Pistons Mailbag - January 6, 2016

Brandon Jennings, Brandon Jennings, Brandon Jennings – his effective return from injury, how it affects Pistons planning and what it means for the 2015-16 playoff race dominate the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Evan (@evan4623): Will we see more of Reggie Jackson and Brandon Jennings on the floor together in the future? What happens to Spencer Dinwiddie now? D-League?

Langlois: Yes on the first part, intermittently yes on the second. It’s pretty rare for NBA teams to send a guy to the D-League and leave him there for an extended period. Most do what the Pistons have done under Stan Van Gundy – find periods where the NBA team’s schedule meshes with the D-League team’s so they have their player with them during periods where he can soak up practice experience with the NBA team, but send him to the D-League during stretches heavy with NBA games when a team’s practice time is limited and a young player could benefit more from D-League game experience. Dinwiddie is likely headed to the D-League for this week’s Showcase event in Santa Cruz, Calif. If the Pistons get through tonight’s game at Boston with no injuries to Reggie Jackson, Brandon Jennings or Steve Blake, Dinwiddie will head to California for the weekend. As for seeing Jackson and Jennings playing in tandem, yes, that’s definitely on Van Gundy’s agenda. He said it’s possible they would be used together tonight against the Boston Celtics, but more likely it would happen down the road. He wants to get a little more practice time with them together before pulling the trigger. “We’re already in the thought process of things we can run playing (Jennings) and Reggie together at times,” Van Gundy said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s something that we’ll be ready for. … It’ll probably be a while before we get to that, but probably not a long while.”

Samuel (Ann Arbor, Mich.): What do you think will happen with Brandon Jennings? After the Orlando game, it looks like he still has a very bright future. The trade deadline is approaching. He’s going to be an unrestricted free agent and probably wants to cash in on his last major contract. Do the Pistons re-sign, trade or let him go?

Langlois: I think the chances that Jennings gets traded aren’t great, Samuel – certainly less than 50-50. I do think they’ve gone up in the week since he’s returned, though, for one simple reason: Jennings is quickly dispelling fears – or doubts, at least – that he would be able to approach his previous level of effectiveness. His quickness seems to be back to normal, or very nearly to normal. And that will mean the Pistons likely will be getting calls, and offers, for him. So it’s possible that some team, as the trade deadline nears and needs become clearer or more pronounced, will present the Pistons with an offer too good to pass up. But how likely is that? I keep coming back to this: What Jennings has to offer is what the Pistons really needed before his return. They are very dependent on Reggie Jackson to initiate offense. They really don’t have a secondary ballhandler in the starting unit. Steve Blake is terrific at what he does and a perfectly capable backup point guard – another thing that allows the Pistons to at least entertain offers for Jennings – but he’s not the dual threat as both a scorer and playmaker as Jennings. Stan Van Gundy thinks players are largely interchangeable with regard to position in today’s NBA, but he believes that point guard and center are two positions where you do not want to get caught short. So he’d be leery of dealing a Jennings who has proven he can still perform at a level commensurate with a starting point guard in the event of an injury to Jackson, even one that only sidelines him for a few weeks. In this year’s Eastern Conference, you can’t afford to go 1-7 while a critical player rehabs a sprained ankle. Beyond that, as we touched on in my answer to Evan above, he’s intrigued by what a Jackson-Jennings tandem could do to give the Pistons another dynamic. He’s not anticipating that it will become a rotation staple – not something he goes to every game, perhaps – but as a weapon to be used when the opposition defense has the Pistons stymied or to counter a lineup that employs two point guards, as several teams now routinely use. I don’t have much doubt that Jennings could fetch a very useful rotation player in return, but would it be one that fits a Pistons need as well as he currently does? Hard to see that happening. They don’t need another center. Stanley Johnson’s steady progress means he’s capable of serving as the primary backup to both Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope until the return of Jodie Meeks, perhaps as soon as a month away. In a perfect world, the Pistons could use another depth guy on the wings, but Meeks’ pending return diminishes that need. And, in the pecking order, even if Meeks weren’t coming back, I don’t think it would trump the dimension Jennings provides.

George (Madison, Wis.): Many fans seem to want to trade Jennings. I think the team needs him to make a serious playoff run. Jodie Meeks and Brandon Jennings will elevate the second unit and will be needed in the event of injuries to starters.

