Pistons Mailbag - November 22, 2017

Odds on the Pistons making the playoffs, how Luke Kennard’s development could affect roster decisions and perceptions – and misperceptions – about the Pistons dot the agenda for the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Mr. K (MrKarsten21): Given the current roster, what chances do you give the Pistons to make the playoffs?

With an 11-6 record, ESPN.com gives the Pistons an 87 percent shot at making the playoffs. BasketballReference.com concurs. Both sites project them to win 45 games. TeamRankings.com projects 44 wins and a 75 percent chance to make the playoffs. A computer projection is only as good as the information it’s supplied, of course, but the fact all three are in general agreement seems to support their similar conclusions about the Pistons. The great unknown is how healthy they’ll stay. If they avoid serious injury – something that hovers over the season, similar to Reggie Jackson’s knee injury from last season – then I’d bank on those projections being on point. They can beat you in a variety of ways and the depth of their roster should make them a little less vulnerable to prolonged slumps. As a note of caution, I’d expect their odds to come down a bit in the next few weeks with arguably the roughest stretch of schedule they’ll face all season ahead of them. They’ll play six of their next seven on the road – and then come home to face Golden State and Boston in a three-day span. I’m guessing the computer models will take that into account, but worth keeping in mind that until the schedule gets past the halfway point and closer to 50 games, there are still too many variables from team to team to look solely at the standings without consideration for schedule vagaries.

Charles (Redford, Mich.): Luke Kennard is shaping up to be a nice piece to the Pistons future. I see him at shooting guard and some backup small forward behind Stanley Johnson. With that in mind, I can’t see the Pistons forking out $17 million to $20 million for Avery Bradley, as much as I like him. I think his greatest value will be at the trade deadline. I think Stanley Johnson can be a stud in the NBA. He reminds me of Jimmy Butler. So that leaves us to upgrade at point guard. Question: Is there a point guard you see the Pistons trading for that can put them over the top. Assets of Reggie Jackson, Avery Bradley, Henry Ellenson and a first-round pick would be the bait.

Woah. That’s a lot to chew on. But let’s back up for a minute and emphasize the point that the decision you’re talking about is something that the Pistons aren’t about to make in November of Luke Kennard’s rookie season. Has he shown promise? Sure. Would the Pistons endanger a season that’s begun so encouragingly by dealing away a player everyone acknowledges is at the heart of their improvement – Bradley – to hand his position over to a rookie? Only if the return was someone who represented a clearly better future beyond this season. Whether such a deal would even be remotely on the table in a little less than three months, at the trade deadline, is impossible to say but it’s not likely. You’re bullish on both Kennard and Johnson and that’s fine. They’re both 21 and have plenty of room for growth. But you seem less bullish on two players, Bradley and Jackson, who’ve got a lot more on their resumes. I think your salary projection for Bradley is realistic. I would expect the Pistons to be willing to commit a dollar amount in that ballpark to retain him for the long term. If Kennard blossoms over the course of what would be Bradley’s term in Detroit on a new contract, bully for the Pistons. Now they’ve got two really good wing players and make it three if Johnson also keeps building off of the solid base he’s putting down this season. Jackson has been more than solid so far this season, though fans who conveniently forget that he was hurt last year still have a skewed perception of his ability and value. Nobody on the roster – Bradley, Jackson, the young guys, Andre Drummond – is untouchable in trade. But I don’t see the Pistons front office risking the possibilities of this season unless the payoff for the future is too obvious to ignore.

Adam (@ahend14): Why did the Pistons lose so badly to Cleveland?

Simplest answer: Cleveland played well – and shot unsustainably well – and the Pistons didn’t. I can point to a number of underlying reasons to abet that position, starting with the schedule that had the Pistons playing a third game in four nights, including a back to back that included travel from the Central to the Eastern time zones, while Cleveland had two days off between games. More than that, it was the haymaker the Cavs threw early – when LeBron James was as engaged as he’ll ever get for a regular-season game against a team he doesn’t necessarily expect to be a roadblock to an NBA title – and the way they shot from the 3-point arc. That strained the Pistons to keep up on offense and lured them into playing a little out of character to do so. When the deficit ballooned past 20 before halftime and over 30 not very deep into the third quarter, the effects of the schedule disparity became even more pronounced. Psychologically, it’s tough to muster the stuff to put up the fight a massive comeback will require when you’re running on a quarter tank. But don’t make too much of one game, as I wrote afterward. The Pistons aren’t better than Golden State because they won in the Warriors building last month – and neither are they 20-plus points worse than the Cavs because of Monday’s result.

Detroit Buckets (@DetBuckets): What’s the most common misconception (as of now) about this year’s team?

