Pistons Mailbag - May 30, 2018

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

With Ed Stefanski hired to spearhead searches for a new front-office executive and a head coach, the Pistons are plotting a new course – that’s the top of the agenda for the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Jub.Cul (@Jpcveinti2): So Ed Stefanski is the not the president or general manager and the head coaching job is still open? Has Chauncey Billups had a chance to interview? Jerry Stackhouse or Becky Hammon more likely to coach?

Langlois: Stefanski was hired as a senior adviser to owner Tom Gores and the team announced he signed a three-year contract. I don’t get caught up in titles, but a three-year contract gets my attention. From all appearances, Gores is placing a lot of trust in Stefanski to set the course for the franchise. At minimum, he’ll be instrumental in presenting the candidates he deems best qualified to be the titular head of the front office and head coach to Gores for his final decision. But a three-year contract tells me he’s going to be a lot more important than that – and the fact he left a position in Memphis’ front office to join the Pistons lends further credence to the idea he’ll have a prominent position here for the foreseeable future. If it hadn’t been for the three-year contract, the situation might have been analogous to the NFL’s Detroit Lions employing Ernie Accorsi to lead the search that ended with hiring Bob Quinn from the Patriots as general manager. Once Accorsi accomplished that, the relationship ended. This is much more than that. There has been no indication yet that Billups is in the mix but don’t read too much into that; there haven’t been many names leaked so far.

Al (Wolverine Lake, Mich.): Now that Ed Stefanski has been hired, what will we hear next from the Pistons?

Langlois: With Stefanski in place, my guess is that the priority will become hiring a head coach for a few reasons. No. 1, he’ll want a coaching staff in place fairly soon to start getting their hands on all the current players under contract, especially the younger ones – Luke Kennard, Henry Ellenson, Stanley Johnson – so they can get their player development program going. No. 2, Stefanski is already well versed on the draft and free agency given he was an active member of a rival NBA front office in Memphis until leaving to join the Pistons, so they’ve got their leading voice for the front office already in place. No. 3, the Pistons have the field to themselves on the front office side but some competition on the coaching front, though Orlando’s deal with Steve Clifford really means only Toronto is also looking for a coach. That said, I’m sure there are parallel searches going on virtually simultaneously, so it’s possible one comes to a conclusion before the other for any number of reasons.

Anthony (Stamford, Conn.): What do you think about starting Reggie Bullock at small forward and Luke Kennard at shooting guard? All that 3-point shooting will open up the middle for Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin to operate. I can see Stanley Johnson, who is best in the open court, running with Ish Smith on the second team.

Langlois: That’s a distinct possibility if the roster doesn’t undergo some revamping at those positions, Anthony. As always, there are tradeoffs. Starting Bullock at small forward would give the Pistons more shooting and spacing in a starting lineup where that will be important, but what’s the cost to their defense? Bullock is a solid defender, but he’s going to face some tough matchups as a starting small forward, more challenging for him than as the starter at shooting guard where his length gives him an edge. Johnson has had some of his best moments coming off the bench, but the best stretch of basketball of his career came during the middle of his third season as a starter. If the new coaching staff can work with him to up his 3-point shooting into the low 30s or approaching the league average of 36 percent, he’d make the decision a whole lot easier. You want Johnson in the starting lineup because that would allow him to spend most of his minutes guarding the other team’s best forward or wing scorer. But he has to elevate his offense – primarily, his 3-point shooting – in order for that to be the lineup that works best for the team.

Isaac (Irvine, Calif.): Three tools to improve the roster other than trades: the $7 million trade exception; James Ennis’ early Bird rights; and the mid-level exception up to about $8 million. Can you please explain a little on how these may or may not be used.

Langlois: Having Ennis’ early Bird rights allows the Pistons to sign him without regard for the salary cap. But Ennis is probably looking at a salary that renders his Bird rights almost moot. The Pistons have a need for a small forward – either to back up Stanley Johnson or something more substantive – and Ennis logically will be a candidate. But he’ll be the type of player teams look to sign later in free agency when there are more players looking for jobs than roster spots available. He might be had for the veteran minimum. The trade exception allows the Pistons to add a salary of that amount without having to shed one. It’s a useful tool, but its appeal might be dimmed by the fact using it would make it even more likely the Pistons go into tax territory. Same story with the mid-level exception. Using all of it, unless other deals shed salary, would result in going over the tax line. Teams don’t become tax payers until the end of the season when everything is totaled, so the Pistons could – in theory – go over the tax line in July and find ways to get under it by the February trade deadline. But they’ll almost surely exercise caution in their use of the tools at their disposal this summer.

Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Does the early arrival of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown make Gordon Hayward expendable for Boston? If so, who walks away from a straight-up Hayward for Drummond trade? Boston has a glut of wings and needs frontcourt help and the Pistons need to build around Blake Griffin and Hayward fits better than Drummond.

Langlois: Interesting thought. Something both sides would at least ponder. Danny Ainge rejected the notion that Hayward (and Kyrie Irving, for that matter) are now trade fodder because the Celtics came within a game of the NBA Finals without them. The Celtics have no one who really can give them what Irving does. A wing rotation of Hayward, Brown and Tatum – with the likelihood that all three would play together, as well – would improve Boston’s depth. I don’t see any urgency for Boston to deal any of those players, nor do I think the Pistons feel Drummond and Griffin are incompatible. But if either side sees benefit in dealing from their core, the option you present is one that might tempt further exploration.

Steve (Sterling Heights, Mich.): Assuming the roster stands pat and comes back completely healthy, what do you think is the starting five moving forward?

Langlois: Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson are locks if they’re all still here come the start of training camp – and it would be an upset if any were traded this summer. Reggie Bullock is a good bet. The guy shot better from the 3-point arc once he moved into the starting lineup for good on Dec. 12 than anyone in the league who attempted at least three triples a game. The fifth spot is less certain – if, as you stipulate, there is no roster turnover – and becomes less certain still until a new coach is identified and he gets a chance to evaluate the roster and weighs in on his preferences. Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson are the two most likely candidates, but the Pistons perhaps could find a player via free agency – use of the mid-level exception the most likely route – who offers some blend of their skills and thus seems a more complementary fit with the other four.

Vanessa (@girlcriedcomet): Who are the most likely candidates for trade this off-season?

Langlois: Not having a front office in place right now makes that a little tougher to read, not that front offices declare their intentions beforehand. But without knowing who’ll be running the front office or who’ll be coaching the team – and without having at least heard them enunciate their visions and immediate goals – then it becomes purely guesswork. That said, it’s always easier to trade a player who produces and outperforms his contract. A year ago, I always thought the likeliest trade chip for the Pistons was Marcus Morris because (a) he’d started and played 30-plus minutes a game for two seasons and still had two years left on a deal that paid him $5 million a year when the going rate for a starter who plays that many minutes is at least twice that and (b) the Pistons had alternatives to fill his spot in Stanley Johnson and Tobias Harris. Sure enough, Morris was the bait to get Avery Bradley to plug a hole at shooting guard. There’s not such a clear-cut answer this summer. Johnson has one year left on his deal and has been a starter. I think some team that sees him as untapped potential might be willing to give up something of value to try to unlock that potential, but it’s every bit as likely the new management team for the Pistons sees the same potential and decides not to sell low on Johnson. Luke Kennard has strong value now with three years left on a rookie contract, but his 3-point shooting and all-around offensive skill set are great fits for what the Pistons need in an offense built around Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson. Reggie Bullock would surely stir interest given his paltry salary ($2.5 million next season, the last of the two-year deal he got last summer) but he, too, is a great complementary fit and plays extremely well off of Griffin. The Pistons have a surplus of big men now, but how much trade value Jon Leuer has after logging only eight games last season and with about $20 million owed him over the next two seasons is murky. Henry Ellenson might return a player who can step into a position of need – say, a veteran wing capable of handling rotation minutes – but the Pistons almost certainly would be selling low on a player with some intriguing offensive potential. That’s a long way of saying there’s not an easy answer to your question as there was a season ago.

Ryan (Ypsilanti, Mich.): What do you think of Mario Hezonja? Do you think he has the potential to be a starting-caliber wing if a coach could get him to buy in and help him develop his game? Do you think he would be worth taking a shot at?

Langlois: I saw Hezonja hit 8 of 12 3-pointers and score 28 points in a game at Little Caesars Arena last season, so, yeah, I think the potential there is pretty clear. He’s been in the NBA three years, though, and those moments have been few and far between. He’s still a below-average 3-point shooter and that wasn’t what anyone expected when Hezonja was the fifth pick in the 2015 draft. It’s the job of front offices to try to figure out why a player thrives or doesn’t in their situations and why someone who fails to meet expectations elsewhere might be able to unlock their potential in their franchises.

A.C. (Huntington, W.V.): As a longtime Pistons fan, I really think it’s time to make a run for another championship. What are the possibilities of getting a Kawhi Leoanrd, Kemba Walker, Paul George or even Rudy Gay?

Langlois: Those are big gets without having cap space or the ability to trade their 2019 No. 1 draft pick (since the Pistons already traded their ’18 pick to get Blake Griffin). Realistically, the Pistons are going to have to aim lower on the trade market and in free agency unless the new management team decides to part with one of Griffin, Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson. And Jackson’s trade value is at a low ebb, probably, given the injury issues experienced the past two seasons.

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