Pistons Mailbag - September 21, 2016

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

With training camp less than a week away and the first preseason game set for 15 days from now, there’s time for one final Mailbag before we have actual basketball activity to discuss. On with Mailbag...

Jeffrey (Detroit): Is Detroit going to sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope long term or are they concerned about his 3-point shooting and his shooting overall?

Langlois: Well, those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. They want to sign him. They also want him to become a better and more consistent shooter. Stan Van Gundy has made both points abundantly clear. The issue comes down to what 99 percent of negotiations turn on: a number that makes sense for both sides. The Pistons and Caldwell-Pope’s representatives opened talks in early August, Van Gundy said. A few guys from Caldwell-Pope’s draft class have come to terms, including C.J. McCollum and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That helps set market value, but whether it draws the lines clearly enough for the Pistons and Caldwell-Pope’s side is uncertain. As I’ve written before, this negotiation isn’t quite as clear cut as last year’s situation with Andre Drummond. One, the team owner was on record saying Drummond was a max player so there was zero suspense in where a meeting of the minds would happen; two, the Pistons had a vested interested – namely, preserving cap space – in pushing Drummond’s extension off until summer 2016. The Pistons don’t have anything to gain by pushing off Caldwell-Pope’s contract talks from a cap perspective; they’ll be over the cap next summer in any case. So if they can get a favorable deal done now, great. If they can’t, then Caldwell-Pope becomes a restricted free agent July 1, 2017, just as Drummond did a few months ago. The Pistons could retain him by matching any offer sheet he might attract or they could – as they did with Drummond this season – sign him to a long-term deal before it gets to the point of negotiating with other teams and agreeing to an offer sheet. In that case, it’s reasonable to assume that how Caldwell-Pope answers questions about his perimeter shooting will play a role in setting his market value. If he becomes a league-average or better 3-point shooter, he’ll be one of the most attractive free agents on the market next July, in all likelihood.

George (Madison, Wis.): Going into training camp, are there any player injuries or conditioning issues which Pistons fans should be concerned about?

Langlois: Everybody’s healthy, George. Darrun Hilliard had a back injury that sidelined him for about two months this summer – he missed Summer League – but he was cleared about three weeks ago and has been participating in voluntary team workouts leading to training camp. He’s full go. So is everybody else. Michael Gbinije had a minor ankle injury that limited him to one Summer League game, but he was back in time to play with the Nigerian national team in the Olympics. Nobody is coming off of lingering injuries or surgery. It’s a young team with 29-year-old Aron Baynes the oldest player on the roster. There should be no limitations on anyone’s activity for next week’s opening of training camp.

Adam (St. Petersburg, Fla.): What’s your best guess as to how deep into his bench Stan Van Gundy goes for a set rotation to start the season?

Langlois: I think he’s legitimately open – torn? – about whether to go with the nine-man rotation with which he was most comfortable last year or expand it to 10. If I had to choose, I’d say the easiest decision for him would be to scale back the minutes of Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope by two to three per game each and give Stanley Johnson the extra four to six minutes per game that creates. That would get Johnson’s minutes up closer to 30 per game. Based on expectations for Johnson, that sounds about right. Reggie Bullock and Darrun Hilliard have their chance to convince Van Gundy otherwise in training camp and the preseason. Both players did what they needed to do to earn Van Gundy’s trust late last season, each contributing to pressure wins during the playoff drive. Van Gundy even included Bullock in the playoff rotation for the first two games, his status changing only when a nerve issue in his leg made him unavailable for the rest of the series. The buzz I get from players I’ve talked to is they expect Johnson to take a significant step forward this season. He’s nowhere near a finished product but Johnson can contribute in so many ways and Van Gundy loves his fearlessness. If he can shoot it more consistently, he’ll surely earn a longer leash. His shot remains a work in progress simply because it’s very difficult to completely retool mechanics built over a lifetime of basketball in one off-season, but in watching him in a shooting drill recently there’s no question he’s getting more arc on his shots and getting the ball off from a better (higher) shooting pocket this season – most of the time, at least. But Bullock is the team’s best 3-point shooter and Hilliard, Pistons staffers believe, has a sophisticated skill set offensively that can help an offense function at a higher level. It’s the most significant question mark of training camp and one whose answer probably won’t come until we see which way Van Gundy goes in the season opener Oct. 26 at Toronto.

Philip (Negaunee, Mich.): What made the Pistons choose Ish Smith as their choice in free agency to back up Reggie Jackson?

