In Pistons pursuit of Jon Leuer, their closer turned out to be Tobias Harris
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For all the resources NBA teams pour into manpower and technology, it still comes down to who you know more often than not. It’s a relationship-driven league – player-coach, agent-general manager, scout-college coach.
And the most critical relationships are player-player, a dynamic graphically proven by the creation of the 2010 Miami Heat when LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to team up with fellow free agent Dwyane Wade in Miami. Their relationship grew out of being 2003 draft classmates and was forged as USA Basketball teammates.
The Pistons can thank the player-player dynamic for cementing two-thirds of their 2016 free-agent draft class. Stan Van Gundy’s front office identified top targets for the roster’s two most critical needs – a backup point guard and a power forward who gave them greater size without sacrificing anything in 3-point shooting – and then his players went to work pressing the case for joining the Pistons to Ish Smith and Jon Leuer.
In Smith’s case, it was Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson – his teammates from stints in Phoenix and Oklahoma City – that helped seal the outcome. In Leuer’s case, it was a player who entered the league with him as Milwaukee Bucks rookies in 2011-12, Tobias Harris.
So effective was Harris in selling the Pistons – based solely on his two months with the organization after arriving from Orlando in late February and starting the final 25 games plus the playoffs – that Van Gundy believes it was the tipping point.
“He’s a guy we’ve had our eye on for a couple of years that we just thought would be a really good fit,” Van Gundy said. “And Tobias was probably the biggest reason we got him here. He and Tobias had a good relationship from Milwaukee and Tobias really sold him on the whole thing. I don’t think we would’ve gotten Jon – or at least it would’ve been a lot harder – if not for Tobias.”
Leuer confirms Van Gundy’s suspicion.
“It had a big effect,” Leuer said. “Just having a good relationship with Tobias and knowing that he’s been with these guys and knows what it’s like in the locker room and what it’s like to play for coach Van Gundy, it had a big impact on my decision. Just somebody that I trust and know has a good sense of what would be good for me.”
Harris says he didn’t have to immerse himself in any high-pressure sales techniques to pitch Leuer, just speak from the heart.
“When I heard he was one of our guys, of course I reached out and told him about our team, about the city, the fans and the direction we’re going,” Harris said. “Truthfully, it’s a quick sell when you talk about coming to a team that is pushing themselves to be a top playoff team. I was in his ear just making sure, but like I said – it was a quick sell.”
Leuer has been in Auburn Hills the past few weeks taking part in voluntary team workouts. Based on early returns, he’s already certain Harris gave him an accurate snap shot of the landscape.
“Absolutely. I can see that even after a couple of weeks – just a young, hungry group that is really coming together. The chemistry is developing between this younger group of guys that have been here and it seems like the focus is on winning. And that’s something, when you have a group that comes together and has one common goal like that, it’s a powerful thing.”
Leuer liked everything he’d heard from Harris about the makeup of the team, struck especially by this comment: “He told me we had a great group of guys, that nobody had a big ego. It was all about winning. And for a younger team, that’s something that’s unique in the NBA.”
He liked what Harris told him about Van Gundy’s pull-no-punches honesty. He liked what he’d seen of Van Gundy’s offenses for how they utilized players just like him – bigger, mobile power forwards with 3-point range – and he liked the personnel and the progress the Pistons had made in Van Gundy’s two seasons.
But there was also appeal in coming to a group of players with so much in common from an age and experience standpoint. Leuer turned 27 in May, meaning the Pistons get him for what figure to be the best years of his career – in keeping with pretty much everyone on a roster whose oldest player is Aron Baynes, 29, and whose oldest starter, Marcus Morris, is a few months younger than Leuer.
In fact, Leuer, Harris, Morris and Reggie Jackson were all products of the NBA’s 2011 draft.
“That was definitely something I felt was good going into it,” Leuer said. “When you have guys that are all kind of in that same area, we’ve been through now the younger period of our careers where maybe we were still trying to figure it out and now we’re at the point where, OK, we’ve been in this league for five, six, seven years – now it’s about winning. That’s our sole focus. We’re kind of past that point now. It’s just about how we can figure it out and win.”
Leuer said he was vaguely aware the Pistons had expressed interest in dealing for him before when he was swapped from Memphis to Phoenix a year ago and he knew the Pistons were in the market for a power forward even before getting Harris’ recruiting pitch and having contact from the Pistons at the first available opportunity, midnight as June 30 become July 1.
And just as the Pistons had prioritized Leuer, he had the Pistons as his desired destination. But first both sides had to wait out the Al Horford decision. Leuer understood the situation. Other teams were coming after him, but he was patient through the first 24-plus hours while Horford sorted out his options.
When Horford narrowed his focus to Boston, Washington and Atlanta before choosing the Celtics, Van Gundy hopped on a plane the morning of July 2 to visit Leuer for lunch in Minneapolis to close the deal. While he was in mid-air, Leuer’s side and Pistons general manager Jeff Bower agreed to the parameters of a deal.
“Once Al made his decision, it was, ‘OK, let’s figure out how we can get this done,’ ” Leuer said. “We actually came to an agreement before he even landed, so it was more of a celebratory lunch than a meeting. We talked about where he sees me fitting in with this group and where he wants us to go.
“There were other teams I was talking to, but this was where I wanted to be. Just talking to Tobias, talking to everybody I know that had been associated with this organization, I knew this was where I wanted to be. Obviously, free agency is a crazy period. You get a chance at a guy like Al Horford – All-Star player, one of the best power forwards in the league … he had other options, I had other options. But at the end of the day, this is where I wanted to be.”