Pistons Mailbag - November 29, 2017

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Can the Pistons sustain the early momentum they’ve gathered? How about Reggie Jackson’s contributions? And could we possibly go a week without talking about the backup center situation? Check out the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Bill (@noemptyspacepdx): The win over the Celtics – wow! Can they keep this up for 82 games?

Langlois: It’s a rare team that goes through a season without some ups and downs, but the Pistons will be a quarter of the way through the season after tonight’s game with Phoenix – well, technically at halftime of Friday’s game at Washington – and that’s a significant sample size. There’s also reason to believe they’ll get better instead of worse. Reggie Jackson is hitting his stride after expected inconsistencies following a prolonged period where he was limited in his on-court activity due to last season’s knee injury. (Perhaps another reason, too. Keep reading.) They’re still learning how to best play in a new offensive system. Luke Kennard has shown flashes of being a really good scorer and playmaker off the bench and you’d have to expect he’ll get better and more consistent. In their 19 games, you can count two – losses to the 76ers and Lakers – where they didn’t bring enough force to compete. They’ve won big games on the road. They have a winning record against teams with winning records. They’ve addressed last season’s biggest weaknesses and their improvement in 3-point shooting – both in volume and in accuracy – seems especially important given the ever-increasing importance of that shot. So, long answer short: yes, I think they can sustain their early success.

Luis (@LuisMOB619): Do you see the Pistons making a trade? I like the way we are playing, but I’m not sold on the backup center and backup small forward positions.

Langlois: These are first-world problems, no? Anything’s possible, but I don’t see the Pistons willing to risk much – their chemistry, foremost – with a trade to address a situation that Stan Van Gundy doesn’t seem to think is problematic. Fans, on the other hand, seem to think, well …

Marc (@hXcMarc): I’m so amped about how my Pistons are playing, but one spot really worries me. What can be done about the backup center spot? Eric Moreland hustles and I appreciate it, but he’s a liability mostly. Jon Leuer certainly isn’t the answer from what we’ve seen so far. Missing Aron Baynes right now.

Langlois: And more on the backup center...problem? Moreland might not be the every-night answer behind Andre Drummond, but he’s been more good than bad. It’s simply not accurate to say he’s “a liability mostly.” Against Boston, he contributed two big offensive rebounds and two assists in the early moments of the fourth quarter to allow Drummond to get four minutes of rest. He came back fresh and dominant the rest of the way. Stan Van Gundy is comfortable with the composite skill set of his backup center options, especially when the Pistons get Jon Leuer back from injury. Between Moreland, Boban Marjanovic and Leuer, it’s hard to think of a team with a backup center who’d cause major headaches for the Pistons. (Is everyone scarred by the memory of Julius Randle having a good night off the bench a month ago?) Van Gundy has even used Anthony Tolliver there on occasions when teams have gone really small and put five shooters on the floor.

Ryan (@RyanJK1984): Have there been any concerns so far with Reggie Jackson’s previous knee injury? Is there a particular way it’s being monitored?

Langlois: It’s been a complete non-issue, which is the best news the Pistons could have hoped to get on that front. He hasn’t been asked about it for a few weeks now, another indication that there’s nothing to see here.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Ish the Dish Smith is playing great. The Pistons move when he plays. He penetrates and causes big problems for the defense. How many minutes per game can he play at that pace over a season? Can Galloway play the same way? Could the Pistons acquire essentially an Ish clone and split point guard duties between Ish and clone? Jackson is playing OK but not like he did down the stretch in 2016. Maybe it will come in late January or February. I am looking for a viable Plan B here, Keith. Jackson is still a question mark.

Langlois: Your question came in just before the Pistons win at Boston in which Jackson would have surely soothed whatever anxieties motivated your question, Ken. He scored 20 points on 7 of 10 shooting, dished out seven assists and had just one turnover. He was attacking the paint and making great decisions. “Reggie was great,” Van Gundy said. “He was at the rim a lot and defensively he worked really, really hard.” He said something else interesting. The assumption was that when Jackson had some good, some not-so-good moments in the first few weeks that it was acclimation to coming off a long injury absence. And that, almost certainly, was a factor. But Van Gundy talked about Jackson’s adjustment to the new offensive system that doesn’t rely as heavily on the pick and roll with the ball constantly in his hands. “It’s not easy for him. We’re more equal opportunity on offense. Before we were so heavy on pick and rolls with him that he could really get into a rhythm and now he doesn’t really have that benefit. So he’s got to be on the attack almost constantly when he gets his opportunities rather than, ‘OK, I’ll just sort of get off the ball here,’ because he’s not getting 30 pick and rolls like he used to get. He’s made a sacrifice in that regard and I think it was really uncomfortable for him early in the year.” He said the Boston game was “the most he’s attacked on his opportunities. He was turning the corner, getting to the rim, finishing, making plays. He was outstanding.” The Pistons are invested in Jackson as their point guard. Van Gundy has every confidence in Smith and believes he can be a starter. But his value is what he can provide in 20 or so high-energy minutes off the bench. It would be tough to expect the same level of activity from Smith if you’re going to ask more of him than that.

