Pistons Mailbag - June 22, 2016

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

It’s the most critical time of the NBA off-season – just ahead of the draft with free agency rushing up behind it – and Pistons fans are on top of their game, bringing plenty of relevant questions for the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Buk (Bangkok, Philippines): It seems the Pistons are counting on improvement from their young core as opposed to a big free-agent splash. Which of the core members do you think is most likely to make a big leap next year?

Langlois: It stands to reason the greatest chance for the Pistons to improve will come internally given the sheer numbers. Barring a major trade, they’ll have at least seven current players in line for major minutes next season – Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson and Aron Baynes. They need a backup point guard and another power forward. So there isn’t likely to be more than two new players in the rotation and it’s a stretch to think either one will play more than at least the top six players. The backup point guard will probably play more minutes than Baynes, but unless he’s good enough to play minutes at shooting guard in addition to the 14 to 16 minutes he’ll play behind Jackson he probably won’t play more than the other six. The incoming power forward might play more than Anthony Tolliver did a year ago, 19 minutes a game, but it would be a stretch to think he’s going to play as many minutes as Harris or Morris. (If he does, then that probably means the Pistons exceeded their own expectations for the quality of player they’ll be able to land.) As for which core players can make the biggest leap, that’s a great question and it’s anybody’s guess, really. In general, you’d say the younger the player the greater chance for improvement. Stanley Johnson is the youngest, so start with him. It used to be said that a player would make his greatest leap from his first to his second year. That’s probably not as universally true any longer with players entering the league at younger ages or at many different levels of readiness. And Johnson’s ability to put his improvement into evidence will be tied to some degree to how much better players like Caldwell-Pope and Morris get – or even how much of a leap Darrun Hilliard and Reggie Bullock make. Or, beyond that, Johnson’s path to playing time could be affected by the quality of the backup point guard the Pistons acquire or even by the quality of the power forward. Every minute the Pistons spend with two point guards on the floor is one less minute for a backup shooting guard. If the power forward cuts into Tobias Harris’ playing time, maybe Stan Van Gundy elects to play Harris over Johnson when Morris needs to sit at small forward. So there are too many moving parts to project anything with authority. That will be Van Gundy’s job to sort out when training camp starts, everybody’s progress is gauged and putting the puzzle together becomes the priority.

Bradical (@DrFunk3nstein): Should the Pistons pursue Al Horford? Will they?

Langlois: I can’t speak to Horford specifically, but let’s break it down like this. If they were to target a player of that capacity, it would require all of their cap space – in fact, more than they would have without trading away some players and not taking back the same type of money in return. And that will be determined by the tack the Pistons decide to take – splurge on one player or break up their money over multiple players. For what it’s worth, general manager Jeff Bower said last month that the Pistons would be more likely to spread the money around to address more than one position or one need. That could change, of course. If they get indications a star-quality player is interested, a quick change of strategy is a maneuver a well-prepared front office – and Bower’s front office has shown the capacity to come to quick decisions based on all the information they gather on a 365-day basis – is equipped to put into action. The necessity to trade other players to create cap space for a free-agent run – as the Suns did last year, essentially giving away Marcus Morris and Reggie Bullock to the Pistons – can backfire when you come up empty in the pursuit of the star, though.

Maurice (@MauriceDMack): Your thoughts on the Pistons taking Sabonis at 18, signing Jordan Clarkson and Pau Gasol this off-season?

Langlois: Clarkson will be a restricted free agent and I don’t see the Lakers allowing him to leave, though it’s possible they’ll be so busy chasing multiple bigger fish they ultimately would decide otherwise. Long shot? Long shot. Gasol has openly floated his admiration for San Antonio. Spurs seem to be betting favorites there. He’d give any number of teams a huge boost. Sabonis seems about 75 percent likely to be gone before the Pistons pick. I like him. I would imagine Stan Van Gundy does, too. My only question would be if Van Gundy doubts Sabonis’ ability to play power forward at the defensive end with all it requires today based on questions about his lateral mobility.

Harold (@TOWN1212): Did Denzel Valentine work out for the Pistons?

Langlois: Nope. And don’t read too much into that. It could be the Pistons asked and Valentine declined, as players often do, on the belief that they will be picked ahead of the requesting team’s slot. It could also be the Pistons feel they know everything they need to know about Valentine. The Pistons requested an interview with Valentine at the NBA draft combine last month in Chicago and they, indeed, met there. They’ve seen him as much as they’ve seen any college player over the past four years. There really wouldn’t be much to be gained by bringing him to Auburn Hills to watch him go through a few more drills.

John (Pinckney, Mich.): I’m wondering if you can explain how long teams have the rights to a player they draft. How does the draft-and-stash aspect work? If they stash a player, does the clock start ticking when they draft him or when he finally starts playing in the NBA? How will the player’s pay be affected?

Langlois: If the Pistons draft a player who is under contract in Europe, they retain his draft rights for one year following the expiration of his deal with the non-NBA team. If they take a player from Europe and he decides – with or without the Pistons’ encouragement – to sign another contract with a non-NBA team, the Pistons would still retain his draft rights for one year beyond the expiration of his non-NBA deal. The clock on his NBA experience (and the pay scale it dictates) wouldn’t start until he actually signs with an NBA team.

Chris (@mrcadogan): Any chance Marcus Morris takes the starting four job?

