Pistons Mailbag - October 18, 2017
With opening night just hours away, Pistons Mailbag tips off with questions about Stan Van Gundy’s starting five, the impact of preseason injuries and a little history lesson from a longtime fan there for the first game at Olympia in 1957.
Connor (@Connorr1218): The final starting five?
Langlois: More like the “initial” starting five in that I wouldn’t be surprised if the deck gets shuffled once or twice before Stan Van Gundy settles on something with relative permanence. And the shuffling might be instigated more by a desire to strike a balance between first and second units than patching any deficiencies in the starting group. I wouldn’t wager much, but my guess for tonight’s starting lineup is Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson, Avery Bradley and Reggie Jackson. It’s possible Ish Smith starts over Jackson based on a more consistent preseason. You could make the argument that Jackson, held back from full participation in training camp for the first three days and then held out another week with a groin strain, hasn’t had enough time after being limited all summer as he worked through his rehabilitation protocol and would be best served by easing back in with backup minutes. I don’t think that’s the way it’ll go tonight, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Smith is on the floor in the fourth quarter if he has a better first half. If we see Jackson back to 2015-16 form early, all the better. But it’s probably going to take him a few weeks to find his stride.
Ken (Dharamsala, India): Another preseason of injuries, illness, the starting five not playing together for preseason games. It’s been this way for years now. Broken noses, broken teeth, concussions, new players not playing together in preseason games. Year after year it’s like this. It can’t be good, can it?
Langlois: I don’t know of anyone that’s collected data on preseason bumps, bruises and nicks, but anecdotally I don’t think the Pistons have experienced a more unusual incident rate of training camp injuries than the norm. Reggie Jackson’s case of knee tendinosis last season was far and away the most damaging, but it actually was a condition that he developed over the course of his off-season training. The pounding of the first week of training camp exacerbated it and led to seeking the treatment that sidelined him for two months. In 2014, Jodie Meeks suffered a back injury that sidelined him for a similar length of time. There’s a balancing act in training camp to get players in condition for regular-season games – their off-seasons are spent on skills development and strength and flexibility training, mostly, while limiting the high-impact pounding they endure during the other seven or eight months of the year – without breaking them down physically. NBA teams today are much more attuned to the stress players endure and try their best to limit the risk of injury exposure, but the need to prepare for the season puts a limit on the limitations, if you will. To get ready to play 82 games of basketball, you have to play basketball. And injuries are going to occur.
Darrell (Detroit): When the Pistons passed on Justise Winslow for Stanley Johnson, I instantly felt good about that pick. It appears the team made the right move in that instance. When the Pistons passed on Donovan Mitchell for Luke Kennard, I immediately had an uneasy feeling. I know it’s early and I’m not saying Luke is a bad player, but I’m willing to bet that Donovan becomes a future All-Star. In fact, many experts are saying Mitchell is the steal of the draft. Almost all general managers say they’ll draft the most talented player over need, but few actually seem to follow through. Who do you think will be the better pro between the two and are the Pistons willing to hire a scout whose only skill in the position is the eye test?
Langlois: My thoughts on draft night remain intact until we have enough of a body of proof to alter them: Kennard has the higher floor but perhaps a lower ceiling. In other words, I’d be surprised if Kennard isn’t still a productive NBA player a decade from now. I’m less certain of that with Mitchell, but Mitchell could well be an All-Star. He was one of the best handful of athletes in the draft. I felt then that if Mitchell could play both guard spots, he’d be a tremendous asset. But I wasn’t sure he’d ever be a point guard. As a shooting guard, the consensus was that he needed to show a little more consistency in his 3-point shot. That’s a tough one to project with most players. Mitchell has been playing some point guard in Utah, but the Jazz system – at least when they had Gordon Hayward – has been one that didn’t ask their point guards to create offense on every possession. Stan Van Gundy said last year’s draft was highly unusual in that the picks in front of the Pistons went to form with their board, meaning they picked Kennard right where they had him ranked: 12th. He didn’t flat-out say Mitchell was next on their board, but praised Mitchell and Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo as other players they considered. Kennard’s shooting ability – and all-around offensive flair – were appealing for a team that lacked perimeter shooting and secondary ballhandlers. Van Gundy is even more bullish on Kennard’s future today than he was on draft night, for what it’s worth. As for hiring scouts whose skill is the eye test, well, that’s pretty much what all scouts do. The Pistons have their scouts give numerical rankings to players across a variety of categories and also write full-blown assessments. Those rankings, of course, are subjective – in the eye of the beholder.
Darren (@DW33zyy): Is Henry Ellenson going to get time in the rotation or is he on the outside looking in?
