Pistons Mailbag - June 2, 2021

The future of restricted free agents Hami Diallo and Dennis Smith Jr. with the Pistons and lots of questions about the NBA draft top the docket in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Kamil Kursat (@KKY23BG): How much cap space will the Pistons have? How will both Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo share roles? Is the play-in tournament the main goal for next season?

I’ll take the last question first. No, I don’t think the Pistons – be that Troy Weaver or Dwane Casey – will ever say that their goal is to finish somewhere in the 7-10 range in the conference standings. For next season, the goal is more likely to be improving the talent base for the front office and developing it further for Casey and his coaching staff – ultimately, the goal is to be in better position when next season ends on the track for title contention than when it starts. Wins and losses, similar to last season, won’t be what defines next season as a success. Now, I’ll go further to say that I think if it comes down to the season’s final segment and there’s a greater chance of finishing with a record that gives them a good shot at a top-four pick than of finishing in the mix for a play-in berth, there is likely to be more disappointment than there was with this season’s 20-52 record unless the season is undermined by something unforeseeable like a run of catastrophic injuries. If the individual improvement takes place across the board over the off-season as the Pistons expect, it’s tough to see them losing at the rate they lost this season. The Pistons had a minus-4.5 point differential this season that was less than half of Orlando’s 9.3 and Oklahoma City’s 10.6 and well less than the 8.5 of Cleveland and 7.9 of Houston. The gap between the point differential of the Pistons and those four teams averaged more than the gap between the Pistons and a few of the play-in teams like Washington, Charlotte and San Antonio. The Pistons lost a lot of close games and that was a reflection of their youth. So, yeah, they’ve got a chance to win a lot more of those close games next season and that alone could put them in the running for a play-in berth. If they get fortunate in the lottery, there’s a chance to add a high-end talent even if that player will be very young next season. As for cap space, it will vary based on where they land in the lottery. Getting the No. 1 overall pick could result in a cap hold of 50 percent of their available cap space. They could create close to $20 million in space depending on their decisions on guarantees and qualifying offers. As for Jackson and Diallo, it depends on a lot of factors but one of them is 3-point shooting. If they’re going to be on the floor at the same time, Jackson probably needs to shoot it better than 30 percent from three. Diallo hit 39 percent from the arc with the Pistons on relatively low volume, though his 24 percent 3-point rate with the Pistons in 20 games was well higher than his career 16 percent rate with Oklahoma City.

Interesting question and one the Pistons will spend a fair amount of time pondering as they consider their major off-season decisions ahead of free agency. Your projection of three years and $30 million sounds reasonable, but free agency is often dictated by the unreasonable. A reasonable offer is derived from taking the average of what front offices across the league peg as Diallo’s value, but an offer sheet for an unrestricted free agent only makes sense if it’s unreasonable, in a sense. Because if it’s a reasonable offer, unless there are extenuating circumstances, then the team with matching rights is fairly certain to match and thank the other side for doing its negotiating for them in a reasonable manner. Restricted free agents change teams far less routinely than unrestricted free agents for a reason. The Pistons have a clean cap sheet going forward and, in fact, could be in position to have the most cap space in the NBA a year from now ahead of the 2022-23 season. So it’s tough to conceive of an offer sheet that would scare them away. But if somebody doubles your money total – which is perhaps unreasonable but maybe not all that crazy if you look at a 22-year-old with elite athleticism who averaged 18 points and 7.3 rebounds on 53 percent shooting over the final six games while getting to the foul line six times a game – is that enough to back away? It might be. I don’t expect that kind of offer, but think back to some of the restricted free agent offers we’ve seen. Remember the Nets offers to Tyler Johnson (four years, $50 million after he’d averaged 8.7 points in 24 minutes a game for Miami in 2015-16) and Allen Crabbe (four years, $75 million after he’d averaged 10.3 points in 26 minutes a game that season) five years ago? If you’re going after a restricted free agent, the offer has to be out there to have a realistic chance of scaring away the home team.

Xegesis (@xegesis): How much will Troy Weaver value the draft prospect’s perceived desire to sign a second contract in Detroit when making his draft selection?

I would expect the answer to that to be “not at all, not in any way, shape or form.” Weaver has boundless confidence in himself and boundless determination to build a winner. And, realistically, it’s not the second contract that sees valuable young players jump franchises but third contracts. When young players with tangible NBA value get to the end of their rookie first-round contracts, it’s common to negotiate an extension because teams still have significant leverage at that point with fifth-year players facing restricted free agency. Greg Monroe took the qualifying offer and played out the fifth year, but he was the exception. So Weaver is going to bank on his ability to build a winner. Players don’t generally look to leave winning environments. For all the talk about Detroit and other mid- and small-market teams having difficulty attracting free agents, it’s not typically a problem when the franchise is winning and putting itself in position to compete for titles. So if Weaver is picking second and trying to decide between Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs, I can assure you that he’s going to choose based on which player he thinks will have the Pistons in the best position to win a title in 2025, not which one he thinks is most likely to want to sign an extension to remain in Detroit at that point.

Dtown Dgen (@DtownDgen): Is DSJ OK? Will he stay in Detroit?

