Pistons Mailbag - September 20, 2017

Tinkering with the NBA rules, Reggie Jackson’s dominance of the ball and All-Star prospects for Pistons players dot the agenda for the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Shane (San Antonio): What are some changes the NBA needs to make in order to make the game much better?

The game’s in good hands, run by smart people. There’s nothing glaring that jumps out at me. I’ve thought the lottery system was flawed for years but Adam Silver is reportedly pushing for reform and it looks like that matter has a chance to be addressed. (I’ve thought the gaps in lottery odds between teams with similar records were too large. For example, the team with the sixth-worst record could have 27 wins and the team with the eighth-worst record could have 30 wins. There’s a 10 percent difference in their win totals, yet the team with 27 wins has a 225 percent greater chance of landing the No. 1 pick. That’s clearly imbalanced.) The rest is just nit-picking. My current pet peeve is the awarding of three free throws to a player who heaves the ball at the basket when he feels the slightest contact after taking a pass while coming around a screen where the defender is on his hip. We’ll see if that, indeed, becomes a point of emphasis this season by officials; it’s been a thorn in the side of many coaches over the past few years, as well.

JhoniP (@Jpcveinti2): Will one or two of the two-way players start on the Pistons roster?

That’s probably not something Stan Van Gundy has thought through at this point – and not something I’d thought about, either. What I know about how the two-way contracts work is that the players under such deals – and for the Pistons, that’s Luis Montero and Dwight Buycks – can spend 45 days with the parent NBA team during the G League calendar. The Grand Rapids Drive season starts Nov. 1 and ends March 31. I’m not sure how the collective bargaining agreement treats Drive training camp, so whether Montero and Buycks can spend time with the Pistons before Nov. 1 and not have it count against their 45-day limit, I don’t know. Under Van Gundy, the Pistons have tried to make use of the Drive for their young players at times when the Pistons were in a stretch of schedule that didn’t allow for much practice time but otherwise have them with the parent team – both to have the extra bodies in practice and to accelerate player development. Whether they’ll adopt the same philosophy with two-way players – keeping the additional parameter of the 45-day cap in mind – remains to be seen.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): Fans ride Reggie Jackson for “pounding” the ball, not passing it, not moving it. What I see is the Pistons standing around doing nothing to get open. Basic basketball. Player X who does not have the ball runs to Player Y who also does not have the ball and Player Y uses Player X’s screen to cut to the basket, move to an open area or move to Player Z who does not have the ball but who cuts off the second screen into a good pass and shot. Girls basketball teams do these fundamentals better than the pros. The Pistons just stand around and watch Reggie dribble.

There’s a riddle in there somewhere: If players X, Y and Z don’t have the ball, who does? Jackson is hardly the only NBA player who’s heard that complaint. Pretty much every primary ballhandler on teams that aren’t elite offenses will attract that knock at some point. James Harden has heard it. Russell Westbrook surely has heard it. Kyrie Irving gets it. And they all play or played for teams that had relative success. There’s a fine line to straddle. In fairness to Jackson, the Pistons have never surrounded him with players who are strong off the dribble. That was one of the areas Stan Van Gundy prioritized after last season. This year’s team will be significantly different in that regard. Avery Bradley and Langston Galloway have both had experience at point guard. Luke Kennard is comfortable off the dribble. One reason the Pistons wanted to bring back Reggie Bullock was their determination that his dedication to off-the-ball movement helped lubricate their half-court offense. Those things should help Jackson get off the ball a little more readily this season. But let’s not be fooled into thinking that if Jackson is back at full strength he won’t have the ball far more than anyone else. To use him otherwise would be foolish. A healthy Jackson is among the league’s best penetrators. How efficient he can be depends on the decisions he makes with the ball in his hands. He’s still a relatively inexperienced starter – 205 career starts, or about 2½ seasons – and there’s no reason to think he won’t become a more polished decision maker. The degree to which teammates stand around and watch their primary ballhandler do his thing is tied to a large extent to his decision making. If teammates know that movement which frees them for a shot will usually result in receiving a pass that creates a scoring chance, they’ll be far more apt to move. If experience has shown them that movement won’t be recognized or rewarded, they’ll subconsciously shut it down more often than not. For as much as it’s emphasized, guys like Bullock who move off the ball as second nature are more the exception than the rule.

