What to do about point guard, issues with the offense and summer roster tinkering dot the docket in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Darrell (Detroit): Ish Smith’s plus-1.8 compared to Reggie Jackson’s minus-3.9 is all it takes to realize that Smith should be starting and getting 30 minutes per game. If SVG is intent on getting Jackson decent minutes, then perhaps he should give Jackson some minutes at shooting guard as matchups dictate. Is SVG’s resistance to bringing Jackson off the bench a money or ego issue? As a longtime Pistons fans, I’m frustrated watching the Pistons dig a hole early only for Ish to bring the team back and fall short.
Langlois: Smith played 28 minutes in Tuesday’s loss at Brooklyn, including the last 17-plus consecutively. Is it possible that Van Gundy moves Smith into the starting lineup? Yes. I’m not predicting it, but it wouldn’t be a surprise. Jackson has shown flashes of recapturing peak form, but some nights he doesn’t have burst and some nights he does. With 11 games left in the season and every win critical, every move Van Gundy makes at this point will be with winning that night’s game in mind. I wouldn’t go as far as to say contract status would never influence Van Gundy, but let’s put that into context. He signed Jackson and Smith in deals a year apart, Jackson’s for more than twice the annual average value as Smith’s. There was a valid reason for the disparity in their contracts: their performances to that point. Jackson was worth every penny in the first year of his deal. For the Pistons to be the team Van Gundy expected them to become this season, they needed that version of Jackson. To get it, Van Gundy had to give him a certain amount of rope. The flip side of the coin is that when he’s had to use Smith for extended minutes, as he did at Brooklyn to finish, it’s taken a toll on him in back to backs – exactly the situation the Pistons face at Chicago tonight. With chances to get wins dwindling and Jackson still not able to consistently play at accustomed levels, Van Gundy is quite likely going to coach each game by feel and not go off a rotation script, which essentially is what he’s been doing with his point guards for weeks.
Nick (Brisbane, Australia): You used the term “flawed offense” in your report on Tuesday’s loss to Brooklyn. What do you think the main flaw is? Do you think we are seeing some of the disadvantages at the moment of having a general manager/coach? It was fairly apparent before the trade deadline that the team needed a shakeup and Reggie’s early-season injury can no longer be an excuse. From the outside it seems that coach Van Gundy might be reluctant to have GM Van Gundy make a deal as he has an overinflated opinion of the players he brought in.
Langlois: Well, the Pistons are 23rd in offensive rating, 26th in scoring offense, 27th in 3-point shooting and 26th in 3-point attempts. As Stan Van Gundy says often, it’s hard to win as a low-volume, low-percentage 3-point shooting team in today’s NBA. They don’t score enough, don’t shoot well enough and haven’t been able to achieve anything approaching consistency all season. You say Jackson’s early-season injury can’t be used as an excuse, but the crux of their problem is that the single biggest driver of their offense a season ago – Jackson’s pick and roll with Andre Drummond – has not been nearly as effective this season. The Pistons weren’t a great 3-point shooting team last season, but they did finish 10th in attempts and 22nd in accuracy. If they were at those levels this season, they’d be up by five points per game and rank in the upper half of NBA teams in scoring. Without the threat of Jackson’s penetration, defenses don’t have to pack the paint as much and there aren’t as many open 3-point opportunities this season. Van Gundy has lamented a lack of ball movement and player movement all year, makes it a constant point of emphasis and yet it continues to dog the Pistons. They’ve defended well this season aside from a 15-game stretch that began in mid-December and can almost be written off as a fluke given the 45 percent 3-point shooting their opponents managed. They go into tonight’s game at Chicago with the No. 9 defense. I think it’s fair to characterize the offense as flawed. As for how Van Gundy holding both roles has suddenly become a detriment, I simply don’t buy that. It’s not like he is judging players by what he hopes they can be; Jackson has a track record.
Hombre NBA (@hombre_nba): Do you see the team getting a top free agent this summer? I think we need a three that can score and defend.
Langlois: A top free agent? Almost certainly not given that they will not have any cap space. Barring a significant trade that frees cap room, the overwhelming priority in free agency will be an attempt to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a pending restricted free agent. Beyond that, the Pistons will have the mid-level exception available to them. That would allow them to offer a free agent a first-year salary of about $5.8 million. Wings who can score and defend are always in demand, which is why Caldwell-Pope will be attractive to teams flush with cap space this summer. The mid-level exception isn’t likely to attract the type of player on your wish list.
Tomas (@tkrepostman): Why isn’t the new arena called Little Caesars Palace and what do you think of Derrick Walton?
Langlois: No idea what went into the naming of the new arena. Maybe Little Caesars Palace sounded a little too gimmicky and maybe the Las Vegas casino owners’ lawyers might have had something to say about any attempt to play off of their name. As for Derrick Walton, I imagine he’s spurred NBA teams to take a long, hard look at his performance over the second half of the Big Ten season and, especially, over the past six games. I had a brief conversation with one NBA scout about Walton perhaps six weeks ago and he said he admired his smarts and toughness but felt his lack of elite quickness and explosion, given his size, probably meant he was destined to have to prove himself in the D-League. Today’s NBA puts a premium on guys who can make shots and create offense and Walton has exhibited a knack for exactly those things on college basketball’s biggest stage. Walton will get the chance to prove he can do that at the next level. It doesn’t mean he’ll get drafted, necessarily, but he won’t have to look far for inspiration that going undrafted doesn’t impede a path to the NBA. Yogi Ferrell, a four-year college player at Big Ten rival Indiana, signed as an undrafted free agent and wound up getting a multiyear deal from Dallas last month.
