Pistons Mailbag - May 12, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The Core Four, the draft, free agency, the futures of Cory Joseph and Dennis Smith Jr. – it’s all under one roof in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Mack_donald3/IG: Do we get another top-tier scorer in free agency with the Core Four looking good?

They’re not going to have as much to spend as they did last fall, but they could conceivably put together as much as they agreed to commit to Jerami Grant. Can Troy Weaver possibly find the 2021 equivalent to Grant in free agency? If he feels that guy is out there, then I would expect they’d prefer to commit all of their free-agent dollars on one very good free agent rather than spreading it around to three or four players this time. In a perfect world, that player would be an above-average and high-volume 3-point shooter. But you can’t invent what isn’t available. Scorers, particularly scorers who influence scouting reports as 3-point shooters, will be in high demand. The Pistons found one at a bargain last off-season, though, in Frank Jackson. Maybe they’ll go into the off-season feeling their player development program – given the history of young players generally improving as 3-point shooters – will be enough to sufficiently remedy their 3-point deficiency and decide to invest first in the best available talent upgrade.

He traded Kennard and four future seconds to the Clippers for the 19th pick used to take Saddiq Bey. In the Bruce Brown trade to Brooklyn, the Pistons received Toronto’s 2021 second-round pick – and that trade looks a lot different today than it did in November. If Weaver was betting Toronto’s season wasn’t going to end in a playoff berth, he hit the jackpot. That pick as of this morning is now 37th, the area of the draft where nearly every season there’s at least one player who goes on to significantly outperform his draft slot. The top 10 of the second round is usually pretty fertile territory. The Pistons got Saben Lee at 38 in November. In 2019, players still available at 37 included Daniel Gafford, Eric Paschall, Jaylen Nowell, Isaiah Roby, Talen Horton-Tucker, Terrance Mann and Jalen McDaniels. In 2018, Gary Trent Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, Bruce Brown, Hamidou Diallo, De’Anthony Melton and Svi Mykhailiuk all went 37th or later. If you’re asking what it would take to trade into the first round in the 10 to 20 range, I don’t know that it’s very realistic for this season. Frank Jackson can’t be traded as a pending restricted free agent. I think Josh Jackson would have some trade value in a vacuum, but the draft wouldn’t be a likely time for it to happen. Last year was an anomaly in many respects. The trade moratorium got lifted two days before the draft, which came two days before free agency. And it was an even more unique set of circumstances for the Pistons, who had a new general manager who hadn’t been able to make any moves for his first five months on the job and had a clear idea of the type of roster he wanted. The inclusion of four second-rounders in the Clippers deal made that a most unusual trade. But future second-round picks hold a little more weight than giving up three defined second-round picks all in one draft because there’s not much a team can do with them at that point. Future second-rounders are great to have on hand to throw into deals to close them, but part of their appeal is always the chance you’ll stumble into an unexpectedly good pick – the way the Pistons have with Toronto’s pick this season. On draft night, the Charlotte and Los Angeles Lakers picks the Pistons have will be defined – they’re currently 42nd and 51st. The 42nd pick is still in the range where a solid player or two is found every draft, but 51st by itself would hold very little value. So throwing those picks on top of a young player isn’t going to yield a pick in the 10 to 20 range, almost certainly.

Philip (Auburn Hills, Mich.): From my understanding, whether we sign Dennis Smith Jr. or not, his restricted free agent minimum signing goes against our cap for next season. With that in mind and the small amount of cap space we’ll have to sign players, doesn’t it make sense to sign Smith to a two-year contract?

That’s not quite how it works. Dennis Smith Jr. has a cap hold of $7.7 million that’s based on his draft slot and the rookie contract that accompanied it as the No. 9 pick in 2017. If the Pistons extend a qualifying offer, that stays on their books when free agency starts and Smith becomes a restricted free agent. But if they decide not to extend the qualifying offer, then Smith becomes an unrestricted free agent and the Pistons lose Bird rights. It’s possible the Pistons want Smith back at a lesser number. Of course, letting him hit unrestricted free agency means they’d have no advantage over any other team at that point. But there’s a way to make it work if the Pistons decide they want Smith back but at a lesser number – extend the qualifying offer but quickly come to terms with him on a contract at a lower number. Once that deal is signed, then the new number would replace the qualifying offer on the cap sheet. So, for instance, say they signed him for two years with a first-year salary of $4 million. The $4 million would replace the $7.7 million on the cap sheet.

Christopher.hrbal/IG: What are the chances that Cory Joseph is kept next season?

It is assumed that the Pistons will choose not to pick up the fully guaranteed portion of Cory Joseph’s contract ($12.6 million), instead paying the guaranteed portion ($2.4 million) to make him an unrestricted free agent. If that were the case, then Joseph would be free to seek the best opportunity. He’s talked about how much he loves playing for Dwane Casey and Detroit is about as close to his Toronto home as you can get without actually playing for the Raptors. Casey, I’m sure, would love to have him back. The Pistons, obviously, are invested in Killian Hayes and Saben Lee for the future, but they are almost certain to be on the hunt for a veteran point guard in free agency. It might come down to what happens on draft night. If the Pistons were to draft Jalen Suggs, for instance, that point guard room might look a little too crowded for Joseph, who at 29 isn’t ready to accept an end-of-bench mentorship role. He’ll want a situation where, at minimum, he’ll be the de facto backup point guard. If he sees that possibility with the Pistons, even with Hayes and Lee in the picture, then I think there’s a chance he’s back.