Jon (@DarkoSchmarko): Who is most likely to be starting at the four come opening day? If it’s not Leuer, what do you see his role being this year?

I’m going to go 65 percent Tobias Harris, 35 percent Jon Leuer. Harris is secure in his role if we’re talking strictly minutes played. He’s going to get 30-plus minutes a night. He’s certainly the most proven forward on the roster. But I go 65-35 because I can still see a way Stan Van Gundy decides to use him off the bench. Some of it will depend on how much faith Van Gundy has in anyone else outside the starting unit to provide consistent scoring. Ish Smith will be a staple of the second unit but he can’t be considered a primary scorer. Langston Galloway is the front-runner for minutes behind Avery Bradley and he should provide 3-point shooting and some scoring punch, but can he be the primary scorer for the bench unit? Luke Kennard? Leuer? Boban Marjanovic is a scoring force, but he might not be the everyday backup center due to matchup issues he’ll face against some teams. Henry Ellenson’s forte is scoring, but he might not have a rotation spot. Anthony Tolliver is a proven 3-point shooter, but he’s a complementary scorer. Van Gundy will have to sort out his options and try to balance his units as best he can. Chemistry of the unit can overcome the lack of a dominant scorer, but that’s hard to predict – and it also will be hard to accurately assess with a five-game preseason schedule. It’s easier to get Harris the minutes he should play as a starter, but he thrived coming off the bench last season so Van Gundy knows it’s a valid option if he needs to go there.

Ian (Westland, Mich.): If Reggie Jackson returns to form, the Pistons will have four borderline All-Stars with Jackson, Bradley, Harris and Drummond. Who makes the All-Star team this year? I think Bradley and Drummond make it.

As is widely accepted in the NBA world, including the coaches who fill out the rosters after the blended vote chooses starters, winning teams are rewarded with All-Star berths. If you can tell me what record the Pistons have in mid- to late January, when the coaches fill out their ballots, I could offer a plausible guess. But you’re right in that the Pistons don’t have a clear pecking order among their players as to who’d be the obvious candidate. Andre Drummond probably would be first in line, given that he’s the only player on their roster to have appeared in an All-Star game. If he puts up his usual numbers and the Pistons are over .500, he’ll have a great shot. I pegged Tobias Harris as their breakthrough All-Star a year ago; I think he’ll have a real shot this year given that without Marcus Morris he’ll be an even more obvious choice to have his number called within the half-court offense. If Reggie Jackson is back to himself, he’ll have a shot – but the depth at point guard in the East (John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic) means stiff competition for maybe two spots. Avery Bradley will face the same competition, essentially, given that there is no discrimination between point guards and shooting guards in the selection process. It’s tough to project more than one All-Star to any team, really, when there are 15 teams in the conference and only 12 roster spots.

Travis (@iTravisWade): Do you see the Pistons making the playoffs this year as higher than an eighth seed?

I’d feel a lot more comfortable giving an emphatic “yes” once I see Reggie Jackson blow by a few guys and get to the rim. But let’s assume he does so with the same frequency he did two seasons ago before his knee issues cropped up. Then, yeah, I like the Pistons to make the playoffs. Given a reasonable shake on the health front, you can put Cleveland in ink as a playoff team. Boston has so many new faces that it might take a minute to figure things out, but the Celtics, Washington and Toronto are on their heels in some order. Milwaukee closed strong last season and has to be considered better than 50-50. There’s nobody else in the East that I’d say starts off any farther ahead than the Pistons. But Charlotte and Miami probably feel the same. I’m less bullish on Philadelphia than most, but they’ve amassed some intriguingly talented parts. Freed of the triangle offense, maybe the Knicks can make a run, too.

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