Pistons Mailbag - March 13, 2019

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The next roster moves for the Pistons, how they take the next step now that a playoff bid is back on track and matchup possibilities in the first round are among the items discussed in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Blake Griffin has three to four prime years left. The Pistons need one or two more two-way perimeter players to become an elite team but they have to do it now as Blake’s wonderful talent will soon erode. What assets do the Pistons have that will land them a near All-Star guard or small forward by next season?

Langlois: It’s hard to see them adding a player of that caliber given their cap situation, Ken. Even if they could come up with some package of draft choices and players under contract, they’re not in position to absorb contracts. They’ll be able to add a solid rotation player – maybe two, if the chips fall the right way – with their cap exceptions. The best chance to get the type of player you’re talking about – a near All-Star guard or small forward – is Luke Kennard continuing on his current trajectory. I think the Pistons will have to prioritize point guard above all else this off-season. Would they love to add another talented wing player – preferably one with a little more size at that spot than they current have? Sure. They’ll assess Svi Mykhailiuk in Summer League and hope he can become part of the solution because, at 6-foot-8, he’s bigger than Kennard, Bruce Brown, Glenn Robinson III, Wayne Ellington (a pending free agent, but likely that there will be mutual interest in a reunion) and Khyri Thomas. I’d say point guard – Ish Smith will be a free agent, as well as Jose Calderon, and Reggie Jackson goes into the last year of his contract – and then a bigger wing for their most pressing needs. If they can get those two things done, they’ll feel pretty good about going into next season.

Malcolm (@yadanknow): How do the Pistons plan to actually build into a contender? I would understand the decision to refuse to bottom out, but it seems like the Pistons have spent 10 years shooting for mediocrity. We are actually in a good spot with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, but what’s the plan to actually get us back to competing at the top of the Eastern Conference? Blake isn’t getting any younger and we’re a long way off of the pace now.

Langlois: The same way teams planned to build into a contender forever until a few teams took statistical probability to absurd lengths and committed to losing and playing lottery roulette – by drafting well, scouting well, managing the salary cap well and hoping for the best. They start with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond and that makes the blueprint for building around them pretty clear: get shooters. The more shooters you can surround them with and the more additional strengths those shooters possess – shooters with size, shooters who can also defend, shooters with plus athleticism, shooters who are also passable playmakers – the better your prospects. One way the Pistons take a step forward next season is getting upticks in performance from their young players – rookies Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Svi Myhhailiuk and two other guys on rookie contracts, Luke Kennard and Thon Maker, all with reasonable expectations that they should be better players next season. Another is to hit on their first-round draft pick and with the one or two rotation pieces they’ll try to add in free agency. The Pistons opened the season 13-7 and they’ve gone 12-3 in their last 15. Together, those two stretches are nearly half a season. In between, when they suffered a number of injuries, they struggled. That speaks to their thin margin for error. Another full off-season to make further roster tweaks could widen that margin and make their full season look a lot more like the 25-10 than the 9-22 stretch between the two ends. They wouldn’t be so far off the pace then, would they?

Garrett (@GarrettRoush): Ish Smith’s success tends to correlate with the Pistons’ success. With his ability to control pace and provide a boost off of the bench, do you expect the front office to bring him back this off-season? If no, who do you expect to eat up his minutes next year?

Langlois: As a free agent, the ball is more in Smith’s court than it is in the Pistons’ court. Free agency is difficult to peg from summer to summer because it depends on how many teams go into July with significant cap space and what the demand is for a particular position in any given year. My expectation is that Smith and the Pistons will have mutual interest in a reunion, but will another team with more cap space be willing to sweeten the pot enough to pry him away? The wild card for the Pistons is how confident they are in the viability of Bruce Brown as a point guard as soon as next season. Dwane Casey has said he thinks that’s Brown’s future, but I would fully expect the Pistons to cover themselves at that position by signing someone on Smith’s level – a player capable of handling 20-plus minutes a game – whether or not they intend to give Brown a shot at point guard in 2019-20. It’s also possible the Pistons turn the first-round draft pick into a backup point guard for next season, though it’s not considered a bumper crop at the position in the 2019 draft.

Gideon (Hampton Roads, Va.): Top 10 in steals, top 10 in blocked shots, best rebounder, improved rim protector. Shouldn’t we be talking about Andre Drummond’s chances for Defensive Player of the Year or All-Defensive team?

Langlois: He’s a center and no other center is going to win DPOY over Rudy Gobert any time soon, so let’s start with that. That doesn’t diminish the strides Drummond has taken over the past few seasons. He’s gotten incrementally better over the past three seasons as he’s gained strength and endurance, sharpened his awareness and become more a student of the game rather than relying primarily on his athleticism. If Gobert didn’t exist, Drummond would earn some All-Defensive team votes this season.