Langlois: Not sure anybody’s going to be on the outside – more like in the vestibule, perhaps. If I had to wager a guess, it would be that Ellenson won’t be in the rotation to start the season. Why do I say that? Well, Stan Van Gundy on Monday said that he would lean toward proven defenders given that the Pistons were in the bottom five in defensive rating in preseason. Anthony Tolliver and Jon Leuer are more solid defenders at this point. There’s also the experience factor. A 20-year-old isn’t going to win the tiebreaker with players like Tolliver and Leuer who’ve been part of Van Gundy’s rotation before. But don’t make too much of how Van Gundy uses the roster on opening night. He’s said that everybody who dresses – 13 most nights, but 12 for the first five games while Reggie Bullock serves a suspension – will be in play to get in the game that night as game situation warrants. And it’s close enough that if somebody starts the season slowly, he won’t give them an unlimited leash.
Shoham (Detroit): How about Reggie Jackson for Eric Bledsoe? Reports say he disagrees with the “timeline” and his contract is manageable. If we add a first-round draft pick and Stanley Johnson, we might pull it off.
Langlois: A healthy Reggie Jackson is a fairly comparable player to Bledsoe. In fact, when the Pistons traded for Jackson a few months away from his pending restricted free agency, the front office pegged his new contract to be roughly equivalent to Bledsoe’s. It wound up coming in $2 million higher in annual average value($16 million for Jackson, $14 million for Bledsoe) due to the spike in contract values that summer once the new TV deals were in place, but they were in the same ballpark. The Pistons and Jackson both believe he’s fully recovered from last year’s knee issues. It’ll take a little more evidence to reveal that he’s recovered his full explosiveness, but there have been signs of it in his limited preseason exposure. If he gets there, throwing in a No. 1 pick and Stanley Johnson is a pretty steep price. If he’s not … well, that’s still a lot of inducement. Phoenix is believed to be open to moving off of Bledsoe’s contract, which is more than reasonable in today’s marketplace ($29.5 million over the next two seasons) but would the rebuilding Suns want to take on the extra year on Jackson’s deal if it’s determined he hasn’t recovered his passing gear? To add Johnson and a No. 1, I’m sure they’d listen – hard. That’s too steep a price for me without knowing where Jackson is at. And I like Bledsoe. But that package sure feels like one that comes back to haunt you.
Walter (Boca Raton, Fla.): I attended the first Pistons home game in the old Olympia Stadium in 1957. The Pistons were the second game of a doubleheader and I don’t think the game ended until 1 a.m. the next morning. I thought it might be interesting to compare the NBA and Pistons from then to now. The NBA was an eight-team league. All of the teams were East of the Mississippi with St. Louis the farthest south. The schedule was only 72 games. Some of your “home games” were played in another arena as part of a doubleheader. Bill Fleming was the radio announcer. Games were not televised locally. The Eastern Division teams were the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia Warriors, Syracuse Nationals and New York Knicks. The Western Division teams were the St. Louis Hawks, Cincinnati Royals, Minneapolis Lakers and the Pistons. The Celtics, Knicks and Pistons are now the only teams still in their original city. The Warriors are now the Golden State Warriors. The Nationals are now the Philadelphia 76ers. The Hawks are now the Atlanta Hawks. The Royals are now the Sacramento Kings. The Lakers are now the Los Angeles Lakers. The lane was 12 feet wide. There was no 3-point shot. Most teams only had two or three players that could take a jump shot. The hook shot, by a center, was a staple of most teams. Teams were mostly white with an unwritten rule they should have no more than three black players. When Fred Zollner moved the Pistons from Fort Wayne to Detroit, he traded for Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, a former Globetrotter, and Walter Dukes to have black players in Detroit. Others on the roster included George Yardley, Gene Shue and Dick McGuire.
Langlois: Thanks for the history lesson, Walter. It’s stunning to consider the breadth of change in the NBA over generations. I first started covering the NBA in the mid-’80s and, even though it had come a long way since the Pistons moved from Fort Wayne in 1957, it’s probably come even farther in the last 30 years. I’m sure our readers appreciate the perspective you offer.
Anthony (@colombo_anthony): Who’s starting at power forward this season?
Langlois: Tobias Harris is the front-runner. The bigger question comes into play when he comes out of the game. It’s a pretty close three-horse race between Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver and Henry Ellenson. Leuer is also in the mix to get minutes behind Andre Drummond at center. My hunch is that Stan Van Gundy has a pecking order of Leuer, then Tolliver and then Ellenson. He’s really high on Ellenson’s future, but Tolliver offers two things the group needs right now – 3-point shooting, though Ellenson appears a much bigger threat from the arc this season, and steady defense.