Pistons Mailbag - July 7, 2021

The off-season is about to swing into overdrive with the draft three weeks away and free agency and the start of Summer League on its heels. That’s the launching point for this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Zach (Inkster, Mich.): Can the Pistons trade Blake Griffin’s buyout deal for another player if a team wants to get out of a long-term contract for one year of Griffin’s buyout?

Nope, not a thing. Griffin’s contract is on the books for a few bags of groceries less than $30 million next season. Once you execute a buyout, the terms are the terms. There’s no offloading the toxic asset. But that’s a nice thought.

@luismo129/IG: Should fans have more faith in Troy Weaver, based off of last year’s draft, instead of “Just take Cade?”

I think fans trust Weaver but also hope that he sees Cunningham (and the field) the way they do so that his draft confirms their judgment and fulfills their desire to see Cunningham wearing a Pistons hat come draft night. And I’m also guessing that a healthy number of them would trust Weaver to get it right if the pick is somebody else.

Sure, the Pistons can talk to the “people” – agent, relatives, advisers, et al – for any player who’s gone through the steps to be part of the NBA draft process. And by “the Pistons,” we’re talking about Troy Weaver and his front-office staff, Dwane Casey and his coaches or anyone else on the basketball operations or business sides. Nothing wrong with that. Getting a playbook? Probably not happening because there’s no real urgency in starting that process. There will be plenty of time for that after the draft, during Summer League and beyond leading to training camp. Also, the NBA frowns upon teams jumping the gun on the draft and draining one of its crown jewels of drama. Even in years where there is next to no debate about the identity of the No. 1 pick – think 2019 with Zion Williamson going to New Orleans – the team is discouraged from leaking its intentions ahead of the official announcement on draft night. From a strategic standpoint, though, there is no real cost to the Pistons in not having the next three weeks for Cade Cunningham – or anyone else they might select at No. 1 – steeped in the playbook or other organizational intelligence.

@ttimelutz/IG: As the team is currently constructed, what do you see as our biggest area of need?

Three-point shooting is the easy answer. The Pistons finished 23rd in the NBA in accuracy at 35.1 percent and 21st in attempts at 32.9 per game. It’s hard to be in the bottom third in both 3-point attempts and accuracy and still have a winning record. Inexperience is another area of weakness for the Pistons and it sort of goes hand in hand with the 3-point deficiency. Internal improvement can hopefully help remedy both the attempts and accuracy ends of the equation, but you can bet the Pistons will be looking for veterans who help address 3-point shooting when they hit free agency this summer. There isn’t going to be a lot of activity on the free agency front – the Pistons simply don’t have the roster spots or the cap space for it to be otherwise – but what moves are made are likely to help address the 3-point issue. Of course, 3-point shooting is something that virtually every team is intent on improving so it won’t be as easy as snapping their fingers and landing no-doubt help.

Thomas (Atlanta): Why do NBA teams want potential draft picks in for workouts when they’ve scouted their college film. Do teams pay players to work out for them?

They cover all expenses but, no, they don’t pay them. Workouts come in all shapes and sizes. The most coveted prospects – players projected to go in the lottery, for example – don’t usually participate in the group workouts. NBA teams can work out up to six players at a time, but lottery prospects usually come in individually and often not even to work out but only to meet with team executives and coaches and, perhaps, to undergo a physical examination to make sure everything is in working order ahead of a multimillion-dollar decision. Lesser prospects go through the six-player workouts, which often include three-on-three scrimmaging as well as individual skills testing. Yes, teams have scouted those players – usually both in-person viewing(s) and extensive videotape study. But often college programs design narrow roles for players, so NBA teams might want to see, for instance, if the big man who played with his back to the basket can face the basket and move his feet well enough defensively on the perimeter or if the wing player who wasn’t tasked with any ballhandling assignments has the potential to do so. Teams understand there’s only so much they can glean from those settings, but any knowledge to add to their existing body of information is a potential advantage. Ultimately, assembling an NBA team is an information-gathering task.

Adam (St. Petersburg, Fla.): Have the Pistons released information on which players they’ve worked out?

They haven’t. Some teams openly publicize the names of players they’ve worked out while others do not. In recent seasons under different administrations, the Pistons have released that information, but prior to the Stan Van Gundy era they did not. Players who have been publicly reported to have worked out for the Pistons so far that I’ve seen – not necessarily a definitive list and not guaranteed to be accurate – include Daishen Nix, Sandro Mamukelashvili, M.J. Walker, Vrenz Bleijenbergh, Justin Champagnie, Ethan Thompson, JaQuori McLaughlin and Spencer Littleson.