Lou (Indio, Calif.): Do you think we can target John Collins in free agency?

One reason Collins and the Atlanta Hawks didn’t come to terms on a long-term deal before the season started was that Collins reportedly wanted a maximum contract. Will he get that from another team? It only takes one to see him as worth that number. For the 2020-21 season, a maximum contract for a player of Collins’ tenure starts with a first-year salary of more than $27 million. The Pistons would be well short of that in the best-case scenario. (They could conceivably have about $20 million in cap space.) There won’t be a ton of teams that can offer Collins that without clearing space somehow. It might be that a sign and trade is the most likely way Collins changes teams this off-season. Whether the Pistons would be among his suitors is anyone’s guess. The draft comes first and that could shape free agency for the Pistons this season in a way it wasn’t going to last fall when Troy Weaver was essentially starting with a blank slate. The Pistons see Jerami Grant as primarily a power forward. I know we’re in an era of largely position-less basketball and Grant could easily slide to small forward, but it might seem odd to invest heavily in power forwards two straight years in free agency and have the two highest-paid players on the team – by a wide, wide margin over the third-highest – play primarily at power forward. Collins can give you minutes at center, but Mason Plumlee and Isaiah Stewart are still there. If the Pistons were to concentrate their resources on a single free agent this off-season, my guess is that it would be for a perimeter scorer and specifically a 3-point shooter who fits with Killian Hayes. But, again, the draft comes first. If the Pistons get a top-five pick, how they spend it will be a factor in how they attack free agency.

Xrwashpun/IG: Who’s a better fit: Jalen Green or Evan Mobley?

Who’s going to be the better, more valuable player in 2024? That’s your answer. Fit isn’t much of a concern – zero or close enough to it – for the Pistons roster at this stage. I don’t see any concerns of duplication with any of the top draft prospects if the Pistons were to be so fortunate as to land a top-three pick in the June 22 lottery. The Pistons have a lot of candidates at shooting guard – Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson – but none that would prevent them from drafting Green if Troy Weaver sees a star in the making. They have Isaiah Stewart, Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee at center and power forward but none of that would preclude them drafting Mobley if Weaver sees a difference maker. Who has the best chance of being widely recognized as a top-25 player by the time his rookie contract is up? That’s your answer.

Andrew_c_8/IG: Best alongside Killian Hayes: Cade Cunningham or Jalen Green? Jalen Green or Jalen Suggs?

Jalen Rose would’ve been interesting, too! The answer is similar to the answer above: The one Troy Weaver believes has the brightest NBA future will be the one who fits best next to Killian Hayes. Hayes has looked comfortable in the past two games when a backcourt numbers crunch led to Hayes playing off the ball alongside Saben Lee for good chunks of the games. Hayes himself says he likes going back and forth between backcourt spots. So a Hayes-Suggs backcourt where they can take turns running the point and exploiting defensive matchups to their advantage would be intriguing. Cunningham is more in the Grant Hill mode of a playmaking wing, so that would be a very easy fit, as well. If it’s Green, it would mean more of Hayes as the point guard, but there’s no issue with that if Green hits his mark as a premier scorer. If Weaver thinks all three of those players are destined for big things, I’m sure he’d be happy to pick third in that scenario.

Charles (Redford Twp., Mich.): Game after game, Killian Hayes’ turnovers are equaling his assists. Saben Lee outplays Hayes, yet Hayes gets more minutes and starts. Do you think this is sending the wrong message to the new crop of second-round draft picks the Pistons will be selecting?

One of the reasons Dwane Casey second-guessed himself for starting Hayes coming out of the gates this season was the difference in the challenge between going against starting point guards and backups. He came off the bench for eight games when he returned from his hip injury in early April. So start with that. Starting and going against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Trae Young, Jrue Holiday, et al, has to be overwhelming for a 19-year-old coming from the German pro league. Hayes experienced the same issue with turnovers in Germany in the first half of last season, too, then adjusted and the problem dissipated. You’re overstating it by saying his turnovers equal his assists. It happened four times in the seven games he played to start the season before the injury, but four times in 17 games since he’s been back. He’s averaging 5.3 assists and 3.3 turnovers a game and, yes, his average of 6.4 turnovers per 100 possessions is too many and the highest on the roster (Josh Jackson is next at 4.6). But he’s a rookie point guard – a rookie point guard breaking into the NBA under the most challenging circumstances given the COVID-19 pandemic and the timing of the draft relative to the start of training camp – finding his way. As for future second-round picks and messages being received, the fact Saben Lee has played more than 700 minutes as a second-rounder on a two-way contract should give them all the reason they need for optimism that Dwane Casey will give them a fair shake. And if that doesn’t do it, he could remind them that he seemed to do right by second-rounder Norm Powell and undrafted Fred VanVleet in Toronto.

