With the playoffs unfolding and eight more teams now idled, off-season planning is in full bloom across the NBA. That’s on the front burner in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Gibson (gib_stoffer): Biggest free-agent target in the off-season?
Langlois: Great question, no easy answer. First of all, keep in mind the Pistons will have relatively little money to spend in free agency this summer. The first order of business almost certainly will have to be the fate of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The Pistons can negotiate with him directly on July 1, but they’ve been down that path last fall and all indications were that Caldwell-Pope’s side was determined to hit the market. But for the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that by one avenue or the other – an agreement directly between the Pistons and Caldwell-Pope or a matched offer sheet from another franchise – Caldwell-Pope wears a Pistons uniform again next season. With Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith at point guard; Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson at shooting guard (with Reggie Bullock, also a restricted free agent, still a possibility, plus Darrun Hilliard); Marcus Morris, Johnson and Michael Gbinije at small forward; Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson at power forward; and Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic at center, there is no obvious roster role. But the Pistons, one suspects, will be looking to punch up their offense this summer. Maybe they make a draft-day trade to help accomplish that. Or maybe they do a trade early in free agency with another team lacking cap space – and thus looking to jump into the trade market while others pursue free agents – to change the makeup. Or maybe they plunge into free agency immediately with the major tool in their kit: the mid-level exception. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, its value has increased to about $8.4 million. You’d have to believe Stan Van Gundy is primarily interested in improving the 3-point shooting of his roster. If there’s a player or two out there with that skill – and enough game in other areas to supplant one of his rotation pieces – then that’s the type I would expect them to pursue. Interestingly, though, general manager Jeff Bower indicated after the season that it was more likely the Pistons would break up that $8.4 million over more than one player.
Aladdin (@_R_E_X_): Will all the logos and team colors stay the same at Little Caesars Arena or will there be a new court?
Langlois: The answer to that is in a steel vault in an underground bunker at an undisclosed location somewhere in southeastern Michjigan – or maybe in the Thumb. They keep moving it on me and I can never keep it straight. All I’m authorized to say is you’re probably going to want to stay tuned with some hints potentially coming before the month is up.
Joseph (Grand Rapids, Mich.): Do you think SVG maybe tried to get too fancy with the offense the past year? The previous year pick and roll was far and away the Pistons main offense and obviously Reggie being hurt made it harder, but even before that he talked about putting in a “motion offense.” Maybe it would be better to just keep it simple?
Langlois: Too fancy? No. He wanted to diversify the offense for a few reasons. One was to lessen the burden on Reggie Jackson, but only to make him more effective when they needed to go to him. There aren’t more than a handful of players in the world both good enough and physically capable of carrying as much of the load as Jackson was required to carry for the Pistons in 2015-16 if you’re expecting to play winning basketball. If you line up with LeBron James or James Harden or Russell Westbrook on your side, maybe you entertain the “let’s not worry about diversity” line of thought. Beyond that, Van Gundy knew that any well-rounded playoff opponent – given the benefit of zeroing in on only one team for a seven-game series – would come up with ways to counter the Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll. You need more than one way to attack to beat good teams. The Jackson-Drummond pick and roll was still going to be the backbone of their offense – still will be next season – but it only made sense to flesh it out around that staple. I don’t recall him calling it a “motion offense,” but he talked about playing through both Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris a little more and developing a package of dribble handoffs and catch-and-shoot options for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. With Jackson out for more than a third of the season, they had to find other ways to generate offense. Maybe that will be the silver lining to the season when they get Jackson back healthy next season.
James (jimmykt92): Morris/Harris/Johnson/Jackson – who will or won’t be with the Pistons next season?
Langlois: Among those four choices, flip a coin between Morris and Harris. I’m not suggesting either one will be traded, either. But it’s hard to imagine the Pistons getting equal return for Johnson or Jackson coming off the seasons they had. Dealing Jackson for pennies on the dollar would leave a huge void at point guard. Stan Van Gundy has been emphatic in his belief that Jackson will come back as good or better next season, but other teams aren’t going to offer fair value in trade based on that – and Van Gundy, rest assured, knows as much. Johnson is the type of player NBA teams are increasingly looking to acquire based on his defensive versatility, but he had such a disappointing season offensively – a 35 percent shooting figure and 29 percent from the 3-point line – that you’d have to question how much he’d net in trade right now. That leaves Morris or Harris. Morris has two years left on his deal at exceedingly friendly terms for the Pistons, basically $5 million a season. That would limit the trade possibilities, too, given that the Pistons are over the salary cap. By default, Harris becomes the most likely of the group to be used as a trade chip. But does a team looking to punch up its offense deal away its leading scorer? Tough to see it playing out that way.
Ken (Dharamsala, India): KCP did not play outstanding basketball this season, though he is approaching restricted free agency and was arrested at 2:30 a.m. on a game morning for a DUI. The Pistons need a playmaking shooting guard, one that can handle the ball, hit from outside and play defense. In a word, an All-Star caliber guard. Can the Pistons realistically get one with their personnel and draft assets? What are the Pistons going to do about KCP and his inconsistent play and off-court antics?