Detroitlean (@detroitlean11): If we have to part with one in order to sign a good 3-and-D player, who is likely to go – Andre or Reggie?
Langlois: I’ll reject the premise that the only options to trading for a 3-and-D player are relinquishing your starting center, 23 and a year removed from an All-Star appearance, or your starting point guard. What Stan Van Gundy and his cabinet will need to decide after the season is how much faith they are going to put in Jackson making a full return from injury next season. If I had to guess, given no medical reason to believe otherwise, they’ll expect Jackson to bounce back. What moves they deem necessary, if any, to push the franchise forward will be determined after they do a thorough review of their current roster. They’ll be as candid in that appraisal as they can possible be, but the central question comes back to Jackson. If they can count on him to return to form, then that solves a lot of what has dogged their offense this season. They will be intent on fielding a team that shoots it better next season, of course, and perhaps that will prompt consideration for dipping into their core to trade for shooting upgrades. They’re prepared to lose Aron Baynes in free agency. Dealing Drummond for a wing player would leave a chasm in the middle. Dealing Jackson – even if you’re assuming they’d be prepared to start Ish Smith next season – would necessitate finding another point guard.
Will (@Will_Michaels): Do you approve of the way the Pistons are dealing with Henry Ellenson this season?
Langlois: Lots of Ellenson questions that all popped on my radar within minutes, leading me to think there was a Rice Lake conspiracy at work. Nice teamwork, Rice Lake! Do I approve? I’m not sure what else they could have done. It’s not like they deceived anyone. Stan Van Gundy said the day after the draft, and said the same privately to Ellenson, that the Pistons would prioritize a power forward in free agency and if that player didn’t start the season ahead of Ellenson on the depth chart then the Pistons signed the wrong player. Jon Leuer wound up being the guy and until a recent shooting slump he’s been as Van Gundy expected. If you think Ellenson is the only rookie drafted in the first round who’s spent more time playing in the D-League than the NBA, look around. Georgios Papagiannis, who went five spots ahead of Ellenson, has played 739 minutes in the D-League to 98 for the Sacramento Kings. Boston took Guerschon Yabusele two picks ahead of Ellenson and he spent the year in China before signing to play the rest of this season in the D-League. Despite a raft of injuries, Memphis has played Wade Baldwin – taken one spot ahead of Ellenson – in just 24 games this season after two years in college to Ellenson’s one. He’s played 19 games in the D-League. Malik Beasley – taken one pick after Ellenson also after one college season – has spent far more time in the D-League (369 minutes) than with Denver (90 minutes). Ellenson came to the NBA as a 19-year-old. The Pistons drafted him because they saw vast offensive ability but never anticipated he’d be physically ready to help them immediately win games against grown men amid the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world. That’s no indictment of Ellenson or of the Pistons. He’s played 627 D-League minutes across 18 games this season and he’s scheduled to get three more – barring injury, either to him or to the Pistons to necessitate his return – over the next four days with the Grand Rapids Drive. As more NBA teams have acquired their own D-League teams or entered into agreements, as the Pistons have, that give them control of rosters, the more the D-League is being used to develop young players coming to the NBA in greater numbers at younger ages than ever before. Perhaps as college players come to grips with the reality that entering the NBA after one or two seasons might well lead to a considerable D-League apprenticeship, the gusher will slow to more of a steady drip. For what it’s worth, both the Pistons and Ellenson have expressed nothing but satisfaction with his progress over the course of the season. If he’s disappointed at his time in the D-League, it surely isn’t evident in his body language or in his words and it has done nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for the pursuit of improvement.
Jamal (Hamtramck, Mich.): What are the chances Doc Rivers goes to the Orlando Magic or the Chicago Bulls next season?
Langlois: Above my pay grade to even begin to speculate on that. He’s got personnel authority and a very handsome contract with the Clippers in the employ of one of the world’s richest men and amid one of the NBA’s most glamorous cities. If there is any hint of uneasiness in the relationship between Rivers and Steve Ballmer, it’s lost on me. He has a history in Orlando and there are rumblings that the Magic might be in for a management purge, so perhaps there is a draw for Rivers there. Chicago? That seems like a non-starter. Rivers is a native Chicagoan, which probably sparked whatever rumor exists. But the Bulls have an entrenched management team in John Paxson and Gar Forman and there is no indication they’re about to undergo a radical overhaul.
Luis (Paterson, N.J.): Which team is more likely to win an NBA championship between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks?
Langlois: Well, that wins the award for Pistons Mailbag Random Question of the Week. Congratulations. You can pick up your prize at your nearest Blockbuster store. But, what the heck. I’ll play along and take … the Knicks. At least they have their draft choices. And the lure of Manhattan and Madison Square Garden. And Phil Jackson? And the triangle offense? If you had said “likely” instead of “more likely,” the correct answer would have been “neither.”
Mickie (Philadelphia): Do players receive bonus salary when they play in the NBA championship game or do they just receive their salary based on what their contract says?
Langlois: There is a pool of money that gets split by teams that qualify for the playoffs. The farther you go, the more your team makes. The total pool last season, according to the NBA, was $15 million. The Cleveland Cavaliers got about $2.7 million for winning the title with the Golden State Warriors getting about $1.76 million as runner-up. The two conference finals losing teams got $440,000 apiece. Teams that advanced to the second round split $266,000 and first-round teams got $224,000.