Pistons Mailbag - March 31, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Plenty of talk about the future and the present of the Pistons, but this week’s Mailbag gets started with a look into their past and the greatest player in franchise history.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Isiah Thomas’ ballhandling and flanker speed was such that he could defeat the man guarding him 85 percent of the time to make a smart pass or take a good shot himself. Hall of Fame “Zeke” could make his own offense if needed. He would control a game and win it away from Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan with a bucket, a pass, a rebound, a steal, a trap. Can one small man at the point dominate like that any more in the long-gun NBA?

I think Isiah Thomas in 2021 – with the floor spaced the way it is now, with the way the game is officiated to protect freedom of movement – would be a bigger star today than he was in his time. Further, I believe he would have been an elite 3-point shooter. And I say that with full knowledge of the fact he shot 29 percent from the 3-point line for his career. The 3-point shot was used very differently in his era – it was mostly something teams used to try to come back late in games or to beat the shot clock – and was not routinely practiced as it is today. He’d have been a happy convert to the 3-point shot and become as proficient in that as he was at virtually every other aspect of the game. I asked him about five years ago what he thought his numbers would be in today’s game and his expressive eyes just lit up and he smiled that smile of his. I don’t think 30-point, 12-assist averages would have been beyond him. Early in the 2019-20 season, I asked him if he was envious of the style and officiating climate today’s players operate within and he said this: “No. I don’t know if I would be the type of person I am if I played in this era. The way I was coached and the way I played and the person that I have become, I would be a totally different person if I played in this era and I kind of like the person I am and how I played, so I wouldn’t change it. Now, had I lost and not won (NBA championships), then I would’ve wanted to play in this era.” Thomas also said then that the Pistons were trailblazers as far as winning with a perimeter-oriented team in an era where offenses almost exclusively ran through the post. “We were the first team to really go so far against the grain and play a totally different style. When you say the game has evolved, I think the game has gotten better from what we started in terms of more offenses moving more to the perimeter as opposed to moving into the interior. But we were the first team to do it from the perimeter and now you have many teams doing it from the perimeter and using the 3-point line.”

Kamil Kursat (@KKY23BG): What do Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver think about Sekou Doumbouya’s future? Will we be aggressive in the draft for next season as last year? What will be the situation of players who’ll be free agents?

They’re aware that Doumbouya is still just 20 years old, doesn’t have a long relationship with the game and has had his development stunted to a degree by not having a G League team or season available to him. Both Casey and Weaver have said supportive things about Doumbouya’s work ethic and demeanor, Weaver as recently as this month. From a larger perspective, a franchise in a rebuilding stage can afford to be a little more patient with a player like Doumouya and dedicate a roster spot to him. I don’t think the Pistons would pass on an opportunity to widen their talent pool, but selling now on him would almost certainly be selling low. As for being as aggressive in the 2021 draft as in 2020, I think Weaver’s nature is to be aggressive. There’s no evidence to the contrary even if the sample size is still small. I think it’s extraordinary that a first-year, first-time general manager has stuck his neck out to the degree Weaver has and it’s been an underreported part of his tenure so far. There are a ton of GMs who make very few moves because every move exposes you to the risk of making mistakes and the nature of personnel moves is you’re going to be wrong a lot. Therefore, the more moves, the more mistakes. But Weaver came in guns blazing, a measure of the confidence he has in his evaluation skills. So he’s going to be aggressive, but aggressive doesn’t mean he’s going to be trading for two more first-round picks because that takes a lot of ammunition and, one presumes, he’s pretty pleased with how his first round of moves has stocked the cupboard. If he dealt from the assets on hand now, many of them would be the assets he’s acquired. Aggressive might mean finding a way to convert the three second-round picks he’s acquired for 2021 into future assets or to move up or down in the draft. As for free agency as it applies to current Pistons, Wayne Ellington will be unrestricted and Dennis Smith Jr. and Hamidou Diallo will be restricted free agents if the Pistons extend qualifying offers. There’s no question about that happening with Diallo; it’s to be determined with Smith. Frank Jackson and Saben Lee are on two-way deals. Lee certainly will be on a standard contract next season. TBD with Jackson. Rodney McGruder is under contract but it’s non-guaranteed. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s back on a lesser deal because Weaver and Dwane Casey are both big fans, he’s versatile and a good locker room guy. Tyler Cook, now on his second 10-day contract, could be another guy who is signed to a creative deal that guarantees him some money and a shot to stick.

Darrell (Detroit): If the Pistons released Dennis Smith Jr. and Rodney McGruder in the off-season and retain Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson, what would the projected salary cap look like and what players might the team be able to sign in free agency?

Smith has a cap hold of $7.7 million if the Pistons extend a qualifying offer to him to make him a restricted free agent and give them the right to match any offer he gets. McGruder has a non-guaranteed $5 million for 2021-22. The other big wild card for the 2021-22 cap sheet is Cory Joseph’s contract. The Pistons traded Delon Wright, who had a reported $8.5 million coming to him next season, for Joseph (and two future second-round picks) and his contract, which calls for $12.6 million next season with only $2.4 million guaranteed. So in the event the Pistons cut Joseph before his guarantee date – which likely will be in late July or early August, depending on how the NBA adjusts the scheduling of free agency – and let McGruder walk and don’t extend the qualifying offer to Smith, they’d have somewhere around $20 million in cap space. But the Pistons have a decent shot to wind up with a top-five draft pick and the cap holds for those picks are pretty pricey – with the variance at the top of the draft much greater than later in the first round. For instance, the cap hold for the No. 1 pick in 2020 (Anthony Edwards) was $9.7 million and for the No. 5 pick (Isaac Okoro) it was $6.4 million. Hamidou Diallo’s cap hold is $2.1 million. If the Pistons are operating as a team with cap space, which seems likely, the likely move for them is to keep Diallo’s cap hold on the books, use their cap space, and then go over the cap to sign him with Bird rights.