Deliberately Indifferent (@NChart87): What percentage would you put on the Pistons taking Cade Cunningham first overall?

Hmmm. Would I take Cade Cunningham over the field? It’s close. I’d go 55 or 60 percent right now.

Jimmy Whitner (@JimmyWhitner1): What positions will be targeted in the second round?

The only targeting done in the second round is landing a player who has a chance to stick around. The history of the draft is that there are about 20 players, give or take, from any given draft that wind up with something approaching a meaningful NBA career. That means you don’t even have a full round of players who’ll leave a lasting impact. So by the time you get to pick 31 – the start of the second round – no team has more than a few handfuls of players that they truly believe can become a contributor.

Pistons ARG (@Arg_Pistons): What do you expect in free agency?

Assuming the Pistons waive Cory Joseph to give themselves some cap space to separate themselves a little bit from teams operating without cap space, I’d expect the Pistons to look to add a player who projects to be a rotation upgrade. That would be a good outcome. Next summer, when the Pistons project to have more than $50 million in cap space depending on what other long-term commitments they enter into between now and then, is when they can aim higher than that.

CubicalLake7 (@CubicalLake7): Has the Pistons schedule for Vegas Summer League been released yet?

Not yet. Should be relatively soon.

Author_alwilliams/IG: When is the Pistons first Summer League game?

Summer League runs August 8-17 in Las Vegas. The schedule has not yet been announced, though tickets are on sale. Tickets are good for all games on a given day, though the Pistons (and all teams) don’t play on all 10 days.

Phillip (Auburn Hills, Mich.): If the Pistons let Dennis Smith Jr., Wayne Ellington, Cory Joseph and Rodney McGruder go, that leaves four spots open, but two would have to be two-way contracts. Obviously, we’ll have a roster spot for our No. 1 pick but what about the remaining spot? Is it possible to re-sign Saben Lee or Tyler Cook to a two-way deal to create more roster space to sign a veteran point guard and a backup power forward?

It’s a possibility. I wouldn’t expect that to happen with Lee. But you’re right that the Pistons will have relatively few roster openings this off-season barring trades that create more.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Not for the first time in recent years, there have been an incredible number of serious injuries to star or key players in the playoffs. Might clubs like the Pistons, with the No. 1 pick, opt to trade down for more good players in light of the carnage? Trade down and stock up? What picks or players might this upcoming pick command? Can you win with across-the-roster upgrades or does winning mean you need a couple of stars? Can a club afford to pay a talented and upgraded roster that is nevertheless short of superstars?

I don’t think the Pistons are thinking they need more players capable of stepping in should injury take out a starter for some future playoff opponent but rather focusing on adding enough talent to field a playoff roster. If your larger point is about striking a balance between superstar talent and quality depth, it’s tough to thread that needle while adhering to salary-cap parameters. Teams who’ve had the chance to add superstars in this era jump at it, trading multiple good players and future draft picks, and figure things out from there. The Clippers did it to pair Paul George and Kawhi Leonard and the Nets did it to add James Harden to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Injuries to Leonard and Harden (and then Irving) ultimately contributed greatly to their playoff exits, but let’s be honest: There’s nobody on anybody’s bench that’s going to make up the gap when a star of that magnitude is sidelined. What could trading the No. 1 pick yield. It depends how far down the Pistons drop in the deal. But if they move down more than one or two spots, the bounty would have to be multiple draft picks and a player or two.

Yeah Buddy (@Meeeshigan): How do you think Troy Weaver will spend the cap space when Blake Griffin’s contract comes off the books year after next? Way, way too early to tell?

Indeed, way too early for outsiders to know much, if anything, about the aspirational goals for free agency 2022. I’m sure the Pistons and Troy Weaver have whiteboards or spreadsheets under lock and key that enumerate the most coveted free agents from the class of ’22 and they’ll be monitoring their seasons closely and doing every bit of due diligence up to the line of propriety allowed to convey their interest in getting in on the bidding when it opens. But so much of what direction they ultimately choose will be dependent on the internal development realized next season with the young players already in the pipeline.

