Pistons center puzzle likely to have multiple pieces for SVG post-Baynes

Jon Leuer
Jon Leuer could become a part of the puzzle for the Pistons at center next season and beyond.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CLEVELAND – The Pistons wouldn’t invite a long-term absence for Andre Drummond any more than they asked to go the first month-plus of the season without Reggie Jackson. But as Aron Baynes showed Monday – when Drummond missed just his second game due to injury in the past four seasons – they can survive his short-term absences quite nicely.

What Stan Van Gundy is resigned to accepting is that he won’t have the security blanket Baynes represents behind Drummond past this season.

What he will have, thanks to two moves the Pistons made in free agency last July, are favorable alternatives. The standard option calls for them to simply move Boban Marjanovic into Baynes’ current role. Given Drummond’s remarkable durability, they’re only looking for someone to give them 15 or fewer minutes a game.

But there’s at least somewhat of a chance they opt for a less conventional solution.

You caught a glimpse of it in the final seven minutes of Wednesday’s loss at New York, when the Pistons came within a 3-point shot that clanked off the rim at the buzzer of forcing overtime after trailing by 12 when Van Gundy inserted Jon Leuer at center and went small. Well, slightly smaller, at least.

Leuer measured 6-foot-11½ at the 2011 NBA draft combine. He doesn’t have Drummond’s strength and bulk, of course, but that’s not going to be nearly as big an issue as it might have been in another era as more teams play a greater percentage of the game with downsized lineups. Against most backup centers, Leuer will give at least as good as he gets in the mismatch department.

Van Gundy was a pioneer in utilizing lineups with four perimeter shooters during his days in Orlando. Imagine the X-and-O havoc he’ll create when using five-shooter lineups as a staple of his rotation.

The Pistons have a wild card in their deck, too. Rookie Henry Ellenson, also 6-foot-11½ and blessed with the unique ability at that size to put the ball on the floor and act as playmaker, might well be ready by next season to force Van Gundy to consider ways to exploit his gifts.

Then there’s Marjanovic, massive at 7-foot-3 but blessed with an element of finesse to his game that amazes. His challenge is moving his feet in pick-and-roll defense, a deficit that will make using him in all circumstances – as Van Gundy uses Baynes without hesitation – a little less automatic.

In the meantime, Van Gundy is going to ride Baynes while he has him.

And he hopes some of the blue-collar work Baynes puts in – things that the box score doesn’t reflect – will continue to become second nature to Drummond. Like the 50 ball screens Baynes set in his 33 minutes – along with the 20 points and eight rebounds – as Drummond’s stand-in Monday when the Pistons beat Oklahoma City without their two top players.

“We need Andre to get into that mentality,” Van Gundy said. “His numbers are way up in that regard this year, too, so he is coming.”

Baynes’ toughness is something that wins over his locker room, the type of thing that rubs off on teammates and elevates him to leadership status.

“I don’t think there’s any question,” Van Gundy said. “Guys look up to him.”

“Yeah, because he works really hard,” Marcus Morris said. “Comes and he gets his work done, leads by example. Like myself, he’s not really that vocal. But when you watch a guy put a lot of work in, be a professional, come in every day, you gain respect for people like that. AB is a good dude, a great teammate.”

“Aron is special,” Ish Smith said. “The more and more I watch, the more and more I play with him, the more and more I really fall for the way he plays, how hard he plays.”

Everything the Pistons have come to love about Baynes is what will compel competitors to steal him away next July.

It’s all due to an NBA collective bargaining agreement arcana. Baynes’ side negotiated an opt-out clause following the 2016-17 season when he signed as a free agent with the Pistons in July 2015. Holding Baynes’ rights for two seasons gives the Pistons partial Bird rights – but not full Bird rights. And that difference limits them to offering Baynes – on the slam-dunk assumption that he’ll exercise his contract option – 175 percent of his 2016-17 salary, reportedly $6.5 million, or an offer no greater than $11.375 million for next year.

It doesn’t matter if the Pistons will or won’t have cap space – they won’t – so it’s not a matter of unloading other contracts to keep Baynes. They’re capped at what they can offer and Van Gundy is 99.9 percent certain he’ll get offers significantly above what they can give him.

“We were criticized because we paid him too much money and now he’ll make about triple next summer and we won’t be able to re-sign him,” Van Gundy said earlier this week in New York. “Right now we could trade him to 29 teams in about five seconds at what he’s making. I don’t think we made too bad a deal.”

The Pistons won’t be left threadbare. Van Gundy’s at his best when given a puzzle of fetching pieces to fit together. With Drummond anchoring and a little bit of Marjanovic, a dose of Leuer and perhaps even a dash of Ellenson, he’s more likely than not to come up with something to vex the opposition.

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