I think we can say definitely “yes” on Diallo and more likely “maybe” on Smith. The acquisition of Diallo was straightforward with the Pistons sending out Svi Mykhailiuk – a swap of two players with pretty much identical contracts and both due for restricted free agency assuming their teams submit a qualifying offer – plus a future second-round pick. So Diallo was clearly the object of the trade. In Smith’s case, it’s a little less clear. Smith will also be a restricted free agent if a qualifying offer is extended but as a former first-round pick his cap hold will be more than three times higher than Diallo’s. That means it won’t be as easy or painless a decision for the Pistons to commit that much cap space ($7.7 million for Smith) as it would be for Diallo ($2.1 million). Dwane Casey has said more than once that the Pistons are evaluating Smith and it’s with that in mind. They’ve got Killian Hayes and Saben Lee as part of their core. Even if Hayes offers them positional versatility, that still starts to fill up the backcourt depth chart if you commit to Smith, as well. So they’re going to use these final 26 games to figure out exactly what they have and how Smith fits with the rest of the puzzle pieces. Diallo, yes, it would be nothing but surprising if the Pistons don’t come to a multiyear contract agreement with him relatively early in free agency.

Canki (@stillshadybaby): What do Dwane Casey and Troy Weaver think about Hamidou Diallo’s future?

Casey thinks he’s already one of their best perimeter defenders, perhaps their best. Here’s what he said about Diallo after his 19-point, 10-rebound game in Monday’s win over Toronto: “Once he came in, the game changed and he kind of lit a fire under everybody. The game sped up and the rest was history. That young man is just scratching the surface of what he can be in this league.” Weaver was part of the Oklahoma City front office that drafted Diallo in 2018 and Diallo talked after Monday’s win about what Weaver’s support for him meant to him in his first two years when he was trying to find his way. Here’s what Weaver said about Diallo last week: “Hami, he fits what we’re trying to do here. Tremendous mindset, tremendous competitor. Defensive mindset. Athletic. He brings it. You can never have too many guys that have that mindset and that competitiveness and bring it every night. As we’re going through this process, we’re looking for those types of players. He fits the bill going forward for us. Tremendous young man. Very fortunate and excited to have him join the Pistons. Great things to come ahead with Hami.”

Ian (Westland, Mich.): I liked the idea of keeping Wayne Ellington. He spaces the floor and will allow our rookies ideal development in games. What kind of cap space are we looking at next year?

See above on cap space. Lots of moving targets there. Between the Wright-Joseph trade and its potential (depending on what they do with Joseph) to create cap space and the savings from Blake Griffin’s buyout, the Pistons went from operating as a team over the cap next year, effectively, to one that could be about $20 million under. You can bet Dwane Casey liked keeping Ellington, too. The Pistons have a lot of young players they want to get playing time and develop, but many of them – guys like Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Dennis Smith Jr., Saben Lee and Killian Hayes – are unproven 3-point shooters and that makes it not only tough to win games but to run functional offense in this era. Part of player development is giving them a chance to operate in space and Ellington helps with that aim.

Robert (Albany, Ore.): Wish list: Wayne Ellington and Delon Wright get traded to contenders, deservedly so. The Pistons somehow find a reliable backup big, allowing Isaiah Stewart to start. It’s a fun team to watch play and develop. The NCAA tournament must have scouts drooling. I loved Cameron Krutwig. Is he a second-round prospect?

Your submission came in after last week’s Mailbag published but before the trade deadline, so you got half your wishes filled with Wright’s trade to Sacramento. Troy Weaver said he was happy for Wright to be able to join a team in a playoff chase that clearly wanted him and allows him to play in his native California. I’m sure Krutwig will find his way to someone’s Summer League roster and training camp, but I don’t know that he’s going to be drafted. Maybe. It only takes one team to make it happen. But he doesn’t show up on top 100 lists that I’ve seen. It’s tough when you’re a 6-foot-7 big man who plays below the rim. His smarts and passing skills are off the charts, but unless you have a clear vision and a niche role, that only takes you so far when the size/athleticism dynamic gets turned up tenfold in the NBA.

Scott Knox (@SKOTKNOCKS): Why did it take so long for Frank Jackson to get some PT?

He’s on a two-way contract and there are a bunch of young guys jockeying for minutes on the perimeter now. Jackson’s physique says point guard but his profile says he’s not really a distributor. His career 2.3 assists per 36 minutes is more in line with Wayne Ellington (1.9) than Delon Wright (5.4), another combination guard. So Jackson is now competing with Josh Jackson and Hamidou Diallo for minutes and a role on the perimeter. One key for Jackson, as with so many young players, will be to become a consistent above-average 3-point shooter. He’s really athletic and can get to the paint, but unless he’s regarded as a legitimate 3-point threat it’s easy enough to back off and choke off driving lanes where his athleticism comes into play. Ellington said last week that so much of becoming a good 3-point shooter is footwork – and much of that happens before and as you’re receiving a pass so you can launch quickly and with a solid shooting platform – and he’s been surprised at how advanced Jackson is in that area with Jackson crediting his time with J.J. Redick in New Orleans for that progress. The sample size is still pretty small (42 attempts), but Jackson, lo and behold, is shooting .429 from three for the Pistons after being below average (.314 and .326 on 313 attempts) in his first two years with the Pelicans.

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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