Langlois: A few things. It helped that he got a 50-game sample size as a starter in Philadelphia last season and showed he was capable of handling that role. Granted, he was playing for one of the worst teams in NBA history, but Smith helped make the 76ers credible. They were 1-30 when they got him. They won three of their next six games and nine games after his acquisition. Two other things also were major factors: (1) Van Gundy wanted a backup point guard who would push the pace and Smith stands out for exactly that characteristic and (2) Van Gundy, who coached Smith briefly in 2011-12 and brought a number of people from Orlando with him who’d also known Smith, knew he was getting a guy who draws the highest marks for character and personality. Already, his teammates are raving about Smith’s upbeat attitude and unselfishness, including the guys who’ll be playing with him on the second unit like Aron Baynes and Stanley Johnson.

Tyler (@Defendthe9n): What’s a realistic goal for our young squad this year? Top four seed? Just happy to make the playoffs?

Langlois: Guessing at a number of wins is meaningless because nobody can predict how injuries – an inevitable part of every NBA season – will affect teams. The Pistons are like probably two-thirds of teams where an injury to one key player – say, Reggie Jackson or Andre Drummond – can turn a plus 2.0 differential per game into a minus 1.0 and swing a dozen or so games from the win to the loss column. If they stay reasonably healthy, I think last season is their baseline – 44 wins – and I think they have the potential to win 20 percent more games, or somewhere north of 50. That’s not unrealistic. But there are very few teams in the Eastern Conference – Philadelphia and Brooklyn, maybe Orlando – that don’t have every expectation of making the playoff field this season. Stan Van Gundy says he expects win totals for teams in the middle of the pack in the East to tick down this season because those teams at the bottom aren’t going to be such easy touches this time around. One thing I can say with 100 percent certainty: They won’t be happy just to make the playoffs this year. They cracked that door ajar last season and battled the eventual NBA champion tough for all four games – they led in the second half in each of the first three games and had a chance to win Game 4 on a shot at the buzzer. They go to training camp next week thinking they can beat anybody they would face in the playoffs, while also understanding they would do themselves a favor by finishing higher than the No. 8 seed. They definitely see themselves as a top-four playoff team. Then again, so do at least 10 teams in the East.

John (Dearborn, Mich.): I know it’s tough to predict personnel moves, but how do you see the Pistons’ roster changing over the next 12 months?

Langlois: That’s a tough one. The big question for me is if the Pistons will make another move at the trade deadline this season as they have in each of the past two years, making major moves each time – for Reggie Jackson in 2015, Tobias Harris in 2016. The Pistons have depth they haven’t enjoyed in perhaps a decade. The moves they’ve made to this point were to plug big holes. Stan Van Gundy is now comfortable he has several valuable pieces. Trades from this point on won’t be to plug holes but to produce upgrades or what he sees as more complementary fits. Given the youth of the roster, combining a few young players logically would bring back a very attractive asset. To be clear, I don’t think the Pistons are actively pursuing that type of deal. But what they’ve exhibited in Van Gundy’s two-plus years on the job is that they move quickly when a situation they view as an opportunity to move the franchise forward comes along. Other teams scan every roster in the league and ponder ways to help themselves. One of them that wants to kick start a relaunch and has a coveted veteran might decide to dangle him to the Pistons for a few of their attractive young players plus, perhaps, a future draft pick or two. Maybe one among 5 or 10 such proposals would appeal to the Pistons. Maybe someone makes that one proposal to them this February. If the Pistons are playing well at the trade deadline – let’s say they have one of the top five records in the conference – would Van Gundy be as willing to risk a change of chemistry under those circumstances as he has been in each of the past two seasons? Tough call. Once it gets past the trade deadline, it becomes even more unclear what might happen. The Pistons do not figure to have much in the way of free-agent activity next summer. For starters, they won’t have many departures to create openings. Aron Baynes is likely to opt out of his third year and become a free agent. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – if there is no contract extension reached before Oct. 31 – can become a restricted free agent. The same for Reggie Bullock. The Pistons are unlikely to have cap space in any case. If Caldwell-Pope returns for 2016-17 – and the Pistons can ensure he’s back for next season, at least, whether it’s extending his contract, matching an offer sheet or seeing Caldwell-Pope play out the final year of his rookie deal on a qualifying offer – then the Pistons are in line for their quietest off-season in many years.

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. To have your question considered, submit it along with your name, email address and city/state using the form below.

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