Pistons Mailbag - May 29, 2019

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

With the draft looming in three weeks and the off-season shifting into high gear on its heels, there’s lots to chew on in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

David (Potomac, Md.): You have mentioned a number of “steals” in the draft, but are sleeping on a 6-foot-8 lights-out shooter, North Carolina’s Cam Johnson. Please don’t say he’s “too old” or “reached his ceiling” or is a “limited athlete.” If you check back, you will find these are the exact limitations cited against Klay Thompson, whom the Pistons passed on to take the “higher potential” Brandon Knight. About time the Pistons reward production.

Langlois: If I’ve talked about “steals” in the draft, it’s lost on me. I’m in the process of writing a series of previews in advance of the June 20 draft. Not sure if Johnson is going to be one of them or not. You’re certainly right that Johnson’s production is unquestioned. His age might cloud his perceived ceiling, but there’s a lot to like in a guy his size who can shoot as well as Johnson. I’m equally intrigued by another high-production player who’s being dismissed even more than him – Tennessee’s Grant Williams. Williams, a junior but only 20, is a two-time SEC Player of the Year. I am going to be profiling him. It will be interesting to see if Johnson or Williams works out for the Pistons, who have the 15th pick. It seems too high to pick either, but if you want to argue that Johnson and Williams are likely to have more productive NBA careers than a handful or two of players picked ahead of them, I wouldn’t fight you.

Pete Mo (@petedetroit): How can we draft Mfiondu Kabengele?

Langlois: Another player I’ll be profiling despite zero mock drafts I’ve seen that consider him a lottery prospect or worthy of being the 15th pick. So if you’re asking how the Pistons can draft him, well, by spending the 15th pick on him. Barring any unexpected red flags – and after talking to Kabengele at the NBA draft combine earlier this month, where he was perhaps the most engaging player, I wouldn’t expect any – there is zero reasonable expectation that he’d be there when the Pistons pick again at 45. A guy with his size who moves as well as he can and shoots it like he did in Chicago looks worthy of the 15th pick to me. In a draft with as much uncertainty as this one, I’d expect the middle of the first round to look less like mock-draft consensus than most. What that means is teams picking 15th, 16th, 17th and beyond might normally have three or four players they like fairly equally but this year might struggle to find one. That means there’ll be more against-the-grain picks than usual. Expect some curveballs. Despite the consensus that has Kabengele going no sooner than late in the first round, it wouldn’t surprise me if a team picking ahead of the Pistons takes Kabengele – or a player similarly viewed – because they see him as having the best chance to make an eventual impact.

Charles (Redford Twp., Mich.): If we can sign/trade for a backup point guard, do you think Luke Kennard or Bruce Brown is ready to be the third point guard? That way the Pistons can focus on bigger wings in free agency.

Langlois: I expect that’s still “to be determined” and, as such, I would expect the Pistons to open the season with three legitimate point guards on the roster. If Brown or Kennard grow into that role, so be it. I still expect they’ll be more secondary ballhandlers. The way Dwane Casey’s offense functions, it’s critical to have a few guys on the floor who can create off the dribble. If Brown or Kennard prove themselves capable of more traditional point guard duties over the course of the season, then in seasons going forward they can maybe save a roster spot for other needs. Even then, I doubt it. In an era when every team wants multiple ballhandlers and most pair two point guards for stretches of games, it’s not a position you shortchange. And, remember, half the battle of being a point guard is being able to defend the position. Brown passes muster there, but I don’t know that you’d want to spend many minutes with Kennard defending at the point.

Kumar (Troy, Mich.): The Pistons need one, maybe two small forwards. Whom in your opinion should the Pistons go after for their starting small forward opening?

