Pistons Mailbag - June 4, 2014

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

A new general manager in place, cap space, the draft and plenty of talk about Stan Van Gundy, Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings and Greg Monroe in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Randall (West Branch, Mich.): What does Jeff Bower do for the Pistons? How does he fit with Stan Van Gundy?

Langlois: We’ll get a little more insight today, Randall, when Bower is introduced to the media at an 11:30 a.m. press conference that will be live streamed on Pistons.com. I know people are going to dwell on his track record as New Orleans general manager, on the hits (drafting Darren Collison late in the first round, trading for Tyson Chandler, etc.) and the misses (drafting Julian Wright and Hilton Armstrong in the late lottery), and while those are worthwhile discussions, let’s keep in mind that his role won’t be quite the same in Detroit. Stan Van Gundy will make the call. It will be up to Bower to best inform those decisions. When Bower was the GM in New Orleans, he was the final decision-maker. There could have been a number of things shaping his decisions, but it wasn’t necessarily to find the best players for his coach at the moment as much as the best players for the future Bower envisioned for the team. With the Pistons, his mission is more clear: to find the players who best fit Van Gundy’s blueprint for the future. That’s a subtle but important distinction. And while he’ll do the day-to-day work and be the centralized source of information for Van Gundy, it’s still Van Gundy’s call from the options Bower presents. Bower, for instance, might tell Van Gundy that Team A is offering Player X and Team B is offering Player Y – which trade would Van Gundy prefer he pursues first? When it comes to free agency, Van Gundy will have firsthand knowledge of all relevant prospects. He might ask that Bower spearhead the search for more particular background or analytical information, then offer his insight into the top options at each position. But Van Gundy can always amend the order of preference. Same thing with draft prospects. Bower will lead the personnel team and present Van Gundy with all relevant information, but Van Gundy will split hairs on the prospects Bower’s team offers to him as the top options when it comes time for each pick to be executed. It will be interesting to hear Van Gundy’s reasons for selecting Bower. I suspect a deep personal trust and professional respect is at the root of it.

Byron (Detroit): If Detroit lets Billups and Stuckey walk and keep Monroe, wouldn’t we have enough room to sign Nick Young to a three-year, $18 million deal and have about $6 million left to sign another free agent?

Langlois: Rodney Stuckey and Chauncey Billups aren’t in the same situation, Byron. Stuckey is an unrestricted free agent who will be able to negotiate and agree to terms with any team in the league on July 1. The Pistons, according to multiple reports, have a team option on Billups’ contract at $2.5 million. Including Monroe’s cap hold of $10 million, the Pistons should have about $12 million to $13 million in cap space if they retain Billups and $2.5 million more than that should they decide not to renew his contract. If they don’t retain Billups, they will have nearly the rough equivalent of enough money to sign two players to what teams over the cap would spend on one player at the full mid-level exception. Either way, it’s enough money to get a foot in the door with some pretty good players. It won’t be like last summer, when the Pistons were among the league leaders in cap space. This summer, nearly half the teams in the league will have eight figures and up in cap space. But the cap space the Pistons have will, at least, give Stan Van Gundy plenty of options and flexibility, not just to pursue free agents but to use the space as a means of acquiring players via trade, as well.

Ron (Titusville, Fla.): Transplanted from Ypsilanti to Florida many years ago. Was a season ticketholder for the Magic until they let Stan Van Gundy go – a big mistake. Now I can root for the Pistons again. You picked a class act and a proven winner as a coach and president.

anglois: Thanks for the note, Ron. Van Gundy has been very impressive so far. Conventional wisdom holds that there is inherent danger in consolidating power in the hands of one man because it alters the balance between present and future objectives that comes with splitting the jobs over a general manager more concerned with the long view and a coach focused on today. But Van Gundy has seen the model work firsthand in Miami and – my impression – isn’t a candidate to fall prey to the sort of arrogance that would threaten the safeguards he’s vowed to put in place by surrounding himself with smart and trustworthy people and valuing their input.

Dan (@Spartacusink): When are we going to see a member of the Bad Boys coach the Pistons?

