Pistons Mailbag - May 1, 2019

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Blake Griffin’s state of mind (sunny), Pistons plans for free agency (cloudy) and what the draft might yield (outside the forecast range) are among the topics for discussion in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Green the Prophet (@Greentheprophe1): We want to get to the Finals, but I wouldn’t call this season a disappointment. How can we achieve that goal going forward do you think? Can we reasonably think to keep Blake Griffin? He’s been amazing, but I could understand if he wants out.

Langlois: Griffin has given no indications that he’s unhappy to be part of the Pistons. To the contrary, he spoke glowingly of Dwane Casey last week and, before that, declared the season as one of his most enjoyable from the standpoint of team unity. He’s offered his support of the front office and their vision for the future and endorsed the quality of young talent on the roster. Improving on their 41-41 record and taking the next step in the postseason requires the usual ingredients: improvement from within, which is certainly within reach when the Pistons have three players (Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas, Svi Mykhailiuk) coming off rookie seasons and two others (Luke Kennard, Thon Maker) who played significant roles and remain on rookie contracts; help from the draft, where the Pistons will have the 15th and 45th picks; augmenting the rotation via free agency, where the Pistons are sure to use the mid-level exception and likely the biannual exception; and making complementary trades to fill roster needs.

Terrence (@terrencebrooks): Do you think there will be a capable point guard worthy of being drafted by the Pistons at 15 – a potential success to Reggie Jackson?

Langlois: The consensus top point guard is Ja Morant, who’ll surely be a top-five pick. Two others, Darius Garland and Coby White, are more likely than not gone in the lottery if not the top 10. If any of them were to fall – so long as the drop wasn’t related to a medical or character red flag – they’d be easy calls to fit your description as worthy successors to Reggie Jackson should he sign elsewhere after hitting free agency following the 2020-21 season. After the top three, there’s not another obvious player viewed as a point guard who’ll be a lock to go in the first round. Purdue’s Carsen Edwards played his way into consideration for first-round status with a tremendous run in the NCAA tournament. There are a number of perimeter players with some degree of playmaking potential – though not yet viewed as primary ballhandlers – worthy of being drafted in the middle to late first round. But point guard might be the weakest position in the draft. Then again, it seems every year there’s a point guard who emerges after being a second-rounder or going undrafted. (Monte Morris, Fred VanVleet, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lin, Spencer Dinwiddie, et al.) Maybe the Pistons find someone at 45 or from the pool of undrafted prospects. I didn’t see a ton of college basketball this season, but one point guard not considered a first-round prospect – and, in fact, not listed among the top 100 prospects by ESPN.com – who caught my eye as someone who could find his way in a year or two is Jordan Bone of Tennessee. He’s a junior who might not stay in the draft but could be someone to watch, either with the 45th pick if he has a strong showing at the draft combine, to which he has reportedly earned an invitation, or as an undrafted free agent.

Charles (Redford Twp., Mich.): I have an off-the-wall question: The Pistons extended Josh Smith’s contract, but could they make him play?

Langlois: The used the stretch provision and waived him. Once they waived him in late December 2014, they relinquished all rights to Smith. They still had to pay what remained of the four-year contract that Smith signed in 2013. Because Smith still had two-plus seasons remaining, the Pistons were able to “stretch” Smith’s salary on their cap sheet over the following five seasons – two times the two years remaining after the 2014-15 season plus one, the formula employed via the stretch clause. Smith collected all of his money, but for purposes of the cap the Pistons were able to lessen the immediate impact for greater roster flexibility, though Smith has been a $5.3 million line item on their cap sheet since the 2015-16 season and will continue to be through the 2019-20 season. But, no, Smith is under no obligation to wear a Pistons uniform to earn his money.

Naif (Dubai): Do the numbers work for a straight swap of Andre Drummond for Nikola Jokic? Do you think Jokic would be an upgrade in terms of fit for the team?

Langlois: If you’re a fan of PER, then Jokic is a top-five player. He finished tied for fourth in PER at 26.38. The formula seems skewed to heavily favor big men. Of the top 20 this season, six of the top 10 and 12 of the top 20 were centers. Among them: Jonas Valanciunas, Boban Marjanovic and Hassan Whiteside. Drummond finished 19th at 23.49. Jokic has a chance to be a first-team All-NBA selection this season and just turned 24. He averaged 23.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 8.3 assists with a true shooting percentage of .589. Denver isn’t trading him; the Nuggets are building their franchise around him for the next decade. Five years ago, he was the 41st pick in the draft. If there’s a more amazing story in the NBA, I can’t think of it.

Blue Recuse (@HashTag_Tizzle): Are there any free agents in the scope of the Pistons? If so, who are they and how can we obtain them?

