A look back at a draft where the Pistons wound up taking Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije and a look ahead at what comes next in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Larry (@drdangly): Why do you think we didn’t take Skal? Seems like a better fit for a team that needs to improve its defense.
Langlois: Ellenson was far more productive – like, waaay more productive – in his freshman season than Labissiere. Granted, Kentucky had more competition for minutes than Marquette, but I think it’s fair to say Ellenson would have gotten all the minutes he could have handled at Kentucky – or anywhere else he’d spent his freshman season. The draft is about projecting where a player will be in two, three or more years down the road, of course, and Labissiere has been identified as one of the potential stars of his recruiting class for a long time now. But to ignore the struggles he experienced as a Kentucky freshman wouldn’t be very prudent, either. He went 28th. I’ve heard his motor questioned. Sometimes that reflects a lack of confidence. Sometimes it reflects a lack of … well, desire or focus or something related. And how do you determine what it is and when or if it will no longer get in the way of productivity? That’s the art of scouting. There’s a good amount of guesswork involved. I struggled to understand Labissiere’s draft projections given what I saw of him at Kentucky, but the insistence that he was a lottery pick was strong and pretty much across the board from those who make a living following the NBA draft in the media. (As opposed to what NBA front-office people really think. What gets reported by so-called draft experts rarely reflects that accurately, which is a topic for another day, but this year could best be illustrated by the fact that Greece’s Georgios Papagiannis was picked 13th when he was projected to go well into the second round by the, uh, “experts.” I ran into an NBA team executive in Orlando and asked him about it. He said no one in the league was surprised he went that high and that Papagiannis was the second-best international prospect behind Dragan Bender “and it wasn’t even close.”) Is it possible Labissiere turns into the better pro than Ellenson? Sure. There’s never a draft where there aren’t a few players picked outside the lottery who clearly should have gone much higher. But the odds favor Ellenson.
Paul (Phoenix): How about Jodie Meeks and Tolliver for Taj Gibson, sign Speights from Golden State and Curry from Sacramento – point guard and two power forwards, one for defense, one for offense. There would have been more cap money if we had added another second-rounder for Felder. I still can’t understand that, especially after you hear Van Gundy’s remarks about him.
Langlois: Tolliver’s a free agent as of Friday morning, so the Pistons can’t “trade” him to anyone. The Pistons have no more rights to him than any other NBA team now other than his Bird rights which would allow them to exceed the salary cap to sign him. Seth Curry has had trouble sticking in the NBA. He had a promising run with Sacramento to finish the season, but he’s a restricted free agent. They’re always tough to pry away unless the home team has some handicap to prevent matching an offer sheet. I have no insight into Sacramento’s intent with Curry. If you’re suggesting the Pistons make him Reggie Jackson’s top backup, I don’t know that the Pistons have seen enough from him to make that move confidently. I’d be surprised. The backup point guard job is an important one. Curry has played 44 NBA games in three seasons. Seems a stretch to believe a playoff team would entrust such an important role to him based on that track record. As for Felder, Stan Van Gundy said the Pistons liked him quite a bit but said they had Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell rated as a first-round prospect and likely would have selected him if Michael Gbinije wasn’t available. The Pistons hope that Gbinije proves in Summer League capable of handling the No. 3 point guard role, which would have gone to Ferrell or Felder had they drafted either. So the “cap money” aspect of the deal you question would therefore be a wash. Gbinije will play for the same rookie minimum deal Felder will next season, in all likelihood.
Barron (Detroit): With the Pistons drafting Henry Ellenson, does that stop them from signing Ryan Anderson or signing a point guard?
Langlois: Drafting Ellenson won’t stop them from adding big men, Barron. Stan Van Gundy said the day after the draft that he wanted to add two big men. He doesn’t consider Tobias Harris, more of a combo forward, a true big man and says he wouldn’t feel comfortable with less than five. One of the two probably will be a veteran minimum type, but the priority – along with signing a backup point guard – is a power forward to complement Harris. And complement in the truest sense of the word – essentially to offer something at the position, size specifically, that Harris does not. Van Gundy specifically mentioned how the Pistons were without a real option against Cleveland and Kevin Love in the playoffs. As to your specific question regarding Anderson, it all depends on how the market goes. All indications are he’ll get more than the Pistons have to offer. They have about $15 million in cap space and are more likely to split that money over two players – power forward and point guard – rather than funnel it all (or largely, at least) into one or the other. But Van Gundy did say that the drafting of Ellenson might tip the scales slightly toward prioritizing the point guard over the power forward in free agency. Teams have to adjust quickly once free agency opens and options start being eliminated, so it might yet turn out the Pistons wind up spending more money on power forward than point guard among free agents.
