Pistons Mailbag - September 22, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Pistons training camp is less than a week away and Pistons Mailbag returns with a smorgasbord of topics including next summer’s free agency, the roster going into the 2021-22 season and how the Cade Cunningham-Killian Hayes pairing plays out.

Ken (Dharamsala, India): There may be a relatively high draft pick coming to the Pistons in 2022 and the Pistons might have considerable cap space in the summer of 2022. Roughly how much cap space and what caliber of player(s) do you think the Pistons will be able to afford in the 2022 free-agent market?

The Pistons could have up to $35 million in cap space for 2021-22 when the salary cap is anticipated to rise to $119 million, but there are a lot of things that can happen between now and then – and I’d bet on things happening that lower that number before free agency opens next July. Why? Some of it is the growing trend of players being extended by their existing franchise before hitting free agency, and not just superstar players, either. The summer of 2022 was originally ticketed to be a star-laden class, but now Zach LaVine – a very good player, indeed – is looking like the headliner without a lot of other players of his caliber among the group. I would bet that the Pistons will use a chunk of their cap space – and perhaps even the majority of it – on players acquired via trade ahead of free agency rather than waiting on free agency.

Chris in Kalamazoo (@chenny21): I know it’s early, but when looking at next year’s free-agent pool, what types of players or skill sets would complement the Pistons?

It’s early, but not too early for front offices to be fully versed on which players will hit the market next July. Of course, some of that will depend on which players get extended off their rookie deals from the 2018 draft class before the start of the season and which veterans sign extensions between now and next summer. The “skill set” part of your question is interesting and probably one that will be defined by what transpires this season. How the few handfuls of young players develop over the course of the 2021-22 season will inform Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey of what they should prioritize in veteran acquisitions next off-season. Will they need to prioritize shooting? Size? Playmaking? Hard to say at this point. They’ll know better after going through 82 games with players in relatively early stages of their development. And overlay the skill set with the physical and character traits we know Weaver and Casey prefer.

They have 14 guaranteed contracts and two two-way deals going into training camp, so it’s not set but it’s pretty close. I’ll be diving into the possibilities with the 15th roster spot in Part III of our Camp Questions series on Thursday, but there are a few ways to go. They could elevate Luka Garza to a standard deal since the trade of Jahlil Okafor left the Pistons without a No. 3 center and there’s not really a power forward who can slide over unless Trey Lyles soaks up some small-ball five minutes. They could keep it open and await cuts around the league. The Pistons picked up Frank Jackson when he didn’t survive final cutdown in Oklahoma City last December and that worked out pretty well. They could just keep the spot open, too, and hope to benefit when teams need a third franchise in the mix to facilitate complicated trades.

@raker4224/IG: As it stands now, who starts at point guard, Cade Cunningham or Killian Hayes?

Dwane Casey said after the Pistons drafted Cunningham with the top pick and they were preparing for Summer League that he wasn’t going to fall into the trap of labeling either one the point guard or shooting guard, preferring instead to consider them both ballhandling playmakers and labeling them “1A and 1B.” I don’t think he’s trying to be cute or trying to avoid offending anyone’s sensibilities. He’s speaking to the nature of both the modern NBA and the style of play he embraces – one that encourages multiple ballhandlers and shared playmaking responsibilities. Whether it evolves into a true 50-50 split or tilts one way or the other will be a results-driven process, I suspect. The Pistons understand the need for patience with a pair of 20-year-old playmakers. There are going to be plenty of rough moments and it’s tough to win tight games when the ball is in the hands of inexperienced players at crunch time. But Casey is going to adjust his offense as he sees results and put the ball in the hands of the player who gives the offense its best chance to yield positive outcomes.

Shaun Murie (@shaun_murie): Is Luka Garza better off developmentally being the third center with occasional games in the G League or playing full-time in the G League with occasional games with the Pistons? Or do you think he will split time about the same regardless of contract status?

The beauty of having the G League team a stone’s throw from the parent NBA team’s headquarters, the situation that will exist for the Pistons starting this fall with the debut of the Motor City Cruise in Detroit, is the ability to shuttle players back and forth on a virtual daily basis as the situation demands. If Garza remains on a two-way contract, his time with the Pistons is limited to 45 days during the G League calendar, which starts when the Cruise open training camp in late October and ends with the conclusion of the G League season. But even that means he’d have plenty of opportunity to practice with the Pistons and suit up for select games. Unless an injury sidelines one of Isaiah Stewart or Kelly Olynyk, I would expect Garza to be the full-time starting center for the Cruise whether he’s on a two-way or standard deal. Garza, in addition to learning how to play with his newly reshaped body after dropping about 25 pounds from his Iowa playing weight, also has to become accustomed to playing more facing the basket on offense and playing defense against pick-and-roll oriented attacks. The best way for him to do those things is to get five-on-five experience in the G League.

Deviaire (Pontiac, Mich.): Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson for John Wall and an unprotected 2022 first-round pick from Houston?