Langlois: While NBA teams have thoroughly scouted other rosters throughout the season, they probably haven’t yet sat down as staffs to rank their prospects position by position or map out a strategy for how to approach free agency. Will the Pistons prioritize point guard – where Reggie Jackson is entering the last year of his deal and both Ish Smith and Jose Calderon are free agents – or will they decide to steer more of their resources into the wings, where they badly need size after trading away Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock and finishing the season with Wayne Ellington and Luke Kennard job sharing at small forward. They’ve got the mid-level exception of $9.25 million and the biannual exception of $3.6 million as their bait. Their other need is for a big man behind Andre Drummond, though my guess is that will be a clear No. 3 behind point guard and wing.

Eric (@Reiter98): Along with wing shooting, backup point guard and backup big man, the Pistons could use some bench scoring. Is there a player that requires a little money but still gets buckets? Jamal Crawford maybe? He’s older but won’t need a lot of money and had a 50-point game this year.

Langlois: If the Pistons get enough out of player development this summer and land a quality player with the mid-level exception, then they might have the luxury of using Luke Kennard off the bench again. He’ll play more next season – the 23 minutes a game he averaged this season will go up to nearer 30, I’d bet – whether he’s starting or coming off of the bench. But if the Pistons can get enough out of player development, free agency and the draft so that some combination of Bruce Brown/Svi Myhhailiuk/Khyri Thomas/No. 15 draft pick/free agent gives them enough in the way of defense, scoring and 3-point range to allow them to continue using Kennard off the bench, then they’ll accomplish what you want to have happen. If Ed Stefanski can solve his critical needs at the wing, point guard and center and still have the assets to add a reliable veteran bench scorer, then he’ll have stamped his candidacy for 2020 Executive of the Year.

Ian (Westland, Mich.): Maybe we could draft Nassir Little and he develops into the next Jimmy Butler or Giannis Antetokounmpo. But because he had a low 3-point percentage, I worry that he is the next Stanley Johnson. We shouldn’t have problems at small forward if Johnson wasn’t a bust.

Langlois: While shooting is the NBA skill that talent evaluators expect is the most likely to improve with repetition, it’s also almost completely unknowable who’ll be able to improve, by how much and how fast. I never would have believed that Johnson would show zero improvement – by some measures, regress – as a 3-point shooter over four NBA seasons. Little had the same physical superiority as Johnson playing in high school and AAU basketball, scoring effectively without the need for a reliable perimeter shot. He’s more athletic, so should be able to finish around the rim better than Johnson, but whether he’ll be more of a 3-point threat … who knows? Johnson shot 37 percent from the 3-point line on about three attempts a game, a reasonable sample size, in his only season at Arizona, but in four NBA seasons his numbers have been disappointing and remarkably consistent: .307, .292, .286, ..288. Little took fewer than half as many threes as Johnson (116 to 52) and shot them at a worse clip (.269) in his only season at North Carolina. If from that you can extrapolate more NBA 3-point accuracy for Little than Johnson exhibited over four seasons, then bravo. The sample size with Little is so small, though, as to be relatively meaningless. If you determine his shot isn’t broken and you have faith in your player development staff, Little’s potential might make him the pick at 15.

Kevin (Farmington Hills, Mich.): Tom Gores has repeatedly said he would pay the luxury tax if it means signing a player or a deal that benefits the Pistons. Hypothetically, could the Pistons sign a player to a max contract and go into the luxury tax regardless of cost? If so, would the payroll by lightened as current contracts expire in the next few years?

Langlois: Hypothetically, the Pistons could go into the luxury tax this summer if they keep Glenn Robinson III and his $4.3 million deal, at their option, for next season; use their full mid-level and biannual exceptions (totaling almost $14 million) and then use their Bird rights to retain Ish Smith at something similar to the levels of his expiring contract. The tax line is projected at $132 million for 2019-20 and those moves would put the Pistons over the line. That’s the way teams wind up exceeding the cap – using Bird rights to retain their own free agents after making other moves within cap parameters.

Bravo (@AlhamadaniBravo): What do you think if we pick one of these in the draft: Sekou Doumbouya (my favorite), Kevin Porter Jr. (my favorite), P.J. Washington, Rui Hachimura, Nikeil Alexander-Walker, Keldon Johnson, Bol Bol, Brandon Clarke?

Langlois: You listed eight players ranked 8, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18, 20 and 23 by ESPN.com and similarly by most credible services. For a team picking 15th, you’ve got a pretty good chance of one of your eight trying on a Pistons cap come draft night. Who’ll be the best player or the best fit among them? Your guess is as good as mine at this point. But how can you have two favorites?

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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