I’d be guessing because there’s no science on what people think, but anecdotally I’d say the perception that the Pistons are a below-average defensive team persists and that Reggie Jackson puts the Pistons at a competitive disadvantage at point guard – see Charles’ question above – seems to be a thing many believe. Those things might be related, too. Even last season, when the Pistons slumped to 37 wins largely because of Jackson’s injury, they were a top-10 defensive team until the final 16 games when things unraveled and Stan Van Gundy eventually shut down Jackson. Their offense became so limited, their defense eventually suffered. Even at that, they finished No. 11 on defense, barely out of the top third. They were a top-10 defense this season, too, until getting overrun by Cleveland’s 3-point blitz on Monday night. Jackson was in legitimate discussion for an All-Star berth two seasons ago, when he led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, and he’s getting back to that level this season. It’s not quite as consistently evident as it was then, but he’s probably still a little behind the curve in areas like conditioning and timing given that he was limited to flexibility training all summer and held back even in the opening week of training camp.

Byron (Detroit): I just picked up on something that’s very alarming that has me questioning whether NBA games are rigged. I happen to listen to 950-AM and notice when I watch the live score from NBA.com while listening to the radio broadcast the website predicts the score to come a few seconds later. Can you explain that?

I can’t explain it in the most technical terms of electronic transmission and radio signal wavelengths, only in the most basic layman’s language: There’s a delay from when Mark Champion and Rick Mahorn speak their words from courtside in an arena to them reaching your ear at the other end of the radio of several seconds. Your internet service is faster than the radio transmission. So rest easy, Byron. There are no men wearing tin-foil hats manipulating the flight of the basketball to ensure that somebody’s shot goes in or bounces off the rim.

Alex (Wayne, N.J.): I know all teams have their own planes to travel. My question is if the plane departs whenever players and coaches are ready to travel or do they have to follow a flight schedule similar to regular commercial air travel?

Not many teams still operate their own privately owned airplanes these days, Alex. The Pistons are in their second season as clients of Delta’s charter operation, which is used by more than 90 percent of current NBA teams. But teams, by and large, set their departure times. Whether the flights take off precisely on time or wait for any last-minute stragglers is up to the head honcho of the team. As a general rule, they’d probably wait for a player running a few minutes late for a valid reason, but nobody would tolerate habitual tardiness.

Eric (Raleigh, N.C.): Do you think the Pistons can survive with Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic as the backup centers or do they take a chance and go after Jahlil Okafor or Greg Monroe?

Add Jon Leuer to the equation, too. In fact, before he sprained his ankle in Los Angeles on Oct. 31, Leuer had logged more minutes as Drummond’s backup than the other two combined and that probably was going to be where he logged most of his minutes with Anthony Tolliver moving up as the first option behind Tobias Harris at power forward and Henry Ellenson’s ability to provide minutes there, as well. I think all the attention the backup center situation has gotten and the speculation – particularly the stuff about Greg Monroe possibly returning given the likelihood that Phoenix was looking mainly for a draft pick (which it got) and salary relief (which Monroe’s expiring contract provides) – is mostly clickbait. For the Pistons to acquire Monroe and his considerable salary (nearly $18 million), they’d have to send out a roughly equal amount. Even if the Pistons had a comparable salary or combination of salaries they’d be willing to exchange, how would it benefit the Suns? It wouldn’t, unless the Pistons offered further inducement – a draft pick. And it’s hard to argue that a first-round pick, even one with heavy protections, for a half-season of whatever Monroe would provide as a 12-minute-a-game backup to Andre Drummond who occasioinally plays some power forward is worth the cost. Okafor would be another story, given his more modest salary, but he comes with some of the same defensive limitations that have reduced Marjanovic to a situational role. I just don’t see backup center as a glaring need.

Connor (@Connor_Wolfe): Why don’t we play Boban more often? He hasn’t played badly in a while and never gets any minutes for the money he’s making.

See above. It really comes down to how much Stan Van Gundy is willing to compromise his defense and how he assesses the risk-reward ratio for playing Boban. He’s an offensive force and a highly productive rebounder and some nights that’s worth more than the exposure created on defense when his lateral mobility deficiencies are taken into account. The best example came a few weeks ago when Van Gundy used him to match up against Indiana’s Al Jefferson, a player who doesn’t stray very far from the rim and thus doesn’t leave Boban isolated as the last line of defense nearly as much as more versatile big men do. Boban played that night and played well. When the Pistons played at Indiana last week, though, Jefferson wasn’t used – Domantas Sabonis was back in Indiana’s lineup after missing the initial meeting with an injury – and that led Van Gundy to decide to use Eric Moreland, a much more mobile defender, instead. The broader question of whether the Pistons should have signed Marjanovic remains to be seen. He’s less than half way through the three-year deal. If injuries or other factors open a path to playing time for him and he delivers, it will validate the signing. In the meantime, there’s no obvious answer for how the Pistons would have used the money spent on him otherwise. Keep in mind they spent it in July 2016 when they had it to spend; not spending it then wouldn’t have meant they would have had it to spend in July 2017 because their existing contracts would have pushed them over the cap regardless of Boban’s deal.

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