Beefed-up roster means Pistons won’t bank on instant help from 18th pick, could gamble on upside

Jeff Bower, Stan Van Gundy
The contract extension agreed to by Pistons general manager Jeff Bower continues his successful teaming with Stan Van Gundy.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHICAGO – The Pistons have an infinitely more defined roster today than entering either of Stan Van Gundy’s previous two off-seasons, which means the summer shopping list is considerably shorter this time around.

That’s mostly a good thing, of course.

“We’re in better shape than most people,” Van Gundy said after the Pistons’ first-round playoff loss to Cleveland, “because we don’t have huge holes, at least in our starting group.”

It’s also tougher to make upgrades at this point. It’s a simple matter of math. If you’re a team whose starting point guard, for instance, would be a backup anywhere else, then there are, by definition, at least 30 better point guards in the league and chances are a handful of them will be available in any given off-season. Not that tough to land one.

But when you have five starters who are league-average or better for their position, the pool of players who can upgrade your talent base shrinks by at least 50 percent. That’s where the Pistons are, roughly, and it’s not very likely that they’ll be able to upgrade at their two positions of need – a backup point guard and a power forward to throw in the mix with Tobias Harris – via the No. 18 pick in the draft.

That, at least, is likely to be their thinking after making their pick June 23 and before free agency opens July 1.

“I would say it’s unlikely that the draft would have a big impact on free-agent plans,” general managerJeff Bower said at the NBA draft combine.

There are players who might fall in their draft range who could, in fact, offer help at both spots in point guards Demetrius Jackson, Wade Baldwin and Tyler Ulis or power forward-center Domantas Sabonis. But the Pistons aren’t likely to regard their first-round pick as a rotation staple and they’ll shop accordingly in trades and free agency.

In other words, if they draft a point guard, they’re still likely to sign a veteran they regard as Reggie Jackson’s backup. If the draft pick proves otherwise, well, bonus.

The general consensus of scouts is that it’s a so-so draft, not especially likely to produce a raft of All-Stars but with a chance to pump out as many starters or rotation players as an average draft might. If so, the Pistons – given the stability of the roster Van Gundy and Bower have built – might be inclined to gamble on a high-ceiling prospect at 18.

“I think we could,” Bower said. “I think the strength of the draft is such that, picking at 18, you’re going to look for some ways to make a difference and that’s one avenue that we’ve looked at.”

And because the Pistons aren’t banking on the draft as an avenue to immediate help, it frees them to have a completely open mind and take whichever player they identify as the one with the most productive NBA career ahead of him – regardless of position.

“We’ve got to look at developing and building depth,” Bower said. “We can look at it from a longer-term perspective picking at 18. We can look at it from the standpoint that we do see a need to add something at just about every position, as well. So at 18, we can look at upside, we can look at ceiling, we can look at their ability to have a skill that fits a need.”

If it’s basically a 50-50 call between a more experienced college player, a senior or junior, or a one-and-done college prospect or international teen, Van Gundy might opt for experience given the relative youth already on his roster. As he said in February, after the Pistons had dealt their No. 1 pick to Houston in the since-rescinded trade for Donatas Motiejunas, the willingness to deal this year’s pick was in part motivated by “us not really having a need for another 18- or 19-year-old guy.”

“The benefits of someone who’s been through three or four years of competition are pretty clear,” Bower said. “The readiness to perform, the understanding of practice – they’ve shown their ability to be ready.”

There are two four-year college players with strong local ties, Michigan’s Caris Levert and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. Both held interviews with the Pistons at the combine. I’ll have more on them Tuesday.

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