Langlois: I’d think most Pistons fans, as fond of the Bad Boys as they understandably and rightly remain, wouldn’t be clamoring for any of them to coach the Pistons anytime soon. Owner Tom Gores has made a huge commitment – and not just financial – to Stan Van Gundy, who comes with an outstanding reputation as a coach and the faith of many respected voices that his intelligence, humility and common touch will allow him to succeed at the challenge of managing the duties of being both coach and president of basketball operations. Let’s face it: If a member of the Bad Boys – Bill Laimbeer, Isiah Thomas, Rick Mahorn or anyone else – is coaching the Pistons anytime in the next five years, it likely means the Van Gundy era didn’t end as everyone associated with it had hoped. That can’t be good for Pistons fans.

Bryan (@BryanHorning): Can the Pistons win a championship with Brandon Jennings at the point?

Langlois: That’s a question that’s probably not fair to Jennings at this point. The Pistons have a few hurdles to clear before they can ask about their readiness at any position or in any single facet of the game to win a championship. But it’s worthwhile to note that the 2008-09 Orlando Magic that went to the NBA Finals did so with Jameer Nelson as the starting point guard, a nice player but never an elite point guard, and got to the Finals with Nelson hurt and replaced in the lineup by journeyman Rafer Alston. Van Gundy told me a few weeks ago that Jennings has impressed him already with his eagerness to get going and his passion for competing. He said he’s seen Jennings have many games where he plays very well for most of the night, then makes a few plays that are head-scratchers. As his coach, he feels it’s his charge to help Jennings eliminate those plays. He’s obviously a gifted scorer – that’s been his calling card since entering the league – and an underrated playmaker, averaging nearly eight assists a game last year. He’s still only 24. He doesn’t have to be a great defender to elevate himself into top-10 point guard status, but his ability to improve on that end – and the system Van Gundy will put in place should help all of the Pistons contribute to better team defense, as his record suggests – will surely further his and his team’s cause.

Garrison (@The_Real_G2): Would the Pistons look to trade someone like Smith or Monroe to free up cap space and move up in the draft?

Langlois: They can’t trade Monroe, Garrison – they lost their ability to trade him, given his pending free agency, once the February trade deadline passed. Sure, they could potentially work out a draft-night deal that wouldn’t be official – or even unofficially agreed to – until July 1 rolled around and Monroe had a chance to formally negotiate with that team. But that’s a lot of hoops to jump through. Smith, on the other hand, could be traded in time to affect the draft. Stan Van Gundy told me recently that he thinks the Pistons were a good team offensively last season when they had any two of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe or Josh Smith together, but not so good when all three played. If all three are back, I think he’d keep an open mind. There are ways to minimize the time all three would play together. You could even eliminate it entirely if one came off the bench and nobody exceeded 32 minutes, which is conceivable if not probable. But given the money Smith makes and the contract Monroe is in line to collect, Van Gundy might choose to allocate resources in other ways and look to trade one of them. He has the next three weeks, essentially, leading to the draft and then the opening of free agency, to formulate his priorities list and go from there. I’m sure he’s considering a thousand options, including what could be gained by dealing any of his players – with the very likely exception of Drummond.

IamPAP (@PPno9): Do you think the franchise’s newfound stability will attract some of the better free agents? Or will we pick from leftovers?

Langlois: Interesting question. As Stan Van Gundy said, he found that when he began to look for candidates to fill out his coaching and front-office staffs, he was overwhelmed by the quality of people looking to come to work with and for him. He said the chance to work in a place where harmony between the front office and coaching staffs was structurally guaranteed was appealing. I don’t think it’s a stretch from there to believe that players also will find that attractive. When Stan Van Gundy, president of basketball operations, is wooing a free agent, that player will have no reservations that the coach for whom he will play will feel any less favorably about him. That’s a pretty important distinction and an edge that, I’m sure, Van Gundy will use to his advantage whenever he reaches out to the players he prioritizes in free agency.

Robert (Durand, Mich.): Since the Pistons are in desperate need of shooters to stretch the floor, would they ever consider drafting Travis Bader or inviting him in as an undrafted free agent? He could be the best shooter in the college game. He broke J.J. Redick’s record for most threes in Division I. I would think he would have a different role in the NBA than in college. Teams had one job when facing Oakland U – run Bader off the 3-point line. He would get much better looks playing with better players.