If you’re looking for teams that might be engaging with Houston on a potential trade for John Wall – the Rockets and Wall are in agreement that his future is elsewhere – look for a team with a big contract it, too, would like to offload. Kevin Love and Cleveland come to mind. I don’t see the Pistons engaging on that front, though anything is possible if Houston attaches enough draft compensation to sway a trade partner to take on the remaining $92 million owed Wall over the next two seasons.

Ian (Westland, Mich.): We’ve been projected to be the third-worst team this year. I think all of our guys will make big gains this year and that third from the bottom won’t happen. But if it did, it would play out great for our restoration. If the NBA lets Emoni Bates play, we may even have a shot at him with the third pick.

There are legitimately 12 teams in the East that expect to be playoff teams this season and that’s a number we haven’t seen since … ever? The Pistons, Cleveland and Orlando are the three teams that everybody is projecting to be outside the playoff fight, yet all three have added some very promising young players over the past two to three off-seasons. But the 2022 title favorite (Brooklyn), the reigning NBA champion (Milwaukee) and at least a few other teams (Philadelphia and Miami for sure, possibly even Atlanta) see themselves as legitimate title threats. Then there are teams that look like they’ve built solid playoff rosters (Boston, Chicago, Washington, New York, Indiana) but one or more of them are likely to be left to fight for a play-in spot at best. That leaves Toronto and Charlotte and there is optimism to be found in both places that they’re playoff worthy. The Pistons will again be one of the very youngest teams in the league and be especially young in their anticipated rotation. With Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham as a pair of 20-year-old lead playmakers, winning games in the final five minutes will be a challenge until they put some games under their belt. That’s a long way of saying that even though my full expectation is that players like Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson, Saben Lee and Josh Jackson will be better with a year in Dwane Casey’s system and that much more NBA experience than they had a year ago, winning enough to stay in the playoff chase will be a challenge for the Pistons this season. They’ll again be competitive – opponents know they can’t bring their C game and expect the Pistons to not put up a fight by now – but I’ll be interested to hear what Dwane Casey has to say about realistic expectations for the season when he’s asked about it as training camp gets going next week.

@fatimaelmoukahal/IG: Is Isaiah Livers going to play soon?

He said in early August that his doctors had told him Nov. 1 would be the latest possible day that he would be cleared for full activity. We’ll see if there are any updates to that next week when training camp opens. The Pistons are going to be cautious with him to avoid a setback. It’s possible Livers will be fully cleared in time for training camp of the G League Motor City Cruise, where he figures to spend a good deal of time during his rookie season. The Pistons have plenty of wing options ahead of Livers as of now – Saddiq Bey, Cade Cunningham, Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo – so there is no urgency for Livers to return. That said, he’s probably as close to NBA ready as any incoming rookie after playing four years at a high level of college basketball and possessing a 3-and-D skill set that won’t require as radical an adjustment stylistically as many rookies face. If opportunity arises, Livers is a guy who might earn Dwane Casey’s trust early on.

Rudy (@rudyjuly2): I just need to see Killian Hayes’ jump shot improve. How confident are Pistons coaches that he will make a significant improvement?

Nobody knows for sure how these things will turn out, but history is rife with examples of young players who come into the league as spotty 3-point shooters and improve over a relatively short period of time to league average and beyond. It makes sense given that most players who get to the NBA don’t need to rely on perimeter shooting much at lower levels given their size advantage, typically, and gifts in other areas. When the talent level equalizes, that’s when it becomes imperative to develop the perimeter shot. In bygone eras, that might have happened with four years in college. Now elite players come to the NBA at 18 or 19 and have farther to go in skills development even if they’re miles ahead physically.

Casey Hilts (@CaseyHilts1): Who will the Pistons give up in the Ben Simmons trade? Killian Hayes, Josh Jackson and Cory Joseph seem like a natural fit in Philadelphia, but would they need to add Saddiq Bey to make it happen?

Simmons seems committed to forcing Philadelphia’s hand, though Darryl Morey won’t scare easily in this standoff. I would put the Pistons in the category of extreme long shot to make a trade for Simmons. The 76ers want immediate help in return, one would imagine, after going all in to build a contending roster and giving up future assets to do so. Jerami Grant would almost have to be part of the package to make the salaries work. (Kelly Olynyk, signed as a free agent, can’t be traded until Dec. 15; ditto for Joseph.) And Grant is a player who would certainly help the 76ers immediately. What else it would take is anyone’s guess. Cleveland and Minnesota are the two teams most frequently mentioned as landing spots for Simmons with Portland a wild card given the Damian Lillard uncertainty. San Antonio is another team that’s popped up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Washington becomes a speculative partner, too, in a potential swap involving Bradley Beal.

@iam_emily813/IG: Favorite player growing up?

I loved two players who got their start at Michigan high schools in the ’70s and went on to play at the state’s two Big Ten rivals – first Campy Russell from Pontiac Central and Michigan and then Magic Johnson from Lansing Everett and Michigan State. Johnson, of course, went on to one of the greatest careers of all-time. Russell, one of the greatest shooters to ever come out of Michigan, had his career held back by knee injuries but still averaged 16 points a game over an NBA career than spanned 11 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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