Pistons Mailbag - September 29, 2021

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Training camp is on and that means rotation battles and figuring out a functional starting five are ongoing, the jumping off point for this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.

Phil (Auburn Hills, Mich.): Every now and then, I have to check my optimism at the door. I am one of those fans that has high hopes for Luka Garza, Jamorko Pickett, Isaiah Livers. Historically, having optimism for second-round and undrafted picks is ridiculous but I feel today’s NBA sees more players in that category being successful than in generations of the past. Am I too optimistic in thinking those guys have a future on this team?

You are certainly correct in pointing out that history suggests the odds of hitting on a second-round pick past 40 are pretty long. That said, the three players you cite – and I’ll add undrafted Chris Smith, who like Pickett is signed to a two-way contract – are all four-year college players who succeeded at pretty significant levels. Given the prejudice that exists against long-term college players in favor of the upside and potential of younger players who’ve not yet proven there’s only so much juice to be squeezed from their fruit, I’d bet that the Pistons beat the odds with one or more of Livers, Garza, Pickett and Smith. Livers and Smith are both rehabbing from injuries that certainly cost them draft slots, Livers a foot and Smith a knee. Livers expects to be cleared by Nov. 1 and Smith, he and general manager Troy Weaver said on Monday, is a little further out, perhaps two months, after suffering a torn ACL at UCLA last January. All of them have at least one clearly identifiable NBA skill, though, and that’s a good start. And the character reviews have been glowing all around, so it won’t be a matter of them failing for any other reason than what they’re able to do between the lines. For sure, they’re going to make the investment of time in the G League Motor City Cruise worth the while for Detroit basketball fans this winter.

Paul (Phoenix): I am finding it hard to explain the trade with Brooklyn in which the Pistons take back two years and $20 million in contract for four second-round picks in the 50s. How do you not get back at least one No. 1 pick for relieving a team of $20 million in obligation? Jahlil Okafor would have cost the Pistons a max of $2 million to release and throw in Sekou Doumbouya who was a steal for the Nets. What is the deal?

The only one of those four picks that’s pretty much a lock to be in the 50s is the one the Pistons get from Brooklyn in 2022. If the Nets stay reasonably healthy – if Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving suit up for a combined 150 or mor games, say – then the Nets are going to win 55-plus games, probably. But the other three picks? They’ve all got a chance to be good ones. One is a 2027 from Brooklyn. Given the draft capital the Nets have spent and the high likelihood that Durant, Harden and Irving will be retired or well past their primes, there’s every possibility for that to be an attractive pick. They get the more favorable pick from Washington or Memphis in 2024 and there’s no guarantee either of those teams makes the playoffs, let alone both. And they get the more favorable of Washington or Golden State’s pick in 2025 and who knows what remains of Golden State by then? All three of those picks could wind up in the 30s. Teams are buying second-round picks for several million dollars these days. The Pistons got $5 million from Cleveland for the 30th pick a few years ago. Jordan reportedly shaved off about $4 million from the $20 million he was owed via his buyout. The Pistons, effectively, bought four second-round picks – three of which have a chance to be top-10 picks in the round – for $4 million apiece but a net zero on their cap sheet and created the roster space to allow them to convert Luka Garza to a standard deal and follow up by sliding Jamorko Pickett, a prospect full of intrigue, into an open two-way spot to prevent him from being offered a contract by another NBA team. Even if the Pistons don’t wind up holding on to all of those second-rounders they picked up, they’re always handy to have to facilitate other trades.

I wouldn’t expect last year’s three first-round rookies – Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey – to do much, if any, time in the G League, though Dwane Casey frequently brings up the fact that Pascal Siakam was starting for the Raptors but still dabbling with the Toronto G League franchise. Cade Cunningham is also unlikely to spend time with the Cruise. But Saben Lee – even if he is getting some sporadic rotation minutes early – probably is ticketed for some G League games and especially when the Pistons and Cruise are both in Detroit so he can slide easily from one to the other. Rookie Isaiah Livers (when he’s cleared to return, which he says is no later than Nov. 1) is very likely to be a Cruise staple. Luka Garza is also highly likely to suit up with the Cruise frequently. Chris Smith, the UCLA rookie signed to a two-way contract, will be a prime candidate to log minutes once he’s cleared to return. (Smith suffered a torn ACL in January, a big reason he went undrafted.) Jamorko Pickett, also on a two-way deal, presumably will be a Cruise starting wing.

@phlptvrd/IG: Who are the projected starting five for the season?