Johnny (Shelby Twp., Mich.): As it stands, do you see the Pistons standing pat at the four with Tobias Harris? It’s great for small ball, but overall Tobias is better suited to the three. Could an option be moving Stanley to back up KCP more and Morris off the bench for Tobias and getting a starting-quality four? Or trade Morris?
Langlois: They aren’t exactly “standing pat” with Harris at the four, as we’ve discussed. They’re actively looking to get the best power forward they can find. As for a trade, I wouldn’t rule it out. The Pistons have pretty good depth on the wings now with Johnson likely ready to assume a larger role and Caldwell-Pope and Morris among the NBA leaders in minutes played last season with a few others – Reggie Bullock, Darrun Hilliard, even rookie Michael Gbinije, perhaps – as possibilities to fill rotation minutes behind them. And that’s not counting Jodie Meeks, though if he’s healthy he surely will be a factor. As active as the Stan Van Gundy-Jeff Bower front office has been, it wouldn’t come as a shocker if they wind up addressing one of their two major off-season needs – power forward, point guard – by making a deal from their depth on the wings. If they don’t trade, though, your proposal to use Johnson behind Caldwell-Pope and Morris behind Harris would mean four of the top six players on the roster would be splitting up 96 minutes – an average of 24 each. That probably isn’t in the best interests of winning basketball games.
Pawel (Warsaw, Poland): Free agency is about to begin and everyone talks about the Pistons’ needs to be addressed. I was wondering why people do not try to take advantage of an asset, Jodie Meeks. A trade with New Orleans for Toney Douglas – an efficient point guard – and Dante Cunningham (with some sweeteners needed, probably) would address the two most important needs. Would such a trade be something the Pistons can pull off and Stan Van Gundy would do?
Langlois: The answer to “would they” is contained within the weekly scouting reports the team of Pistons scouts – four of them under assistant general manager Jeff Nix – compile on all NBA players. That would shape their opinion of Cunningham and whether they see him as a likely fit at power forward. He wouldn’t seem to fit the classification of bigger power forward that Stan Van Gundy talks about – he’s not really any bigger than Tobias Harris or Marcus Morris. We’re going to find out soon enough how the Pistons plan to put their off-season plans into place.
Brad (Kalamazoo, Mich.): Why is Andre Drummond not playing in the Olympics this summer? What are your thoughts on Ramon Sessions as a backup for Reggie Jackson?
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy is as gung-ho about players representing their country and Olympics participation as any coach I’ve encountered – he said last week he’d sweep the gym to be a part of it – but I don’t think he’s disappointed that Drummond won’t be competing with the U.S. Olympic team, if that’s indeed the way it turns out. It’s tough to combine individual skills improvement with the duties of being an Olympic team member and it’s another big summer for Drummond in that regard. He felt his work at the P3 training center in Santa Barbara, Calif., last summer helped him immensely and he’ll get another full session out there. As for Sessions, he’s a nine-year veteran who’s proven himself as a backup and filled in plenty as a starter, too. There aren’t a ton of free-agent point guards on the market this off-season. The ones who are, I’m sure, have already been thoroughly evaluated and ranked by Van Gundy, Jeff Bower, Jeff Nix and the rest of the front office and pro scouts. Sessions has always been at his best in pick-and-roll situations, where he goes downhill with the best of them. But he’s 30, so that’s a consideration, too. Will he be able to maintain his speed and quickness as he ages through the course of his next contract?
Lemar (Ypsilanti, Mich.): Much has been made of the two positions we are seeking to fill with young veterans in free agency. Given the estimated contracts that will be handed out this summer, am I wrong for thinking we won’t be able to fill both spots with meaningful upgrades with only $15 million to spend?