Langlois: I don’t know what a poll would say about that, George. I think there is a segment of fans who would like to see the Pistons trade Jennings for something – anything – on the fear that he’ll leave as a free agent and they won’t have anything to show for it. I get that line of thinking, but I don’t think it’s right to look at it quite that way in the salary-cap era. Greg Monroe left and, technically, he left without any direct return of talent for the Pistons. Except the Pistons used the money they would have had to pay Monroe to stay – the $16.4 million he got from Milwaukee – and effectively spread it out over two starting players, Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris, and had enough left over to cover about half of backup center Aron Baynes’ contract. Where teams are irreparably damaged by losing free agents is when somebody like LeBron James or Dwight Howard (in his prime and at full health) switches uniforms. Sure, a team might – not necessarily would, depending on the health of their salary cap – have another “max” salary slot to offer a free agent to take the departing star’s place. But nobody’s going to replace LeBron James. It’s well acknowledged that if there was no cap on individual contracts, LeBron would be earning double, or close to it, what he makes now. But for the vast majority of players – maybe all but 10, and that might be pushing it – teams with healthy cap sheets can recover from the loss of a free agent quite nicely if they’re smart about it. As for your contention that the Pistons need Jennings to make a playoff run, Stan Van Gundy agrees with you.

Jason (Warner Robbins, Ga.): With Brandon Jennings back, the third-string point guard position is not likely to get much playing time. Thanks to a 30-point lead against Orlando, Steve Blake saw 3:44 of garbage time. However, I think it would be in the Pistons’ best long-term interest to dress Spencer Dinwiddie over Blake. Blake has been playing well, but at 35 and no guarantee to re-sign with the Pistons and with this being Jennings’ final year and no guarantee of him re-signing, wouldn’t giving the 22-year-old, still unproven and tall point guard a chance at garbage time help them know what to do this off-season? Why or why not?

Langlois: Their primary goal – and the secondary goal is probably a distant runner-up – is to win games now, Jason. That said, Stan Van Gundy understands the Pistons aren’t yet to the point where they sacrifice, or even risk, damaging their future in the quest to get a playoff berth this season. But how much risk is inherent in delegating “garbage time,” as you identified it, to the guy he clearly views as his No. 3 point guard instead of his younger No. 4 point guard? I don’t think Van Gundy needs to see Dinwiddie play the last four minutes of a blowout to inform his evaluation of him. He sees him every day in practice and in the after-practice two-on-two or three-on-three games players who aren’t a regular part of the rotation engage in when the schedule allows. If you’ll recall, it was Dinwiddie’s performance in those after-practice competitions that led Van Gundy to give Dinwiddie some run as the No. 2 point guard in November when Blake, who’d missed three weeks of training camp with a concussion, struggled to regain his conditioning and sharpness early in the season. You’re right – there’s no guarantee Blake or Jennings is back next season. But Van Gundy won’t be caught without adequate depth and talent at point guard and there’s no reason to think the Pistons will be financially constrained from adequately addressing their needs at the position. Van Gundy has talked with Jennings about a future beyond this season, while acknowledging that there are too many unknowns – and most of them on Jennings’ side, as the ball will be in his court as a free agent – to state with any certainty that he’ll be back with the Pistons. So he’ll dress Blake over Dinwiddie at this point in case a need arises during a game – foul trouble or injury, most likely – for a third point guard. And it’s also possible, if less than likely, that as Van Gundy begins to use Jackson and Jennings in the same backcourt that there will be a need for Blake to provide spot minutes as well during the course of a game.

MysteryA (@NateAdema): Where do the different groups sit on the plane?

Langlois: Well, there’s a new one. There are four compartments on Roundball One. The first is for Stan Van Gundy and his coaches. The second is for the players. The third is for the training and medical staffs and front-office personnel. And the fourth is loosely for all other support personnel. It includes the announcing teams – George Blaha and Greg Kelser on the TV side, Mark Champion and Rick Mahorn on the radio side – plus all the behind-the-scenes Fox Sports Detroit production people, Pistons public-relations staffers and Pistons.com personnel, including me. Roundball One seats 64. The plane has been customized so that the first three compartments include tables between facing seats so coaches can discuss game plans, players can play card or other games or review game video on their iPads together, and front-office staffers can get collaborative work done in flight. The plane has AC power stations at each seat and wireless internet available in flight to allow its passengers to access databases and other information.

Andrew (@AndrewJErdman): What’s the timetable on Jodie Meeks?

