Pistons returning 60 percent of 2018-19 roster, but additions make them better for 2019-20

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose, signed as a free agent, is one of seven newcomers who’ll gather at Michigan State on Tuesday when the Pistons open training camp.
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

With the permanent caveat that reasonably good health is a necessity, the Pistons inarguably will field a better roster to start the 2019-20 season than the one that finished 2018-19 in the playoffs.

That’s before you factor in the likelihood of benefitting from relative roster continuity – in an off-season where 40 percent of NBA players hit free agency, the Pistons come back with 60 percent of their roster – and a season of marinating in Dwane Casey’s system behind them.

According to research from John Schumann of NBA.com, only seven NBA teams have a greater percentage of minutes played from 2018-19 from returning players for 2019-20 than the 65 percent the Pistons have. Only two of the teams with a greater percentage of returning minutes, Orlando and Milwaukee, were Eastern Conference playoff teams like the Pistons.

The Pistons won 41 games in Casey’s first season, but they were 8-18 in the 26 games Ish Smith missed. That said something about Smith but perhaps even more about the lack of options the Pistons had to take his minutes when he went down. Jose Calderon, a terrific point guard in his day, turned 37 during training camp last September and his tank was about at empty.

Had the Pistons broken even in the games Smith missed, they would have finished with a 46-36 record.

So let’s start there with reasons the Pistons are better for the off-season player movement they’ve experienced:

  • Ish Smith/Jose Calderon out; Derrick Rose/Tim Frazier in – Frazier’s numbers were pretty much in line with Smith’s last season from a minutes/productivity standpoint. Rose’s were a few tiers north of that. Casey almost surely will explore ways to use Rose and Reggie Jackson in tandem. Having a quality third point guard like Frazier makes that more possible. The Pistons even have a No. 4 point guard – two-way prospect Jordan Bone – who could vault himself into position to take some minutes on nights the Pistons rest Rose or Jackson. They’ll have to be judicious with Bone’s NBA playing time – he gets 45 days with the parent team, but all days before the G League season starts or after it ends don’t count against the 45 – early in the season to guard against long-term injuries to the three veterans, but you can bet they’ll have him in a Pistons uniform often for back to backs to allow for the luxury of resting Rose on those occasions.

  • Jon Leuer out; Markieff Morris in – As long as Morris has no lingering consequences from the neck injury that knocked him out for nearly two months in the middle of last season – he returned after the All-Star break – there should be no question that he’ll provide more than Leuer did after suffering ankle and knee injuries to make the last two of his three Pistons seasons underwhelming. Morris is more physical and a better 3-point shooter. Prior to last season, he’d averaged at least 25 minutes a game for seven straight years. Just as adding Frazier allows the Pistons the luxury of being cautious with Rose, so does signing Morris give them the wiggle room to rest Blake Griffin more than they could afford to do last season.

  • Wayne Ellington out; Tony Snell in – Ellington served the Pistons exceptionally well over the final two months of the season. You could make a case that winning the recruiting battle for him after his buyout in Phoenix was just enough to push the Pistons over the top in the playoff chase. But for fit, Snell is the preferable option for the Pistons. Ellington battled, but he was overmatched too often in defending small forwards, a position the Pistons needed to put him in after trading Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson. Snell’s 7-foot wingspan gives him the size to battle on equal footing. He won’t shoot triples at quite the extreme rate as Ellington, who took 80 percent of his shots from the arc with the Pistons, but Snell’s career 3-point rate of .572 is well above average and he’s shot them at a slightly better clip (.382 to .379) than Ellington over the course of his career.

  • Zaza Pachulia out; Christian Wood in – Pachulia turned 35 in mid-February and that was pretty much the dividing line between good Zaza and bad Zaza. Pachulia, as smart as they come and a wonderful teammate, averaged 4.5 points and 4.6 rebounds in 14.5 minutes a game before the All-Star break, shooting 45 percent. After the break, those numbers crashed to 2.6 points and 2.5 rebounds in 9.7 minutes on 40 percent shooting. Wood, claimed Wednesday off of waivers, is pretty much the polar opposite of Pachulia. At 23, Wood is long and willowy at 6-foot-10½ with a 7-foot-3¼ wingspan. (For comparison’s sake, Wood’s wingspan was a quarter inch longer than that of Willie Cauley-Stein as measured at the 2015 NBA draft combine.) His standing reach of 9-foot-3½ is two inches more than Andre Drummond’s 9-foot-1½. Wood isn’t likely to be Drummond’s every-night backup as Pachulia was, but he can be part of a big man rotation that could also include Morris and Thon Maker depending on what Casey needs for any given circumstance. In 28 G League games last season, Wood – who spent two years at UNLV and went undrafted in 2015 – averaged 29.3 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocked shots a game. When the Milwaukee Bucks waived him late in the season to open a roster spot for the need to sign guards to replace injured players, Wood averaged 16.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 24 minutes a game over eight games for New Orleans.

  • Glenn Robinson out; Sekou Doumbouya in – The Pistons took a reasonable shot last summer on Robinson, signing him to a two-year deal with a team option on the second. Robinson, who missed the first four months of the 2017-18 season with a serious ankle injury, never really found his niche with the Pistons and fell out of the rotation even as a need for a perimeter defender with length was created by the trades of Johnson and Bullock. Doumbouya, then, steps into a role outside the rotation. The Pistons don’t need him to field a lineup next season and given the fact he doesn’t turn 19 until Dec. 23, that’s perfectly fine. If he forces the issue and takes minutes from someone – his best opportunity will come at small forward where Snell is the favorite to start but only Svi Mykhailiuk otherwise is a logical fit – then great. If he doesn’t, it will be a season of on-the-job training and acclimation to a new country, new language and new style of play. Unless Doumbouya leaves no doubt of his readiness early, the expectation should be that he’ll make several trips to Grand Rapids for G League game experience.
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