I think the biggest question is whether it’s Kelly Olynyk or Isaiah Stewart as the starter at center. You can make the case for either one. Stewart would give the Pistons a more physical interior presence for a team that is prioritizing defense. But if Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham are also starting, that would make three 20-year-olds – preposterously young for an NBA starting lineup. Olynyk’s 3-point shooting and passing would also play well off of two young playmakers and relieve them of some of the burden of creating offense on every possession. Jerami Grant and Saddiq Bey are almost certainly the starting forwards. Dwane Casey seemed to tip his hand some as camp opened when he said playing Hayes and Cunningham together meant neither would have to be the full-time primary ballhandler, so I think it’s pretty clear they’re lining up as starters. So it really comes down to Olynyk or Stewart at center.

Scott Brodie (@brodiegames): How did it feel from the media side to be back in the building, doing in-person interviews? Did you learn anything about the team that you might not have over Zoom?

We got a little taste of normalcy in Las Vegas for Summer League, but, yeah, Monday was the first time back in the Little Caesars Arena interview room since March 2020 and Tuesday was the first time back in the Pistons Performance Center – aside from the introductory press conference for Cade Cunningham in July – also since March 2020. Absolutely, being in the gym to observe even the post-practice routines and seeing coaches interacting with players in drills helps inform us to better inform Pistons fans. In-person interviews also lend themselves better to more back-and-forth exchanges than the Zoom experience. As invaluable as that was during the 2020-21 season, it’s not a perfect substitute for standard practices.

Piston of the Day (@PistonOfTheDay): What training camp battle are you most interested to track? I would say the following: Hamidou Diallo vs. Josh Jackson vs. Frank Jackson; Trey Lyles vs. Luka Garza.

I don’t know that Lyles vs. Garza is really a thing. Lyles might play some small-ball center, Dwane Casey said on Tuesday, but their roles really offer little overlap if any. I think the real battle for a rotation spot might really be an amalgamation of your two scenarios. It could be either Lyles in the rotation at the expense of one of the three wings or Lyles out of the rotation and Jackson, Diallo and Frank Jackson all finding a way into it. On a traditional depth chart, Lyles would be No. 2 at power forward behind Jerami Grant. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Saddiq Bey actually played the most minutes at power forward behind Grant, splitting his time between the three and four, giving enough minutes there for Josh Jackson and Diallo to split with Diallo also getting some at the two along with Frank Jackson and Cade Cunningham. In the right lineups, Cunningham can get some minutes at the one. I think a Cunningham-Frank Jackson backcourt could be a good pairing – two plus 3-point shooters, Cunningham serving as the playmaker and Jackson cross-matching to defend opposition point guards. I doubt there’s room for all four of Lyles, Diallo, Josh Jackson and Frank Jackson unless Dwane Casey expands the rotation past 10 but any combination of three of them could be made to work.

Marc (@mhrnova93): Will Saddiq Bey start?

Hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t. I’d bet on him finishing second or third in minutes per game behind Jerami Grant. Cade Cunningham could also be in that mix, especially as the year progresses.

Kyle Sander (@ksandersports): What are the goals for this season?

Good question. It’s more layered for a team in the rebuilding or restoration phase than it is for teams like the Nets and Lakers, where it’s pretty much title or bust. Or even for many teams in the East this season, where finishing outside the playoff field would be a clear failure. I asked Troy Weaver at media day if there were other guideposts he’ll use this season beyond wins and losses to measure progress. He said, “We’ll let the work that we do inside the walls and stay with our process to determine our success. The scoreboard won’t determine that, especially right now. But just on a global view, yeah, 20 wins, that’s not going to cut it anywhere. Whether you’re rebooting or rebuilding and in our case restoring, we want to win more games than we lose. But we have bigger goals in front of us. We measure our success in how we’re moving the ball forward. But at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win games.” I translate that to mean they’re not going to take any short cuts now – in roster moves or in strict adherence to playing veterans that could help you win games over younger players learning how to win – that might help win a handful or two more games this season and next but come at the expense of adding and developing the talent that could carry them to title contention farther down the horizon.

@drbrunett/IG: What is your prediction for a win-loss record for 2021-22?

I think I saw where some of the sports books pegged the over/under Pistons wins total at around 27. I would have probably gone higher than that in a vacuum and I still expect that to happen, but when you look around the Eastern Conference this season I’m not sure I ever remember greater depth on this side of the bracket. Chicago has added Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to Zach LaVine over the past six months and for as formidable as the Bulls might be, would anyone be shocked if they finish out of the play-in tournament running? I can think of 10 Eastern teams that stand up pretty well to Chicago. The Pistons are going to be fun, they’re going to play hard and they’re going to make teams earn what they get. But I also know the history of the NBA suggests teams that rely on young playmakers – and the Pistons are going to have the ball in the hands of 20-year-olds Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham a ton – are going to struggle to make winning plays over the last five minutes. The measuring stick for the Pistons again this season will be more in the development of individual players and steps toward forging a team identity for toughness and selfless play than in wins and losses. And from what I gather from interaction with the fan base, a large majority of them are A-OK with that.

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