As Stan Van Gundy watched the playoffs unfold, what he already believed about roster construction was reinforced anew. Cleveland won the title on star power, sure, but also by having the flexibility to counter the variety of lineups the Cavaliers saw against four distinctly different opponents.
Something he saw in the Western Conference playoffs, meanwhile, helped set the strategy the Pistons will take into free agency. For all the focus on teams downsizing and playing with five perimeter players at a time, big guys still matter, too.
“You saw Oklahoma City play a lot with two centers,” he said in looking ahead to the moves remaining for the Pistons after drafting Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije. “They’re playing (Steven) Adams and (Enes) Kanter together. I think we can do that with Andre (Drummond) and Aron (Baynes), but I tried to look at all those teams in the playoffs, the better teams, and see all those things and say, ‘OK, would we have an answer for that?’
“We’ve obviously got to play well, but would we at least have an answer? That’s the one. We need more size at that four spot and Henry was a great step in that direction, but we need one more in free agency.”
One more power forward, he means, but two more big men. Van Gundy said that even though Tobias Harris finished the season as the starting power forward – where he’ll be expected to start next season, too, barring a significant trade or free-agent addition – he doesn’t consider him a true big man.
The Pistons have Drummond, Baynes and Ellenson. They have a team option on Joel Anthony, who played 96 minutes last season as the No. 3 center, but Van Gundy didn’t mention him when discussing next season’s roster and it’s likely the Pistons will decline the option to free up $2.5 million in cap space.
“I think I wouldn’t be comfortable going with fewer than five, so we’ve got to go out and get two bigs – four, five, whatever. We need two bigger guys, even though Marcus (Morris) and Tobias will play there a lot. You just get into certain matchups. Look at our series. Kevin Love was a huge factor, not just with the threes, but down low we didn’t have an option. If the playoffs every year teach you anything, it’s that you’ve got to have a versatile roster to be able to answer things that come up and that’s one we couldn’t answer last year. Henry starts us on that path.”
Ellenson has a solid frame, weighing 242 pounds at the NBA draft combine in May, but at 19 he’s a long way from physical maturity and will need a good summer of work with Pistons strength coach Anthony Harvey and assistant Jordan Sabourin to put himself in position to challenge for a bigger role than Van Gundy would feel comfortable assigning the rookie as of today.
The Pistons will be looking at three additions to the roster as it stands now without consideration of how trades might alter the picture. The two biggest moves will be for a backup point guard and a bigger power forward. The fifth big man will more than likely be a player signed to a veteran minimum contract after the Pistons have used the approximately $15 million Van Gundy said they’ll have under the cap, expected to come in at $94 million.
That probably explains why the Pistons were able to add two 7-footers with impressive credentials to their Summer League roster: Jordan Bachynski, who went to training camp with them last year and was a first-team All-Defensive pick in the D-League this season; and Kaleb Tarcewski, a four-year starter who went undrafted out of Arizona. It wouldn’t be a surprise if one of the two was invited to training camp on a partially guaranteed contract with a legitimate shot to make the roster as the fifth big man. Sunday night, Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders claimed Jarvis Varnado, a 6-foot-9 shot-blocking power forward who was the 41st pick in the 2010 draft by Miami, will also be on the team.
Phil Pressey, who participated in a veteran free-agent camp the Pistons hosted earlier this month, is another on the Summer League roster. Pressey’s chances to stick as the No. 3 point guard will hinge on how the Pistons gauge Gbinije’s ability to handle that role. They plan to start Gbinije at point guard in Summer League to determine his readiness as a point guard.