Darrell (Detroit): Considering Stanley Johnson is getting little playing time with the Pelicans, I’d venture to guess that he’ll be let go this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Given Johnson’s chemistry with the team, his defensive prowess and the team’s need for small forward depth, what are the chances of the Pistons bringing Stanley back on a relatively cheap deal if he becomes an unrestricted free agent?

Langlois: The Pistons know Johnson intimately and will be able to evaluate him accordingly. Given that one of their biggest off-season needs is likely to be a wing with more size, Johnson will certainly be among their list of considerations. My guess would be that Johnson’s first choice wouldn’t be to return to the place where his NBA career stalled. For whatever reason, under two coaching regimes Johnson never made real progress toward becoming a consistent shooter or scorer. There’s always a place for defensive stoppers – witness rookie Bruce Brown becoming a starter for the Pistons – but Johnson took 6.8 3-point shots per 36 minutes and shot 26.9 percent. Of players who’ve played at least 50 games and taken at least six 3-point shots per 36 minutes, only Trey Lyles has a worse percentage in the NBA. That’s been a crippling element in Johnson’s career. He takes a lot of 3-point shots – more than half of his field-goal attempts – and he shoots them very inefficiently. It’s not for lack of trying, either. Johnson was always working on his shooting.

Ahmed (San Antonio): It seems that Dwane Casey is doing a great job. What has he done this season to make the team as good as they are?

Langlois: The best thing he’s done is be the same guy every day. For a team to go through the rough patch the Pistons endured, going 9-22 after their 13-7 start, and not throw in the towel or start fracturing is not to be overlooked. Casey rightly defends himself against the whispers that accompanied his firing from Toronto regarding X’s and O’s and in-game adjustments. But what separates him from most coaches is his rare ability to keep everyone on the roster engaged despite the need to make hard decisions on playing time and roles that best serve team needs. That’s been on display especially since the trade deadline when he lost two of his core rotation pieces yet figured it out on the fly and has the Pistons playing their best basketball of the season by a wide margin.

Nick (@nickcardone6): More of a comment than a question, but can the Pistons somehow ensure they finish seventh and guarantee a first-round matchup with Toronto?

Langlois: File that one under “be careful what you wish for.” If the Raptors finish as the No. 2 seed, it’s because they’ve proven themselves the better team over 82 games than Philadelphia, Boston or Indiana. Yeah, I get that Indiana without Victor Oladipo on paper doesn’t appear to be the same quality as the other candidates for home-court advantage in the first round in the East (Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston). But it’s hard to find any real slippage with the Pacers since Oladipo was lost to injury. It’s true that the playoffs primarily come down to matchups and Philadelphia presents problems with its size advantage on the perimeter. But Toronto presents its own problems. I’d start with Kawhi Leonard. The comeback from 19 down at Toronto when the Pistons won in November probably doesn’t happen without the defensive job Stanley Johnson did on Leonard in the fourth quarter and he’s no longer available. Leonard didn’t play when the Pistons beat the Raptors in overtime earlier this month. The Pistons don’t really have a logical defender for Leonard. Wayne Ellington, Luke Kennard and Langston Galloway all would probably take a spin, but Leonard’s strength, size, athleticism and scoring ability would be immensely challenging for all of them. And it’s not like you can afford to ignore anybody else to offer more than token double teaming of Leonard. The Raptors would be a handful, for sure, in a playoff matchup.

Chuck (@IceKing1988): Is there anyone in free agency we can sign for the rest of the season that could give us a boost?

Langlois: If there is, it’s lost on me. What you’re asking is to sign a player not currently under NBA contract that could come in and be an upgrade over someone currently in the rotation of a team that’s won 12 of its last 15 games. That’s a big ask. If there was somebody who could move the needle for a playoff team, chances are he’d already be in the NBA. The most obvious free agent out there is Carmelo Anthony. In a vacuum, that might sound like a logical move. He’s got the size the Pistons could use at that position. But that overlooks the facts that (a) even in his 20s, nobody ever considered Anthony a serious defender, which is what the Pistons would ideally be seeking for matchups exactly like the one discussed in the previous question and (b) his value has always been as a high-volume scorer with offenses designed around him. It would be foolhardy to drop him onto a playoff-bound team and expect that he could assimilate into a complementary role and thrive. Even if Anthony was fully committed to fitting in, what evidence is there that an Anthony agreeable to a complementary role could be productive in that capacity? To lesser degrees, they tried that in Oklahoma City last season and Houston this season to roundly negative results. Keep in mind the Pistons also have a full roster and would have to waive someone to create a vacancy.

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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