AUBURN HILLS – Like the vast majority of NBA teams, the Pistons’ off-season activity level is likely to fall somewhere between “stand pat” and “blow it up.” “Tinkering” would describe the low end of expectations for their summer. But as the season wound down, Stan Van Gundy insisted change was a comin’.
Some of it will be approach, starting with his, he stressed. But probably not just that.
“There has to be some changes,” he said before the season finale at Orlando not quite three weeks ago. “We have to make, as a staff, some good evaluations on the guys who can and are willing to make some of those changes.
“Which means, who are the guys we’re going to bet on to make improvements in their game and who are the guys we can bet on their professionalism and commitment out here on a night-to-night basis? Because we had too many some-of-the-time guys that we couldn’t count on and if those guys – if we don’t think those guys can change, well, then they’ve got to be changed.”
That isn’t quite as provocative as it would be coming from most NBA decision makers, few of whom are anywhere near as frank as Van Gundy. What makes it intriguing, though, is the fact there’s no clear next move for the Pistons on the personnel front.
The only thing that comes close to an obvious pursuit for them this off-season is to add scoring punch – probably via more proven, consistent 3-point shooting. There’s no position to target, per se, not with team control over every starter – even restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – and rotation member save backup center Aron Baynes, assuming he opts out of his contract.
The top of the roster starts with Andre Drummond, the only Pistons player with an All-Star game appearance on his resume, and Reggie Jackson.
By the numbers, Drummond didn’t take the logical next step in his progression last season. His scoring (16.2 to 13.6) and rebounding (14.8 to 13.8) actually declined, though his per-36 minute rates were a wash (scoring down from 17.7 to 16.5, rebounding up from 16.2 to 16.7). The public favorability rating, anecdotally, clearly dipped. Some fans tantalized by a 20-year-old’s hints at dominance soured when it failed to materialize on an every-night basis. That’s the nature of fandom: on to the next.
But whatever change the Pistons undergo this off-season is unlikely to occur at the Drummond-Jackson level. Van Gundy was strikingly assertive in his prediction that Jackson would bounce back in a big way next season. (And he’s too smart to expect that anything he says is going to influence other teams’ perception of Jackson’s trade value, if that’s what you’re thinking.)
He was blunt in his postseason assessment of Drummond – “He needs to have a sense of urgency to elevate his game” – but any deal involving Drummond would have to be a doozy. Drummond’s presence has been the driving force for Van Gundy’s roster construction, implemented by general manager Jeff Bower, starting with the acquisition of Jackson as the ideal pick-and-roll complement.
Every indication is that the Pistons are committed to retaining Caldwell-Pope. Van Gundy went to Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris late in the season to request they become more vocal in their leadership for a reason. He sees in them the characteristics of leadership, which start with valuing winning above all else. He wants more of those guys, not fewer. He’s spoken in glowing terms about Tobias Harris’ character and, given the team’s offensive needs, dealing its leading scorer would seem counterintuitive.
Stanley Johnson had a disappointing second season, but selling low on a 20-year-old whose defensive versatility will make him a coveted asset once his offense begins to catch up doesn’t seem a reasonable option. Jon Leuer was everything Van Gundy hoped in the 57 games before the All-Star break, but barely resembled that player in the 25 after it, his confidence seemingly evaporated.
If Van Gundy thinks Henry Ellenson is ready, Leuer is the one guy you could pencil in as a potential trade chip. How much those 25 games after the break affected his value is anyone’s guess. Banking on Ellenson for a role as prominent as the one Leuer held last season, though, is a pretty substantial leap of faith. And Van Gundy clearly thought the Leuer addition was a big one last season for the lineup versatility it allowed the Pistons at both ends of the court.
The dynamics of the Pistons cap sheet are a little different this time around, too. Van Gundy and Bower pulled off a string of strong trades – Jackson, Morris, Harris – by surrendering shockingly little. Those deals were driven largely by cap motivations of their trade partners at a time the Pistons had plenty of space. That’s no longer the case.
So whatever deals they execute this summer aren’t as likely to look like clear talent-for-talent wins as those others. What moves they make are anybody’s guess. But by all indications, they’ll be moving.