Langlois: Sign of the times, right? A few years ago, if a team went into free agency with $15 million to spend and its needs were backup point guard and backup power forward – even if those were spots where you expected a healthy 20 minutes a night – you’d say they’d be driving home Cadillac models of those vehicles. Now, Lemar, you might be spot on. It will be interesting to see what happens if the Pistons split their free-agent money roughly down the middle. So, yes, I think it’s possible they look to address one of those needs outside of free agency. When you look at their track record on trades, given what they’ve given up to get Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson – three second-round picks, role players and pending free agents, for the most part – it probably wouldn’t be a bad way to go again.
Darrell (Detroit): I continue to hear that Jodie Meeks is likely to be traded, most likely for cap space. I believe Meeks is a better player than Hilliard or Bullock and would contribute more in a contract year. Unless the Pistons can use the cap space to land an impact player, I think it would be a mistake to get rid of Meeks for little or nothing in return. Your thoughts?
Langlois: You can never judge trades in a vacuum, Darrell, so when you say trading Meeks for cap space equates to “little or nothing in return,” I’d say you’d have to wait to see what the cap space would yield before making any declarations. Stan Van Gundy obviously values Meeks; he was his first significant free-agent acquisition. When healthy, he gives the Pistons a proven scorer off the bench – something Van Gundy said he was looking to add to his second unit. But the Pistons played virtually a full season without Meeks and compensated quite well, winning 44 games. If they had no needs, it would be an easy call to hang on to him and let the Darwinian process play out at a position of depth. But if they can use his contract to get better at another position that improves the outlook of the team overall, then that’s smart roster management.
Erich (Inkster, Mich.): The Pistons need a point guard badly. I thought Fred Van Vleet was one of the top point guards and he didn’t get drafted. I think he fits what the Pistons need. What are the chances SVG picks him up?
Langlois: Van Vleet agreed to a contract with Toronto within minutes after the draft concluded, just as a host of other accomplished college guards did. (Yogi Ferrell with Brooklyn, Gary Payton II with Houston, Cat Barber with New Orleans, Ron Baker with New York.) The Pistons might have decided against signing one of them, even though they had Ferrell ranked as a first-round prospect according to Stan Van Gundy, for a number of reasons. Foremost, they drafted Michael Gbinije and want to gauge his readiness to play point guard – they know he can play shooting guard and small forward – during Summer League. I think another factor might have been cap space. Those guys all would have gotten some guaranteed money as most teams had plenty of cap space, but the Pistons likely felt some need to preserve their space to address their free-agent needs.
Namer (Wolverine Lake, Mich.): Any chance Stan Van Gundy explores a trade for Taj Gibson? I think a swap of Meeks for Gibson would be good for both teams considering both players are on the final year of their contract.
Langlois: If Meeks had stayed healthy last season and put up the numbers the Pistons expected of him, you might have something there. But it’s fair to assume the Bulls have a loftier return in mind for Gibson than Meeks coming off two injury-filled seasons. I think they’re hoping to use Gibson in trade to help a rebuilding process. Meeks doesn’t really push that along given he’s entering the final year of his deal.
Timothy (Grand Rapids, Mich.): If you were SVG, would you save the cap space by making Gbinije the third point guard? This seems almost like one of those “no brainers” that Stan Van Gundy refers to about trades he makes. Also, love the Mailbag. This is my first time asking a question.
Langlois: Welcome to the club, Timothy! Your benefits package should be arriving via the mail shortly. (Kidding, kidding.) I don’t think they’d save any cap space, necessarily, by making Gbinije the third point guard, but they would save a roster spot. And unless they make a trade involving one of their wing players, that’s not an unimportant consideration. Gbinije almost certainly will play for the rookie minimum, standard with second-rounders, especially those taken in the 40s. It will be a “no brainer” with an asterisk – the Pistons need to see from Gbinije during Summer League some evidence that he can handle the duties of an NBA point guard. Going with less than three is risky business. You hope the No. 3 guy isn’t needed – just like an NFL team hopes it never has to use its No. 3 quarterback – but there aren’t any easy alternatives if one is injured and the other is in foul trouble. The reason I say using Gbinije as the third point guard probably won’t save the Pistons cap space is I would anticipate that – in the event they determine Gbinije isn’t ready as a rookie to occupy the No. 3 point guard duties in addition to what they know he’s ready to handle, playing the wing positions – they sign a veteran to a minimum deal. And that’s something that doesn’t count against the cap – it’s actually called a minimum exception contract and, like other exceptions (mid-level, biannual, etc.) it is used by teams otherwise over the salary cap.