When Stan Van Gundy took over 21 months ago, the Pistons had perhaps two building blocks. Alas, they played the same position. He tried to make it work with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe, but when the 82-game experiment was over Van Gundy grudgingly admitted he hadn’t quite figured out how.
Now they have seven, even after losing Monroe to free agency last summer. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope declared himself one in Summer League 2014, giving Van Gundy confidence he was part of the core he’d like to keep moving forward.
He and Drummond are now the only holdovers from the previous administration. Brandon Jennings, the third to start Van Gundy’s second season, was on the verge of playing himself into the core group for the future when he tore his Achilles tendon 13 months ago.
In some respects, that set in motion the dizzying chain of events that has followed, starting with the trade for Reggie Jackson.
With this week’s trades for Tobias Harris and Donatas Motiejunas – who came from Houston at Thursday’s trade deadline along with Marcus Thornton, less than a building block himself but an instant-offense guy who offers immediate help for the final 28 games –the Pistons not only have seven high-level talents for their long-term future, they’re all 26 or under.
And for as much fun as those final 28 games figure to be, next year … well, next year looks positively intriguing already.
The addition of Harris alone gives Van Gundy a wealth of options. Throw Motiejunas on top of it and it grows exponentially. Van Gundy isn’t wedded to any offensive system, but he nods to the reality that the 3-point shot has taken on such outsized importance it practically demands having the ability to put four face-up shooters on the floor at any time. Well, with Motiejunas the Pistons can put five shooters on the floor if they choose.
Van Gundy said ad nauseum in the run-up to Thursday’s deadline that the Pistons would stay disciplined within their trade parameters, foremost among them a refusal to part with assets for rentals. They clearly do not view Motiejunas, a pending restricted free agent, as a flight risk. They bet similarly last year on Reggie Jackson and won. They’re surely at least as confident in their ability to fend off any potential offer sheets for Motiejunas.
As for the No. 1 pick Houston gets, it’s instructional that it comes with heavier protections on the pick in 2017 and ’18 than for this June, when the Pistons only keep the pick, according to reports, if it’s in the top eight. (Protections almost always decrease, not increase, into the future; the No. 1 pick the Pistons sent to Charlotte a few years ago, went from top-15 protection to top-eight to top-one in successive years, for instance.)
Every scout I’ve talked to this season says the 2016 draft is a so-so one, but the next two should be better. The Pistons are OK parting with a pick somewhere in the teens this season in a mediocre draft for a 7-footer who can score inside and out, pair ideally with Andre Drummond in conventional lineups or slide into the middle to give the Pistons dynamic offensive possibilities.
There’s also this about ceding the No. 1 pick this season: At some point, you’ve amassed enough young pieces. With Marcus Morris at 26, Jackson and Motiejunas at 25, Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 23, Andre Drummond 22 and Stanley Johnson 19, holding on to the No. 1 pick to add another 20- or 21-year-old maybe isn’t the best course right now. And it’s not like they gave up the pick for a 34-year-old on his last go-around. Big guys with jump shots tend to play well deep into their 30s. If the Pistons sign Motiejunas for a four- or five-year term this summer, they’ll get all of his prime years.
“I didn’t say we would never give up an asset; we’re not going to do it for a rental guy,” Van Gundy said Thursday. “Every move we make, we hope, helps us in the present. We’re trying to win as much as we can.”
The Pistons turned down deals, Van Gundy said, for a future second-round pick that would have brought them veterans who offered immediate help but would be free agents at season’s end.
As Van Gundy said Wednesday, “you have to know who you are.” He was talking about it in the context of allocating a chunk of 2016 cap space in the trade for Harris rather than queuing up behind contenders and glamour franchises to get a shot at premier free agents.
But it applies here, as well.
With Aron Baynes and the cap space they’ll still have available to add an important rotation piece or two – and backup point guard is about the only significant item on their shopping list as it stands now – the absence of a first-round pick this year isn’t going to set off any alarms. They’ll still field one of the youngest rotations in the NBA.
And what they’ve given up to get all those young building blocks added since the arrival of Van Gundy and his handpicked general manager, Jeff Bower, amounts to precious little in the grand scheme of things. Put it this way: They haven’t traded away anyone yet who’s considered a building block by the receiving team.
“I think when you go down the list of our trades since we’ve been here, Jeff’s done a remarkable job,” Van Gundy said. “That’s what I told (Pistons owner) Tom (Gores) today. A remarkable job of building it. You just look at the number of players who we’ve given up, what we’ve gotten, I mean, pretty good job.”
- Because of the trade with Houston that sent out veteran center Joel Anthony coupled with an illness that sidelined Aron Baynes, the Pistons were down to one center and couldn’t hold a five-on-five scrimmage at Thursday’s practice, intended to get Harris up to speed for Friday’s game at Washington.
“He seemed pretty good today,” Van Gundy said of Harris picking up offensive plays and defensive schemes at both forward position. “We ran him through everything at both spots.”
- Spencer Dinwiddie remains out with a sprained ankle suffered earlier this month while playing for the Grand Rapids Drive of the D-League. With Jennings gone to Orlando, that leaves Jackson and Steve Blake at point guard. Van Gundy mentioned Darrun Hilliard and Stanley Johnson as players who’d serve emergency minutes there if necessary.
- Jodie Meeks, out since suffering an Oct. 29 foot injury, did go through practice, Van Gundy said. Because the Pistons didn’t go full court to fully test the injury, Meeks is still not cleared for return and won’t be active Friday. But it’s a positive step after last month’s setback when he practiced once, experienced pain and subsequently visited his surgeon, Dr. Martin O’Malley, when the Pistons played in New York.