Langlois: When Tobias Harris arrived last season, the Pistons played Marcus Morris some at the four to start and used Harris at the three. Stan Van Gundy quickly decided Morris seemed far less comfortable at power forward and used him exclusively at small forward thereafter. I don’t see any reason he’d go back at this point.

Aaron (Houston): Do you think this year’s draft picks plus KCP, Baynes and Meeks would be enough to get Ricky Rubio and Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota? Also, I think we should go after Quincy Acy in free agency, move Stanley Johnson to starting shooting guard and Acy – whom I believe is the next Jae Crowder/DeMarre Carroll-type player about to hit his prime – to backup small forward, who along with Rubio, Bullock and Dieng, would make the Pistons extremely versatile.

Langlois: Is “Aaron” really “Tom Thibodeau with a fake mustache and nose” trying to hoodwink the Pistons? You address the need for a backup point guard with that trade – and, yes, Rubio would give the Pistons an exceptional backup point guard, one surely good enough to start for many teams – and, in Dieng, replace Baynes as the backup center. I’d be skeptical that Stan Van Gundy would see Dieng as a serious option at power forward given his limited shooting range, but maybe Pistons scouts have another opinion. Even if you wanted to argue Dieng represents an upgrade over Baynes – not sure the Pistons would see it that way – you’re still giving up your best perimeter defender and the guy who played the most minutes for, essentially, the swap of backup bigs and a backup point guard – and throwing in your No. 1 pick. Yeesh. That’s a steep price. You’re also making Johnson a full-time starter – and maybe he’s ready for that – which takes away the guy who played the most minutes per game off the bench last season and leaves a hole in the second unit. Your opinion of Quincy Acy differs from mine. I don’t see him as a guy you’d pencil into your rotation at this point.

Kyle (@KRemenap0424): Is there any substance to all this Thon Maker talk I’m hearing?

Langlois: Don’t know. Depends what you’re hearing. They had him in for a workout, so it’s fair to assume some level of interest. But because Maker had such limited exposure – he didn’t play college basketball at all and has been seen in meaningful five-on-five action less than anyone in this draft – it only makes sense they’d want to get him in for a workout. If you’ve heard much about Maker, you’ve probably heard that most – even the ones bullish on his future – concede he’s not ready to help now. And Stan Van Gundy said they want to take the player they think can help the Pistons the most within the term of their rookie contract – four years. So if the Pistons think Maker is two or three years away, that would make it a tough call. If they think he’ll be ready to give them some minutes in 2017-18, different story. I’m skeptical they would take him, but I’m like everybody else – intrigued to see what he can become.

Darrell (Detroit): I understand the new cap will be $94 million next season. When I add up the Pistons guaranteed contracts, which includes a $5.5 million hold for Josh Smith, $1.4 million for their first-round pick and a $4.4 million hold for Drummond (until he’s given a max deal after signing other free agents), my total comes to $70 million, which leaves $24 million for free agents. Does my math add up? If so, is $24 million enough to sign any player except Kevin Durant?

Langlois: You’re pretty close, but you’re a little short. The big error is what you list for Andre Drummond’s cap hold. It’s not $4.4 million but $8.1 million. The qualifying offer the Pistons had to extend to him to keep his rights as a restricted free agent was $4.4 million and that’s where the confusion comes in. But the charge on their cap until Drummond signs his new deal – unless he chooses the Greg Monroe route – is $8.1 million. The Monroe route would be to play out next season on the qualifying offer and then become an unrestricted free agent next season. That was no one’s intention, Drummond’s included, when both sides decided against signing an extension last October. The total for everything on the books – and assuming the Pistons decline the $2.5 million option on Joel Anthony – is closer to $79 million. That should leave them about $15 million in cap space. They could create more by trading a player without taking a contract back. The most obvious candidate would be Jodie Meeks, who has just one year left on his deal and plays a position, shooting guard, where the Pistons have depth on hand. They played all of last season, essentially, without an injured Meeks. If they were to trade Meeks without taking back any guaranteed money, they could push their cap space to closer to $22 million. That gets them close enough to at least talk to almost every free agent, should they decide to push all their chips to the middle of the table for one player. It’s fair to wonder how much trade value Meeks has at this point, given the face he’s missed big chunks of the season each of the past two years. But it’s a reasonable deal with only one season remaining, so it probably wouldn’t require the Pistons sacrificing other valuable assets to move it, at least.

Henry (Southgate, Mich.): With the great season Marcus Morris had and the trading for Tobias Harris, do you think Stanley Johnson will ever have a place in the starting lineup?

Langlois: Ever? What constitutes “ever” in the NBA? Morris is under contract for three more seasons, as is Harris. The Pistons have Johnson under team control for at least three seasons and, in reality, four. What are the odds that all three remain with the Pistons for the length of their contracts? Probably not great given the nature of player movement and the aggressiveness the Van Gundy administration has shown in making deals. But there’s certainly a decent chance that at least two and perhaps all three are around for at least the next two seasons. If Johnson improves to the point where he pushes for a starting job, that’s a great problem to have. Andre Iguodala has come off the bench for most of his time with Golden State, but he’s no less valuable than Harrison Barnes. I wouldn’t get too hung up on how many games Johnson starts. If he improves as the Pistons expect him to, he’ll be a major force – starting or otherwise.

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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