Mike (Windsor, Ontario): Is it possible Saben Lee is not retained next season?

I’d say that’s a 99 percent probability. The Pistons love him – love, love, love Saben Lee. Dwane Casey says Lee is the rookie with the most natural leadership qualities. He’s athletic, strong, tough and has adapted well to becoming a playmaker. He’s a reasonably reliable perimeter shot away from becoming the permanent backup with the possibility of more as he matures and gains experience.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): The Pistons have three second-round picks in the upcoming draft. That’s a little bit of capital, but what can they realistically do with them?

Touched on it a little in my response to Seckin above, but the Toronto pick now is especially attractive. Given Troy Weaver’s ability to spot underappreciated talent, my guess is that becomes something worth getting excited about in July. Based on Saben Lee’s experience, I’d guess that pick is destined to be one of the two-way contracts next season. Another realistic possibility is that becomes a player the Pistons decide to draft and stash. The pick they get from Charlotte as part of the Derrick Rose trade with the Knicks is on the cusp of where the dropoff between “reasonable chance to stick” and “taking a shot on someone with an identifiable NBA skill” usually comes. I think the safest bet is that there will not be three second-round 2021 draft picks on the Pistons roster come opening night next October. It’s possible the Pistons use one on a two-way player, one on a stash player and trade one for a future second.

Kinn (Manila, Philippines): Due to the pandemic and fewer fans watching at the games means less profit for the teams. Does this affect the salary of players? Is there an expected reduction of the salary cap coming soon?

The NBA and the Players Association came to a reported agreement in November about how to handle the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic within the framework of the collective bargaining agreement. The salary cap for the 2020-21 season stayed at its 2019-20 levels instead of taking the anticipated jump of around 5 percent. The cap will increase by no less than 3 percent but no more than 10 percent in subsequent seasons remaining under the current CBA. They made some adjustments to the escrow withholdings from player salaries, as well. But, no, there is no anticipated reduction coming in the cap – only a likely slower growth rate until the full impact of the pandemic is behind us.

Ian (Westland, Mich.): After looking at the stats of the great point guards, it appears to me that many make their biggest gains and achieve star-caliber status in their fourth year. We should at least give Killian Hayes four years to show what he’s got and develop because he does have the passing and defending game down already. He could also become one of the game’s elite passers. Yes, there are things he needs to work on, including limiting turnovers, his efficiency, the right hand and attacking the basket. But I’m excited to see his growth.

Your point is well taken. Rookies who come to the NBA as 19-year-olds should not be prematurely judged. The Pistons will judge Hayes by how steadily and rapidly he shows progress. I don’t think anyone who watched him in December and sees him today would deny that he’s taken some big strides despite the severe hardship of having three months of his rookie season wiped out by a hip injury that kept him off the court for most of that time as he rehabilitated and worked on strength and conditioning. Hayes has an intriguing toolkit with his size, vision and passing creativity. The fact he’s been a high 80s/low 90s foul shooter in Europe says he’s got all the shooting touch required to become an above-average to elite shooter. Repetitions are the thing he needs now. That he was able to return from the hip injury this season and show improvement so soon after such a long absence is extremely encouraging. It’s going to give him and everyone around him peace of mind heading to a very important off-season. Remember, he didn’t have any supervised program last summer because of the pandemic. This summer, he’ll have an entire organization – the medical staff, the nutritionists, the strength and conditioning side, the development coaches – alongside him. I think we’re going to see a big jump next season. By year four, he’ll still be a 22-year-old and still improving. But I don’t think we’ll have to wait that long for Hayes to show he’s a bona fide NBA point guard.

Kirk (Fairborn, Ohio): Our three future rookie stars shot 4 of 23 in the game with Charlotte last week. The statement was made that it was the third game in four nights and they looked like it. Two or three years ago, these young pups were playing four games a day or even eight to 10 games in a weekend. With respect to this brand-new world of physicality, I’m honestly interested in why one game a day even with travel is so wearing?

Apples and oranges. Or more like apples and aardvarks. AAU games do not equate to NBA games. And especially not for elite players – the kind who tend to wind up in the NBA – who are excused for taking off every other defensive possession if they choose because they’re so essential to the offensive end. And AAU tournaments offer a level playing field. If one team is playing its second game of the day, so is the opponent. When the Pistons hosted Charlotte last week, the Hornets had been off the night before – in Detroit, waiting to play – while the Pistons were playing Orlando. The numbers don’t lie. Teams playing on back to backs against teams with a rest advantage don’t do well. And veteran coaches will tell you that young players – the ones you’d expect to have the energy to withstand that physical assault – fare worse than veterans in back to backs. Veterans, they’ll tell you, understand how to play effectively when their tank is running low. And it’s not just the physical toll but the mental exertion, as well. Absorbing all of the game plans and the opposition scouting reports to know the tendencies of players you’ve not seen before or seen rarely is another hurdle.

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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