Langlois: There are a lot of moving parts here and how the Pistons shape their off-season strategy will determine the level of player they pursue at that spot. If the Pistons prioritize point guard over wing, then they’ll be choosing from a completely different pool of players. And if that’s the case, the guy they ultimately land on is just as likely to be a role player they see as part of the mix rather than a sure-fire starter type. If they make the wing the top priority or try to split the difference, then they can aim a little higher, perhaps. Terrence Ross has a history with Casey, at 28 is in his prime and is an above-average 3-point shooter who shoots them at the elevated rate – 52.4 percent of his career attempts have been triples and a career-high 55.1 percent this season were threes – that surely will satisfy the analytics supporting Casey’s offense. Rodney Hood is two years younger, has a little more size and perhaps offers a little more scoring versatility, though he’s a slightly less efficient and prolific 3-point shooter. The market for both, I would expect, will be robust. With the trend toward teams being unwilling to offer many longer-term deals, somebody who comes up with a three-year offer for Ross or Hood could win the bidding. And then there’s Reggie Bullock, who knows the Pistons – as they know him – and carries the same sort of profile as a shooter with more size than the Pistons currently have on the wing. Bullock also emerged as a solid defender over the last two seasons. He, too, will be looking for a multiyear deal after playing on relatively team-friendly deals for his entire NBA career. Whether the Pistons are willing to go that route and cut into their projected cap space for 2020 remains to be seen.

James (Muskegon, Mich.): Why do you keep saying the Pistons are undersized at small forward/wing? Svi Mykhailiuk is 6-foot-8, can create off of the dribble and shoot the ball. I think it would be a huge mistake to overlook this kid. Can you say Khris Middleton?

Langlois: The Pistons traded for him. It’s safe to assume they’re high on him, an assumption supported by everything Ed Stefanski and Dwane Casey have said about him since acquiring him in February. He’s got a beautiful stroke and the potential to be a contributor. But it’s not very likely Stefanski and Casey will base their roster-building decisions this summer on the assumption that Mykhailiuk is going to be one of the seven or eight guys they count on for every-game minutes. If he comes into training camp and wins a role, great. But it would be a huge surprise if the Pistons don’t add at least a short-term option at the wing with enough size to match up against the bigger small forwards in the East.

BadBoys CJ (@SuperiorYe): Of the players available at 15, which one do you think fits best with Dwane Casey’s offense?

Langlois: I think Casey would say to take the player with the best package of talent/intelligence/competitive drive and he’ll mold him to his offense. Coaches want to work with prime ingredients, confident in their ability to develop individuals and make the puzzle pieces fit best. I’m sure Casey would love someone who can put the ball on the floor to create, shoots the 3-pointer efficiently and can defend. Expecting someone ready to combine those abilities in the middle of the first round as a rookie is a tall order in any draft, never mind one so widely questioned as this one. Southern Cal’s Kevin Porter Jr. is viewed as a player with tantalizing offensive upside for his ability to score in a variety of ways with good size and athleticism. How he’s viewed in areas of basketball IQ and other intangibles appears spotty. How the Pistons see him is the great unknown. But from a physical standpoint, there’s a lot to work with. It’s a coin flip whether he’d be available at 15.

Dante (@DanteUssoletti): What are the realistic odds the Pistons actually make a selection at 15 and don’t trade the pick for Mike Conley?

Langlois: I’ll throw a dart and say 95 percent. If that seems high given all the speculation, even if Memphis actually trades Conley before the draft – and the odds of that can’t be more than 50-50 – there will be a handful of serious pursuers. I’d say it’s 85 percent that the Pistons keep the pick, which is lower than I’d go for most circumstances. The fact the Pistons have immediate needs and Blake Griffin just turned 30 and has three years left on his deal boosts the incentive to deal the pick, but it’s not something Ed Stefanski and the organization will do lightly. They understand that the long-term health of NBA franchises depends on drafting well to create necessary salary-cap latitude.

Isaac W (@izzy_t): While being extremely unlikely, what would it look like for the Pistons to move up in the draft? The top five is out of the question, but what about the 6-10 range? Do you think it’s possible to add expiring contracts as bait? We have a good number of them?