Darrell (Detroit): I wouldn’t be upset, unlike most fans, if the Pistons didn’t end up with Cade Cunningham. From 2010-19, rarely has the consensus No. 1 pick been the best player in the draft. Beginning in 2010, Paul George was better than John Wall. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson are arguably better than Kyrie Irving. Anthony Davis may beat out Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard but maybe not. Everyone in the draft was better than Anthony Bennett in 2013. Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Zach LaVine and Julius Randle are better than Andrew Wiggins. Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Zach Collins and several others are better than Markelle Fultz in 2017. Deandre Ayton is a good fit for Phoenix, but Luka Doncic and Trae Young are clearly Hall of Fame talents. And the jury is still out between Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. I’d rather the Pistons risk getting it right rather than playing it safe by going with the consensus.

When the Pistons won the lottery, Troy Weaver said that night, paraphrasing, that he was happy to get the No. 1 pick but sometimes the winners aren’t necessarily thrilled. What he was saying is that there is a lot of pressure that comes with picking first. Get that one wrong and no one will ever let you forget it. It can be a career killer for a GM to miss on the No. 1 pick, especially if somebody who was also considered a reasonable choice goes on to clearly outperform the field. It’s tough to shut out the external noise and stay disciplined to your evaluation process when you’re picking high in the draft because of that pressure to get it right. So, you’re correct, there is often the temptation to go with the herd and take the familiar names at the top of the draft rather than stick your neck out and go against the grain. If we’ve learned anything about Weaver in his first year on the job, it’s that he has zero fear about sticking his neck out. So if the Pistons take Cade Cunningham, rest assured it’s because Weaver feels he’s going to turn out to be the best player and not because he’s going with the flow. Weaver’s lack of fear is one reason I’m less certain what will happen with the top pick. Until we have some evidence of what Weaver’s views on the players at the top of this draft really are – and that’s not something he’s ever likely to publicly acknowledge – there’s room for doubt about what will happen on July 29 when Adam Silver officially puts the Pistons on the clock.

Jason (Warner Robbins, Ga.): I like Cade Cunningham. I like Jalen Green. I think the Pistons are a better team if they pick either one. I like Cade’s overall game and ability to control the game. I like Jalen’s versatility and explosiveness. So what are the odds that Houston would accept a trade of the No. 1 pick and maybe a second-round pick for Houston’s No. 2 and No. 23. My goal is to grab the 23rd pick and maybe go for Trey Murphy III who is a good 3-point shooter. Again, we get Cade or Jalen at No. 2, so we win regardless.

If the Pistons are going to move down to two to give Houston its choice of anyone on the board, I would expect the payoff to be more than 23. That’s not much of an incentive. And moving down to No. 2 is only a win-win for the Pistons if Troy Weaver truly sees it as you do – that the ceilings of Green and Cunningham are inseparable and that the likelihood of both reaching said ceilings is similarly inseparable.

Marvin (Detroit): With the improvements of Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, do you see them staying on the roster and coming off the bench with their defensive intensity? There have been reports that they don’t fit together. I think they do if they can both improve their outside shooting.

That “if” does a lot of work – and it can be applied to a handful of players on every roster in the NBA. Three-point shooting is the swing skill that elevates or diminishes the careers of dozens of players every season and accounts for millions of dollars of contract decisions in every front office every off-season. If Josh Jackson could add 6 or 7 percentage points to his career 3-point percentage, it would be worth millions of dollars to him. Diallo did show significant improvement as a 3-point shooter after joining the Pistons, though he still takes them infrequently enough (24 percent of his shot attempts after coming to Detroit) that it doesn’t represent a reliable sample size (41 shots in 20 games with the Pistons). My expectation is that the Pistons re-sign Diallo, a restricted free agent, to a long-term deal this summer. Jackson is going into the final year of the two-year deal he signed as a free agent last off-season. It’s a big year for Jackson and it starts with, yes, 3-point shooting. If he makes incremental gains as a shooter and refines his decision-making even a little, he can be a real positive force.

@klupton2403/IG: What’s your prediction for a Pistons starting five next season?

With the caveat that the No. 1 pick will be a possibility to alter the equation: Mason Plumlee, Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo, Killian Hayes. Isaiah Stewart could move Plumlee to the bench, but I think the same qualities that made Plumlee a fit with the starting unit last season still apply so long as the still-inexperienced Hayes is the starting point guard. I could also see the possibility of free agency altering the lineup, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

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