Darrell (Detroit): I believe the Pistons have trailed by double digits in so many games because Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson are not considered offensive threats and Jackson isn’t much of a deep threat. Opposing defenses get to cheat by playing off of those three and lean toward Harris and Bradley. Harris should move to small forward and Anthony Tolliver should start. Johnson will become more of a scoring threat and an even better defender against second units. I also think Boban Marjanovic is more of an asset offensively, rebounding and blocking or altering shots than he is a liability defensively. I’m convinced these changes will lead to more double-digit leads than deficits and should translate into a deeper run in the playoffs.

Langlois: Jackson is shooting .384 from the 3-point arc this season, which makes him an above-average shooter. He doesn’t take a ton, but he’s not a reluctant 3-point shooter and he has a tendency to make them in the clutch. Drummond isn’t a huge threat to score from outside the paint, but that’s different than saying he’s not an offensive threat. The threat of the lob dunk and the attention he draws creates space and scoring chances for teammates. I’m waiting to see what Johnson develops into offensively if he can get a number of weeks behind him uninterrupted. The 10 days off he had to take with the back and hip injuries disrupted the rhythm he appeared to be gathering. He’s shown flashes of being a good 3-point shooter. Toss out the 0 of 6 opener and he was shooting 40 percent from three before missing time with the injury. Your suggestion of making Tolliver a starter has merit, but it’s not a move Stan Van Gundy is likely to consider as long as the Pistons avoid a lull. It would cause disruption to both units. Tolliver has proven a really good fit with the Ish Smith-led second unit where 3-point shooting is essential.

Gideon (Riverview, Fla.): Court vision, handles, basketball IQ, scoring off the dribble. Tell me why Luke couldn’t get spot minutes at point guard. Maybe when Reggie Jackson is in – that way Reggie could play off the ball to give him a little more rest.

Langlois: You can use Kennard as a playmaker without having him playing point guard. The real difficulty in having Kennard play point guard would come at the defensive end. You don’t want to put him in position to be the primary defender against opposition point guards. You’re also asking a rookie to learn another position and different defensive coverages. It would be one thing if it played to his skill set, but the defensive issues would be imposing. Kennard’s ability to make plays off the dribble can be even more valuable at the wing positions to diversify an offense that’s already gone away from extreme dependence on its point guards.

Byron (Detroit): I like Luke Kennard, but my question is about Henry Ellenson. What would Henry give the Pistons if he reached his potential and played at least average defense? Would that diversity the offense a little more? What do you envision from him?

Langlois: If Ellenson plays average defense, he’ll be in the rotation. His offensive upside is intriguing and impressive. It’s easy to accept the perception that there must be a wide gap in talent levels separating those who are part of the rotation from those who aren’t, but that’s not what Stan Van Gundy sees based on Ellenson’s body of work in practices and how he’s performed when given the chance in games. But there isn’t room for two backup power forwards in the rotation and so Tolliver is playing now while Ellenson waits his turn. He’s 20 – still the youngest player on the team – and has a unique skill set for his size at that position. Bright future.

Dustin (@D_Schandy24): With the team doing so well while Jon Leuer is sidelined, do you think SVG puts him back in the rotation when he returns?

Langlois: Interesting decision ahead on that one. Van Gundy considered Leuer and Ish Smith the two staples of his bench prior to Leuer’s sprained ankle that’s lingered for four weeks. Leuer hadn’t shot the ball well, but Van Gundy staunchly defended the rest of his contributions at both ends. I suspect Leuer will initially start off as a situational substitute in the same way that Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard and Eric Moreland are now. Anthony Tolliver has become the guy, along with Smith, who is a staple of the rotation off the bench now and he’s probably not getting moved out of that role for the way he defends and helps the offense function even apart from the 3-point threat he represents.

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