Langlois: They’ll consider him, Robert, as will every NBA team. Bader might not have been on ESPN a few times every week, but he’s no stranger to the NBA. He fared well at the Portsmouth Invitational in April and he’s been making the rounds to work out for NBA teams before the draft. He told the Detroit Free Press that he has a workout with the Pistons scheduled a few days before the draft. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Pistons spend the 38th pick on Bader or someone like him, given that Stan Van Gundy told me a few weeks ago that he told his staffers shortly after being hired that the “holy trinity” of qualities they’re looking for in players is “tough, smart and can shoot.” That said, it’s not very realistic to expect the 38th pick in any draft – even though this year, the feeling is the quality through the top half of the second round is relatively strong – will move the needle very much as a rookie. If the Pistons are going to boost their 29th ranking in 3-point shooting, it’s far more likely to come from a combination of veteran acquisitions, internal improvement and better shot selection than from a second-round rookie.

Jeff (Machesney Park, Ill.): What do you think of Wichita State forward Cleanthony Early? Do you think he could end up falling to us in the second round?

Langlois: You never know about players projected by credible draft experts to go outside of the top 20. The farther you get from the top of the draft, in general, the less separation there is between players. There are probably 60 to 75 players in the mix for the final 40 draft slots and there will be a player or two from there who goes undrafted that a team picking in the late 20s or early 30s has as their second or third preference. I was told by an executive from one team that their front office seriously considered drafting Amir Johnson late in the first round with their pick in 2005. They went instead with a more experienced player, but Johnson was a close No. 2 in their minds. He wound up sinking to the bottom of the second round, where the Pistons took him 56th. So while Early, whose NCAA tournament performance against Kentucky surely boosted his stock, is projected to go ahead of 38 right now, it’s not inconceivable that he’ll be No. 2 or No. 3 on the lists of a half-dozen or more teams picking ahead of the Pistons and that he could land somewhere in the top half of the second round. I am certain he is on a rather lengthy list of potential draftees the Pistons will heavily weigh in the next three weeks. It will be interesting to find out if he ever works out for the Pistons. If his agent is getting feedback that indicates he won’t get out of the first round, the Pistons probably won’t be able to get him to come to Auburn Hills before the draft.

Donna (Southfield, Mich.): Do you think there is any chance the Pistons like someone enough to buy a non-lottery first-rounder this year? There are several teams with multiple picks and they might be willing to take some dollars for one outside the lottery. This is such a deep draft, people keep saying. We could maybe pick up Adreian Payne or another guard to fill the roster. We need spread-the-floor shooters. Also, do you think Harrellson will be back? I like what he brought to the table.

Langlois: I wonder what effect, if any, the escalating prices of NBA franchises will have on teams’ willingness to part with draft picks. In other words, if you’re paying $550 million for a franchise like the Bucks, or $2 billion for one like the Clippers, are you really going to sell a first-round pick for $3 million, the maximum amount a team can spend to buy a pick? That doesn’t seem like a very sound way of doing business to my way of thinking, but you never know. The Phoenix Suns, one of the teams with multiple first-round picks (14, 18 and 27), have in the past sold off draft picks. But I can’t believe ownership hired Ryan McDonough last spring as its new general manager, listened to him talk about his blueprint for the future that included acquiring draft picks as assets, only to turn around and sell a first-round pick – arguably the best tool available to find talent that outperforms the value of their contracts – for what now would amount to maybe 0.5 percent of the value of the franchise. (Or, in the case of the Clippers, a microscopic 0.15 percent.) Seems foolish. But if there’s someone willing to do it, I’m sure Tom Gores – who talks not in terms of cost but of value – would be all over it. As for Harrellson, stay tuned. It might depend on how healthy his knee, which required minor surgery, appears to be. Van Gundy knows the Pistons could use shooters and Harrellson offers unique shooting ability for his position.

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. Click here to submit your questions - please include your name, email address and city/state on the form. You can also submit Pistons Mailbag questions via Twitter. Include the hashtag #pistonsmailbag and, as always, your first name, hometown and state or country. Questions submitted via Twitter will also include the questioner’s Twitter handle. We reserve the right to edit your question for the sake of brevity or clarity. Return to the Mailbag homepage.

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.

You can also submit Pistons Mailbag questions via Twitter. Include the hashtag #pistonsmailbag and, as always, your first name, hometown and state or country. Questions submitted via Twitter will also include the questioner’s Twitter handle.

We reserve the right to edit your question for the sake of brevity or clarity.

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