard or Stanley Johnson in play. If anything is done at the trade deadline, the likeliest course is to do something that better balances the roster for the remainder of this season as a result of sending out Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley. What that looks like is anybody’s guess.

Steven (@steven_welling): If the Pistons go into the off-season without any draft picks and no cap room, what options will they have in the off-season?

Langlois: Trades and the mid-level exception are the clear major avenues remaining to retool the roster. I would expect we’d see both of them utilized.

C.J. (@cjxvibes: What do you think Blake Griffin will bring to the squad? Do you see this trade putting us into the top five in the East?

Langlois: The Pistons had lost eight straight games before beating Cleveland and currently sit in the ninth playoff spot, two games out of No. 8 (but three back in the loss column) and 4½ out of No. 5. Projection models put the No. 5 seed at about 45 wins. That means the Pistons would need to go 22-11. The No. 8 seed is projected to wind up with 43 wins. To get there, the Pistons would need to go 20-13. That’s a tall order. To do it, they certainly can’t afford many slip-ups – very few home losses, no margin for error playing sub-.500 teams and some wins you’d label upsets – as they endure the inevitable adjustment period while integrating Blake Griffin and those around him subsequently adapt their roles. But what he brings, more than anything, is an irrepressible scoring ability critical down the stretch in close games when defenses tighten and quality shot attempts become precious.

Sam (@Dewey2000): I hope Stan Van Gundy will go to some form of a matchup zone to extend Blake’s career. The matchup zone Flip Saunders implemented here made Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace even more effective while expending a lot less energy.

Langlois: Saunders had big hopes for his zone defense with the Pistons as he considered the length of guys like Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince on the wings and the mobility of big men Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace and the toughness and instincts of Chauncey Billups. But he almost never used it. And the major reason was his players hated it. I mean, they despised the thought of playing zone defense. The fact is that the game has been revolutionized since then and defenses are much differently employed. Zones – at least as we traditionally consider them – are rarely used, but the truth is that every defense makes heavy use of zone principles. It remains vital to be able to guard your man, but weak-side defenders are always hedging to the strong side – in effect, playing zone. And it’s misguided to think any defense you can devise is going to require less effort and extend a player’s career. You can play a straight zone from Clair Bee’s playbook but in today’s NBA you’ll still have to cover from the rim to 5 feet beyond the 3-point line and there’s no way to do that and not expend tremendous energy.

Uh … No Peg (@thewhatsisname): What’s the feeling around the team about how Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond might complement each other?

Langlois: They expect it’ll work well. The fact Griffin has played with DeAndre Jordan, a player with a similar offensive game (minus Drummond’s passing ability), gives them some insight into how it will create scoring chances at the rim for Drummond as defenses react to Griffin. As Stan Van Gundy has said, the Pistons have played through Drummond – either giving him the ball at the elbows or using him as the pick-and-roll screener – on virtually every possession this season. Now more of the offense will be funneled through Griffin.

Nadia (San Antonio): If a superstar who was traded or chose a team in free agency fails his physical exam, is he let go by the team or is he offered a contract?

Langlois: Two different things. If you get a player in trade who fails your physical, the trade is off. The Pistons experienced that two years ago at the trade deadline when Donatas Motieujunas failed his Pistons physical and the trade was rescinded. The player – and his contract – return to the original team. If you agree to terms with a free agent and he fails his physical, then no contract is in place. He remains a free agent. Another team can sign him and judge his fitness on its terms.

Dave (Ann Arbor, MIch.): Am I correct in thinking there’s no relation between Reggie Jackson’s injury this season and last year’s injury. What’s his long-term career prognosis?

Langlois: If there’s a link between left knee tendinosis and a right ankle sprain more than a year later, I haven’t heard anyone suggest it. Ankle sprains have to be the most common injury for basketball players, though not many rise to the level of Jackson’s grade 3 sprain. If there’s an ankle sprain that would ever threaten a player’s career, it would be a grade 3 sprain, which involves not just a stretched or partially torn ligament but a completely torn ligament comprising the ankle joint. Jackson isn’t far enough removed from his Dec. 26 ankle injury to have any handle on the long-term effects of his sprain, but it isn’t the expectation that his career is in peril. Steph Curry, for one prominent example, battled chronic ankle injuries earlier in his career – and had a less severe sprain cost him nearly a month this season – but seems to have managed to cobble together a pretty decent career.

Rick (Centerville, Ohio): I’ve said all along that Stan Van Gundy is not playing Luke enough minutes. He’s a pro. He can go 30 minutes. He took Luke out with four or five minutes to go in the overtime loss to Utah and put Avery Bradley back on the court – for what? Then he brings Luke in for a desperation three. This is how he mishandles one of the best rookies out there.

Langlois: Kennard had played from the four-minute mark of the third quarter to the seven-minute mark of the fourth. He brought Bradley back because he wanted to match Bradley’s minutes against Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. Mitchell had a subpar game, shooting 6 of 21 with four turnovers. When the Pistons built a nine-point lead with nine minutes to play, Van Gundy logically decided to put what he considered his best defensive lineup on the floor with one exception: Tobias Harris remained at power forward instead of Anthony Tolliver. Nine points with three minutes left in a game where neither team broke 90 in regulation? If Van Gundy hadn’t fielded his best defensive lineup, he would have been open to legitimate criticism. Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson – the two players at the spots where Kennard would have played – absolutely should have been in the game at that point. The Pistons didn’t score other than one Andre Drummond free throw over the last three minutes. So you can argue that Kennard would have made them a more potent offensive team and his presence might have enabled them to score enough to win in regulation. Fair point. But Van Gundy’s strategy was sound. One of the things Van Gundy cited Tuesday as a secondary reason for the trade that shipped out Bradley for Blake Griffin, as I cited earlier, was the satisfaction with Kennard’s development and the desire to give him, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock greater opportunity. It’s a stretch to suggest Kennard has been mishandled.

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