Pistons Mailbag - June 28, 2017

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Since our last roundup, the Pistons have drafted Luke Kennard and gathered in Orlando to start practices for Summer League play. That’s a good place to start the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Jhoni Cruz (@Jpcveinti2): Do you think Luke Kennard was drafted with the possibility of them moving on from KCP? Do you see Ellenson becoming a part of the rotation this year?

Langlois: Kennard was drafted because he was the next name on their board after the first 11 picks were made in the draft, Jhoni. Simple as that. It doesn’t hurt that his offensive skill set fits a need for playmakers at a position other than point guard, but, no, Kennard wasn’t drafted as a hedge against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope drawing an offer sheet that makes the Pistons balk at matching it. Now, as with all draft picks who have four years of relatively cheap money coming, if Kennard blows up then the Pistons have the luxury of making a decision from a position of strength. But they haven’t changed their public stance that they fully intend to have Caldwell-Pope in a Pistons uniform next season. As for Ellenson, it’s tough to see both him and Jon Leuer having a regular rotation spot as the roster currently exists. But it’s June. The roster could look different in a week or two. I don’t know that Stan Van Gundy is going to make any sweeping conclusions based on what he sees in Summer League, but he’s going to have four days of two-a-day practices to see Ellenson before free agency and trade season opens in earnest on Saturday. It’s not like Ellenson is starting from scratch in winning Van Gundy’s confidence, either. If he shows him clear signs of progress in areas of strength and ability to defend, both around the rim and on the perimeter, then maybe that nudges him just enough to feel comfortable dipping into his frontcourt assets bin in a deal to address other concerns.

Ken (Baton Rouge, La.): So we can’t trade Luke Kennard, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and our first-rounder for next year for Kristaps Porzingis?

Langlois: Hey, I like Porzingis as much as the next guy, but the hype train is rolling at reckless speeds. I’m still skeptical that the Knicks are going to follow through on a deal for Porzingis – and especially now that the Knicks and Phil Jackson have, ahem, “parted company” – unless they get blown away. When it was suggested that Jackson informed Phoenix any deal would have to start with Devin Booker and the No. 4 pick, it told me they weren’t really eager to deal Porzingis at all costs but would listen if someone wanted to get silly. For as much as Stan Van Gundy admires Porzingis – and he’s talked about Porzingis fondly since scouting him in Europe prior to the 2015 draft – I don’t know if the Pistons are ready to cash in so many assets that they couldn’t compete for years even with a team built around Porzingis.

Bailey (@BHammontree_): Based off of last season’s performance, where exactly do the Pistons go from here to improve their team and make them better contenders?

Langlois: On a continuum that starts with “nah, we’re good,” and ends with “oh my God we’ve got to trade everybody,” the Pistons are firmly on middle ground. Here’s what Stan Van Gundy said last week about the approach his front office is taking into the launch of the NBA’s hectic transaction period: “I like our guys. I’ve said that many times. We didn’t have a good year. We can come back with our same group and I feel – with better health and guys with a little better focus – we can be a lot better next year with the same group. I like our group. Does that mean that we’re not going to do our due diligence and try to find things that make us better? Not at all. We are always looking for ways to get better.” Things got a little sideways on the Pistons last year starting with Reggie Jackson’s preseason injury. He was a huge driver of their success during the 44-win 2015-16 season. They adjusted as well as could have been expected to his 21-game absence, going 11-10. When he returned, the expectation was they would pick up where they left off with him in training camp and that, in retrospect, cost them dearly. Jackson clearly wasn’t himself and the logical assumption that time would facilitate his return to peak form proved inaccurate. As that realization settled, frustration set in all around. It weighed heavily on many, most notably on Jackson, and ultimately Van Gundy made the call to shut him down for the season’s last few weeks. By all accounts, Jackson is fully fit again – physically, mentally, emotionally – and that gives the Pistons a shot to press the reset button. Van Gundy is surely open to deals that up the talent level or provide better fits, as he sees it, and if I had to place a bet on one side or the other I’d go with a trade being more likely than not. But it won’t be a move driven by desperation to remake the chemistry.

Zachary (@kirbitz_13): Will any Summer League games be aired on TV?

Langlois: All of them, via NBA TV. The schedule is as follows: Saturday, 5 p.m. vs. Oklahoma City; Sunday, 1 p.m. vs. New York; Tuesday, 5 p.m. vs. Miami; Wednesday, 3 p.m. vs. Charlotte; Thursday, TBD based on standings through Wednesday’s games.

Fredrick (@DtwMimms): How come the Pistons are never in the Las Vegas Summer League?