Langlois: Expiring contracts presumably hold no appeal to teams drafting in that range: the Suns, Bulls, Hawks, Wizards and Hawks (again, with the pick they get from Dallas for last year’s Trae Young-Luka Doncic deal). They’re all rebuilding teams. The only possibility there, I suppose, would be the Wizards willing to deal the ninth pick if they could get out of John Wall’s contract. Wall is very unlikely to play much, if at all, next season – the first of a four-year, $171 million commitment. I would be floored if the Pistons move up six spots in this draft – or, really, in any draft – for the onus of taking on what has to be viewed as the least attractive contract in the NBA. Wall will be 29 when next season starts – not old, but he has a history of knee problems and is coming off of an Achilles tendon tear, which surely will have everyone curious to see how it affects his speed. If you remember what that injury did to another point guard who relied on his speed and quickness, Brandon Jennings, it’s difficult to envision Wall ever getting back to becoming a top-10 point guard, never mind an All-Star – and really never mind someone who’ll average about $43 million in income over the next four years. In general, this doesn’t seem like the kind of draft that is going to inspire much incentive to trade up. Even though I’ve identified 10 players either certain or likely to be unavailable to the Pistons with the 15th pick – Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Coby White, Darius Garland, Jaxson Hayes, Sekou Doumbouya, DeAndre Hunter and Jarrett Culver – I don’t really believe the quality of the players from 6-10 is going to incentivize teams to combine assets to move up from a handful of spots below where the odds of landing an eventual starter aren’t significantly different.

Bob (@BobNajduk): Can the Pistons sign a free agent and purposely go into the luxury tax? For example, if they signed Malcolm Brogdon to a restricted offer sheet and choose to pay the luxury tax they could, right?

Langlois: Well, yes and no. The Pistons will go into the summer over the salary cap, so the only mechanism they have to sign Brogdon (or any free agent) is cap exceptions. The mid-level exception ($9.25 million for teams like the Pistons, who are over the cap but under the tax line) is the most lucrative of those, the others being the biannual ($3.6 million) and the veteran’s minimum (sliding scale that pays more as service time increases; it was roughly $840,000 for rookies up to about $2.4 million for veterans of 10 years or more as of 2018-19). If Brogdon were to sign an offer sheet for the mid-level exception, I suspect Milwaukee management would buy up every last beer in town in celebration while matching the offer. Brogdon isn’t signing a mid-level deal and that’s the most the Pistons could offer. But, yeah, if the Pistons picked up the option on Glenn Robinson III’s contract and then used their mid-level and biannual exceptions, I’m pretty sure they’d be over the luxury tax line. They just can’t sign a free agent for more than the $9.25 million no matter how much money they were willing to spend in luxury tax. And, without going into every gruesome detail, teams that go over the tax line by about $6 million hit the apron, which would change their mid-level exception from a non-taxpayer MLE to a taxpayer MLE and reduce the amount they could offer by about $4 million in first-year salary.

Bruce Brown Jr. Vs. Everybody (@DwanesWorldDET): With limited assets, do you think Tom Gores would open up his checkbook to buy a second-round pick this year?

Langlois: It’s not so much about a willingness to spend money as it is about value and roster spots. It’s not considered a terribly deep draft, though I’m sure there will be players on the board – especially in the first 10 picks or so of the second round – that Ed Stefanski and the front office like well enough. But the Pistons have 10 players under contract for next season even if they don’t pick up the option on Glenn Robinson III’s deal and they need to add, at minimum, a wing capable of playing starter’s minutes (or nearly that, at least), a quality backup point guard and a serviceable big man behind Andre Drummond. That’s three more roster spots. They also have their own draft picks. That gets them to 15. The going rate for favorable second-round picks is probably most if not all of the $5.25 million teams can spend annually in cash via trade. That’s not an insignificant amount of money, but if it filled a need you can bet Tom Gores would be willing to spend it; he’s made clear he’d spend to better the team and he’s spared no expense in building the team’s new practice facility, which has a reported price tag of $90 million – or what Bill Davison was reported to have spent in privately financing The Palace of Auburn Hills 31 years ago. But signing veterans to fill the three obvious needs leaves them only two open roster spots and they have their own two picks that get them to 15. In this case, unless the front office has moves they know will be made after July 1 that free up roster spots, it doesn’t appear to make sense to spend $5 million or so for a draft pick that almost certainly won’t add immediate help and necessitates a corresponding move to free a roster spot.

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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