Bereft a year ago, Pistons suddenly teeming with options at small forward


(Editor’s note: Pistons.com today begins a five-part series looking at the depth chart for the Pistons, position by position. Up first: small forward.)

POSITION: Small forward

DEPTH CHART: Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock

IN A PINCH: Tobias Harris, Darrun Hilliard, Michael Gbinije, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

FLEXIBILITY: Morris can swing to power forward if needed. Johnson split his minutes almost evenly between small forward and shooting guard a year ago and could be in line for a similar role this season. Bullock is probably best suited to defending shooting guards.

What a difference a year makes. The Pistons ended the 2014-15 season with two 35-year-olds, Caron Butler and Tayshaun Prince, holding down the fort at small forward. Five seasons earlier, that would have been a dynamic 1-2 punch. Their days as highly productive starters were behind them, though, and Stan Van Gundy’s off-season priority was addressing both forward spots.

Power forward got settled early – before the draft and free agency – when the Pistons were able to ship Butler’s contract, which held a team option, to Milwaukee, motivated by the need to create cap space the Bucks would turn into Pistons free agent Greg Monroe, as the key piece in a deal that sent back Ersan Ilyasova.

The draft gave Van Gundy a piece of the puzzle at small forward when the Pistons drafted Arizona’s Stanley Johnson with the No. 8 pick. But Johnson was coming off his freshman season. The Pistons weren’t about to stake their season on a 19-year-old, even one as precocious as Johnson had proven at every step of the way through four California high school state championships and three gold medals with USA Basketball in major international competitions.

Van Gundy said as free agency was about to open that the Pistons had targeted four players – two unrestricted free agents, two restricted. Danny Green was one of the unrestricted free agents, but he agreed to a hometown discount to remain in San Antonio in the first hours of free agency.

When the Pistons learned how high the bidding was going for the other, Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, Van Gundy led a parade of Pistons executives and scouts out of the Orlando gym their Summer League team occupied to hold an impromptu strategy meeting on the lawn of an Orange County park in central Florida’s sweltering July midday heat and humidity.

Van Gundy was leaning toward staying in the Carroll bidding. General manager Jeff Bower suggested not exceeding the parameters they’d settled on in their May organizational meetings to plot the Pistons off-season. “Something always happens,” Bower told his colleagues.

It didn’t take long for him to be proven right. That afternoon, Phoenix – no doubt running down a list of NBA teams in the market for a small forward and knowing Green and Carroll’s decisions left many wanting – offered the Pistons the chance to get Marcus Morris. The Suns, motivated by shedding salary to get the cap space for a run at premier free agent LaMarcus Aldridge, asked only for a 2020 No. 2 draft pick in return. They even threw in Reggie Bullock, a 2013 No. 1 pick with size and 3-point shooting ability.

It turned out to be the most lopsided trade of the NBA off-season. Morris not only adapted seamlessly to his first full-time starting gig, he wound up playing the fifth-most total minutes in the NBA – and it would have been third if Morris, like all five Pistons starters, hadn’t sat out the regular-season finale at Cleveland with a playoff series against the same team pending.

Morris gave the Pistons size, toughness, shooting and defense – a pretty nice combination of skills that Van Gundy came to quickly appreciate. He especially admired Morris’ individual accountability. As the season ended, Morris – who shot .444 from the 3-point line after the All-Star break – said he was disappointed that he felt his defense had slipped down the stretch and vowed to come back better prepared to endure the workload in 2016-17.

Van Gundy won’t diminish Morris’ role unless someone proves capable of adequately replacing his minutes, but Johnson might well prove ready of doing so. Before injuring his shoulder and missing seven games after the All-Star break, Johnson many nights was among the Pistons’ best players. His February numbers were 10.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 30 minutes a game.

His impact came despite holes in his game that Johnson has worked to fill over the off-season – improved footwork, shooting technique and left-handed dribbling to make him a less predictable, more versatile scoring and playmaking threat. On a team filled with young players yet to reach their peak, nobody has more room for growth than Johnson.

Bullock won a roster spot with an outstanding 2015 preseason and finished the season with a flourish. In 19 games after the All-Star break, Bullock made nearly half his 3-point attempts – 21 of 43. He contributed to some big wins during the playoff push and will come to camp looking to convince – as will second-year shooting guard Darrun Hilliard – Van Gundy that the Pistons will be better with him in the rotation than on the bench.