It never appeared that the knee injury that kept Smith sidelined for the season’s final 17 games was going to be season-ending until it came down to the final week or 10 days and he still hadn’t returned. There was no indication given that it was a serious injury and, in fact, was described as “soreness” for most of those days. As for his future with the Pistons, he appears the least likely to be back of the restricted free agents (Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson, Saben Lee). Killian Hayes is a lock to be back and Lee seems every bit as sure to return after their rookie seasons and that gives the Pistons two point guards. I think it’s likely they’ll have four between the 15 standard roster spots and the two for two-way players, so there’s latitude enough for Smith to be considered. But I’d expect one of them to be a veteran, whether they can find a way to make that Cory Joseph if they decide not to pick up the fully guaranteed $12.6 million on his contract or not or go with someone else. And there’s a chance they draft a point guard if they land the No. 4 pick and Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green and Evan Mobley are off the board. Smith’s cap hold of $7.7 million is the thing that pushes it into unlikely territory. If he’d been a late first-round pick and the cap hold were half of that, it would be another story.

Detroit Kool Aid (@DetroitKookAid): Who do you like better between Jalen Green and Evan Mobley? I believe Green offers the Pistons their best pure scorer since Jerry Stackhouse.

That’s a tough call. Ask any three random general managers who’d be their pick if they land at No. 2 if Cade Cunningham is off the board and there would be no surprise if the vote was split between Green, Mobley and Jalen Suggs. We know Troy Weaver loves big men and Mobley is as intriguing as any big man who’s come into the league since Anthony Davis, so I’d probably guess at Mobley to be the Pistons pick if they’re the ones who end up picking second. But Weaver also loves winners and competitors and Suggs’ reputation on those counts is impeccable. And Green’s potential as an isolation scorer is universally coveted and his G League coach, Bryan Shaw, raves about his competitiveness and work ethic. So it seems like you can’t go wrong. But history says it’s exceptionally rare for the first four picks in any draft to all hit their marks and become high-impact players. With as much at stake as there is for the Pistons to get it right, there will be untold man hours spent in making sure they get it right if the lottery puts them in a position to have to choose between those players.

@harrisahmad1/IG: Do you see any situation where Cade Cunningham isn’t selected No. 1?

There’s usually two or three drafts in any given 10-year period where there’s a no-doubt No. 1 pick and two or three others where there’s a significant favorite to go No. 1. It seems like Cunningham is more in the no-doubt No. 1 pick category than significant favorite. Over the last 10 years, the 2012 draft when Anthony Davis went first is the one where there was no doubt who’d be the top pick no matter who won the lottery. The 2019 draft with Zion Williamson was similar, though there was at least some thought that Ja Morant might go No. 1 if some teams won that lottery. Ben Simmons wasn’t quite a slam dunk but was a heavy favorite to go No. 1. I think Cunningham is at least on par with Simmons in that regard even though the quality of the top four or five in this draft is as strong as it’s been in a decade or more. There are 14 teams in the lottery, so I’d take the field over Cunningham between No. 1 on all 14 boards but not by much.

Ahmed (San Antonio): If Kawhi Leonard doesn’t get to the NBA Finals this season, one can assume he would try to find another team where he could win championships. Philadelphia, Miami or Milwaukee make sense for Leonard to join to win championships. What can the Pistons do to sign him and add star players to compete for championships?

The Pistons aren’t going to have the cap space to compete for stars of that magnitude if Leonard chooses free agency this off-season. If they did have cap space, they’d be a long shot to get in on the bidding for a star on Leonard’s plane given the stage of their “restoration.” Miami is the only team of the ones you mentioned that could maneuver to have the type of cap space required to add that level of player this summer. Next summer, the Pistons could conceivably have enough cap space to go after two big-time players. Whether they can make enough progress on the court this season to make that a viable possibility is another matter.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): The young Pistons have to be more physical as a team. Josh Jackson, Jerami Grant and even “Beef Stew” need to put on a little more, er, beef in the off-season. Not so much as to slow them down but enough so as to be able to finish at the rim, set and fight through picks, rebound. I even wonder if it might be wise to have a player with Stanley Johnson’s physicality on the roster if nothing else than to bolster confidence. I think the Pistons lack a little muscle and I think they are going to need that, particularly for playoff basketball.

To the extent your concerns about the Pistons and physicality are valid – and I don’t see it as a concern on par with, say, finding the 3-point shooting they’ll need to become a more functional offensive team – I would respond by saying that a roster with 11 players 24 or under in a man’s league probably is going to need to make some strength gains to compete consistently. Dwane Casey’s Toronto teams were famously physical and Casey always emphasizes a need to make progress in the strength and conditioning aspects, so it’s not something this organization under the watch of Casey and general manager Troy Weaver ever will sell short. But Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart had major roles as 19-year-olds, Sekou Doumbouya as a 20-year-old and Saddiq Bey as a 21-year-old. There are plenty of advantages to being that young, but only physical maturity can help realize full strength potential. Yes, they’ll put in the work this summer to get stronger. Mother Nature has to do her part, too.

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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