Langlois: A quick scan of the All-Star game rosters from this season speaks volumes about the state of the shooting guard position in today’s NBA. The four players, two per side, who appeared in that game who most closely fit the description for the position are James Harden, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler. Harden is a de facto point guard, Butler is more small forward than shooting guard and DeRozan is as effective at small forward as at shooting guard and often finishes games at that spot. That leaves Thompson as the only pure shooting guard who played in the All-Star game. To be sure, there are a handful of others – Bradley Beal, C.J. McCollum, Avery Bradley, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine – who could have been picked. But the point is that the league isn’t loaded with great, all-around shooting guards at the moment. So that answers your question about “realistically” trading for one. It’s also a good answer for why Stan Van Gundy has been pretty transparent about his intentions regarding Caldwell-Pope’s free agency. The Pistons aren’t painting themselves into a corner, but it’s clear they intend to have Caldwell-Pope in their uniform next season unless something unforeseen happens between now and July 1. Van Gundy’s desire to have Caldwell-Pope back goes beyond the paucity of options, though. He’s often expressed his admiration for Caldwell-Pope’s demeanor and other qualities: toughness, durability, prioritizing of winning, investment in his teammates, etc. And “off-court antics” is a little much. I’m not diminishing the charges, but all DUIs are not created equal. The details matter. On the spectrum, his were way over here on the low end. Van Gundy spoke to the incident, said he’d made a mistake but strongly defended Caldwell-Pope’s character. (Also, it wasn’t a game morning. It was hours after a March 28 game, a back to back, which meant the Pistons not only didn’t have a game the next day but didn’t have a practice, either.)
De-Von (@De-VonAmbitious): Could the Pistons sign KCP for $17 million-$19 million and then get some quality shooters and veterans? They need some old guys there to teach.
Langlois: Don’t know where the market will go for Caldwell-Pope, but my sense is your range could be low based on some of the contracts handed out last season. Brooklyn – speculated as one of the teams with cap space that will have interest in him; Philadelphia is another – came to offer-sheet agreements with two restricted free agents last season, Allen Crabbe and Tyler Johnson. Johnson got four years, $50 million or an annual average of $12.5 million, matched by Miami, for which Johnson averaged 30 minutes a game last season and scored 13.7 points. He didn’t have nearly the resume Caldwell-Pope had going into last season, but given the current market that’s pretty solid production for the money. I doubt Miami has had second thoughts about matching. Crabbe got four years, $75 million, or just shy of $19 million a year. Crabbe is a tremendous 3-point shooter – he shot .444 in 2016-17 from the arc in 29 minutes a game – but he doesn’t offer Caldwell-Pope’s versatility or effectiveness at the other end. My guess is that if Brooklyn was willing to spend at those levels last summer for Johnson and Crabbe, it – or some franchise – will be willing to match or exceed Crabbe money for Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, has taken aggressive stances in negotiations, keeping Tristan Thompson and J.R. Smith out of training camp with Cleveland in each of the past two years. What does that mean for negotiations in Caldwell-Pope’s case? Perhaps that a quick agreement is unlikely but perhaps, also, that another franchise might shy away from entering into negotiations – given the history of limited movement in restricted free agency for players of Caldwell-Pope’s stature – on the belief that while waiting out the RFA process with Caldwell-Pope (and the 72-hour window to match an offer sheet that the Pistons would be granted) plans B, C and D might evaporate. On the assumption that the Pistons retain Caldwell-Pope – via one avenue or the other – by the end of the first week of free agency, there should still be plenty of second-tier free agents who’d be of interest to teams that, like the Pistons, are limited to offering all or part of the mid-level exception. Ideally, that would be a veteran shooter or two; but if you have to choose one trait or the other – savvy veteran or knock-down shooter – Stan Van Gundy probably opts for the shooter.
Spencer (@Dean1sw): What does next season look like for Henry Ellenson, especially with all the talk of us drafting another big man?
Langlois: Start with that last bit – “talk of drafting another big man.” Not sure where that’s coming from, necessarily. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Pistons drafted a big man because (a) they could use a good center prospect with Andre Drummond now on a max deal and Boban Marjanovic on a relatively short-term contract (two years) and (b) there appear to be a number of quality, though relatively raw, big men available in the late-lottery area where the Pistons figure to draft. If they take a big man, I’d expect they’d prefer someone who more readily projects as a center than a power forward, so what it would mean for Ellenson is he wouldn’t have someone who plays the same position at relatively the same stage of development. A 7-footer who can guard centers, as opposed to one who fits best on the perimeter, would be preferable. Ellenson has a chance to crack the rotation next season, though there’s no clear path to that outcome as long as all three of Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer are back. As of early May, anything from “starting power forward” to “often inactive with frequent D-League trips sprinkled in” are possible outcomes for him. Neither should alter his career path. Stan Van Gundy said often that he doesn’t see how a player with Ellenson’s offensive skill set and work ethic can miss at having a long and successful NBA career.
Blank (@_Blank_0): Is it possible that the Pistons draft Caleb Swanigan? If not, where do you think he’d land?
Langlois: While admittedly seeing far less college basketball than is advisable before forming meaningful assessments or passing judgments on players, I wasn’t a fan of Swanigan’s for most of his two seasons at Purdue – but I saw something from him late this season when he showed some range on his jump shot plus good vision and passing skills and great hands. He had a shaky showing before NBA evaluators at last May’s draft combine and it will be tough to overcome those perceptions. He’s undersized to play in the middle in the NBA and lack of explosion casts doubt about his ability to score at the rim, while he doesn’t have the body type to suggest he can succeed anywhere but the interior. In the right system, he’s got a shot, I suppose. But it would be a huge stretch to call him a lottery pick. If the Pistons had a second-round pick, he’d probably be a good value in the early 40s. But they don’t have their second-rounder this year, traded away in the Reggie Jackson deal.