Langlois: The original timetable was 12 to 16 weeks. We’re coming up on about 10 weeks now since he suffered the injury – a fractured fifth metatarsal on his right foot – in late October. Stan Van Gundy has consistently said a little before or a little after the All-Star break, which starts on Feb. 12. On Tuesday, Van Gundy said Meeks was running on a treadmill but not yet at full body weight. “He’s running on the treadmill at about 40 percent body weight, maybe 50 percent. He’s a long way off. Our timetable was over a month away, so it’s not surprising. He’s got a ways to go.”

Francis (Manila, Philippines): I really think we need Brandon Jennings as a spark plug off the bench, but what I have in mind is a trade for Ryan Anderson or Jamal Crawford to be the sixth man. Is a trade for either of those two for Jennings feasible? If it is, do you think they are good considerations for the Pistons?

Langlois: If I were tasked to compile a list of likely trade partners for the Pistons in any potential deal for Jennings, New Orleans and the Clippers would probably miss the cut, Francis. The Pelicans certainly have a greater need for Anderson than they do for another guard. It’s possible, I suppose, if the Pelicans feel they’re out of the playoff race by February that they would shop Anderson, a pending free agent. But it wouldn’t make much sense to trade for another pending free agent, as Jennings is. Crawford serves a pretty important role for the Clippers as their off-the-bench scoring anchor. Jennings could fill that role adequately, but if the Clippers were to shop Crawford, it probably wouldn’t be for someone who’d slide into a similar role – they’d use him to address another need, logically. And I don’t see exactly what that is. That’s a pretty stacked roster as it is. Maybe another big man?

Simone (Perugia, Italy): I don’t have the chance to watch games here, but I have noticed some similar patterns between this team and the 2004 Pistons. Jackson reminds me of Chauncey Billups, KCP in certain aspects reminds me of Rip Hamilton and has all the potential to get there. But until the Rasheed Wallace trade, we clearly missed a piece. Do you see a trade or movement that could be similar to that trade?

Langlois: Stan Van Gundy can dream, right? You can make a pretty good case that was the greatest trade-deadline deal of this generation, Simone. The Pistons got the player who completed their championship team, a singular talent who took a good defensive team and made it a great defensive team and gave Larry Brown a rare offensive weapon – a player equally capable of scoring with his back to the basket and beyond the 3-point line. No, I don’t foresee any such player falling to the Pistons. While it’s rare enough for a player of Wallace’s ability to get dealt at the trade deadline, what made that trade so especially notable was how little the Pistons had to give up to get him. They traded two first-round picks, neither of which was destined for the lottery, plus a few bit players – with the understanding that Lindsey Hunter would be waived by Boston and intent on re-signing with the Pistons. (That’s not even allowable any longer.) Keep in mind they also added Mike James in the trade and Hunter and James formed one of the most dynamic defensive backcourts of that era, put to great use by Brown. Van Gundy intends to add to the roster – and substantially so – over the off-season when he can put more than $20 million in cap space to use. But I don’t think he harbors any illusions that the Pistons will be able to add a Hall of Fame-caliber talent to the team at the trade deadline without cutting into the bone – or, in the case of the Wallace deal, barely into the flesh – of his roster.

Nicholas (Hudsonville, Mich.): Watching Aron Baynes, what did Stan Van Gundy see in him? They are paying a lot for him when he is less productive than others. Did Van Gundy like his potential or is this just a classic overpaid player?

Langlois: He’s been their most consistent bench player this season, Nicholas, according to Van Gundy. Once Steve Blake got up to speed off of his prolonged training camp absence, the second unit has played well – and especially so over the past few weeks. Baynes anchors the unit defensively. His ability to set screens is a major component of the second unit’s offense. He’s a good rebounder and a very good team defender. His per-36 minute numbers are everything Van Gundy expected. Compare him to backup centers, not to Andre Drummond or Marc Gasol. I think we’re going to see his shooting range expand and his overall offensive game tick up as the season goes on. Keep in mind that his off-season work was limited to conditioning – only the most rudimentary skills work was allowed – because of surgery to clean up an ankle injury. Having his nose broken in late November and subsequently having to wear a mask caused some offensive struggles for a little while, but he’s been consistently effective lately. And he and Stanley Johnson have established a nice pick-and-roll chemistry that gives the unit another handy weapon on top of the return of Brandon Jennings and all that could mean. His teammates love the guy, too, because he’s fearless – an incredibly strong man – and absolutely selfless. His experience with the San Antonio Spurs couldn’t have hurt in this regard, but Baynes only cares about winning and nothing about his numbers.