Langlois: The Pistons first came to Orlando for Summer League in 2012 at Lawrence Frank’s urging. He had experienced Orlando’s Summer League in previous stops and preferred its setup to Las Vegas, which spreads out its schedule and where games are open to the public. Stan Van Gundy has continued the relationship, no surprise given his experience with the league as coach of the host Magic. Van Gundy still has a home in Orlando, though that has lesser influence in the decision.

Luke Kennard for MVP (@dan_k32): Any possible free agents we could sign? If so, who?

Langlois: I don’t think the Pistons are going to be making any news in the wee hours of Saturday morning as free agency dawns this year, as they did last year when they reached agreement with Ish Smith sometime around 3 a.m. It’s possible – perhaps even likely – that the only positions the Pistons will fill in free agency, barring trades that open roster spots and depth chart needs, are No. 3 center and No. 3 point guard. Those are decisions that typically get made anywhere from a few weeks into free agency up until the eve of training camp.

Jason (@JasonLambart): Summer League roster and projected starters? Thoughts on Bullock/Hilliard/Gbinije? My guess is Bullock finds a new team, Hilliard is waived and Gbinije sticks.

Langlois: I think it’ll be next to impossible for the Pistons to retain both Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock. So I’ll agree that Bullock is likely ticketed for a new team. Hilliard is not practicing with the Pistons for Summer League and they just drafted another shooting guard whose strengths overlap Hilliard’s. Draw your own conclusions. The Pistons have all of Summer League practices and games to evaluate Gbinije. If they’ve already made up their mind, they’re not saying so publicly. With roster spots tight – even without Bullock or Hilliard, the Pistons still have 11 roster spots accounted for without Gbinije and they need a third point guard and a third center – it seems logical that Gbinije might need to convince the Pistons to keep him around. The flip side is the Pistons only have the mid-level exception (and biannual exception, though using both would very likely push them into luxury tax territory) to add the third point guard and third center. If they were to decline the option on Gbinije and intend to fill his roster spot to get to 14, they’d probably be looking at signing someone to a minimum contract and using that exception. Doesn’t mean they wouldn’t do so, but it lowers the expectation level of finding someone who represents a clear upgrade. The Summer League roster was released on Tuesday. I’d expect the starters to be Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard, Michael Gbinije, Lorenzo Brown/Pierre Jackson and Eric Moreland. Hollis Thompson, Derek Willis and Mike Tobey are other guys they’ll probably want to get a pretty good look at.

But Her Emails! (@jacklost12): If Kennard doesn’t improve his defense, is it safe to assume he won’t be a contributing member of the team next season?

Langlois: Yes. Stan Van Gundy said as much last week. “He’s a mature offensive player for his age coming in. I would have no question putting him in the game offensively now. But defensively I wouldn’t put him in a game right now.” But it’s June and Van Gundy would be the first to tell you that it’s a meaningless assessment right now. Kennard will have seven or eight Summer League practices to begin changing the narrative on his defensive readiness, then five Summer League games and all of the September voluntary workouts that include full-court scrimmaging and – most critically – all of training camp. That’s where Van Gundy will draw his conclusions. Keep in mind that there’s not some magical threshold Kennard must cross and for every player there’s a different tolerance level. It’s no secret that Kennard’s carrying tool comes at the offensive end. He doesn’t have to be a stopper on defense; he just has to offer more than passive resistance and win his share of defensive possessions. They’re not expecting him to be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. If he wins a rotation role, it will be for the minutes Caldwell-Pope sits, in all likelihood, and that comes when the opposition doesn’t have its primary backcourt scorer on the floor. He’ll have a shot to win minutes in training camp and, even then, the chance to prove himself doesn’t stop. No one denies he has considerable competitive drive. That’s usually a pretty good foundation to build a competent defender.

Peter (@PeterHi11): Is Stanley expected to play all of Summer League?

Langlois: He’s in Orlando but just to go through the four days of two-a-day practices that are scheduled. He won’t play in Summer League games. That’s fairly standard practice for players entering their third season, at least if they’ve already established a role in the NBA. Johnson had a disappointing second season, but there’s not much to be gained for him by playing in a third Summer League. He’s proven he can thrive in that environment. They wanted him here for practices to set a tone and flex his muscles some in a leadership role. Other than that, they want him less involved in five-on-five competition and more on fine tuning components of his offensive game.

R.T.B (@TTrebor313): Is SVG going to give Boban, Stanley and Luke the needed minutes to progress?

Langlois: Can’t speak for Stan Van Gundy, but my guess is he would say something like this: “The premise of your question is backward. The question should be, ‘Are Boban, Stanley and Luke going to progress enough to earn minutes?’ ” It’s not quite as simple as saying Tom Gores hired Stan Van Gundy to win games – in a greater sense, he hired him to make the Pistons healthy enough to compete for championships over a sustained period – but, yeah, his job is to win games. If he feels the three guys you mentioned, or anyone else, increases that likelihood, they’ll get all the minutes they can handle.

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