SVG’s grades Pistons off-season a solid A – and includes February deal for Harris

Tobias Harris
Nathaniel S. Butler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

If you take the narrow view and assess the Pistons’ off-season based only on what technically constitutes the “off-season” – as in, the period of time that comes between seasons – then Stan Van Gundy is still exceptionally pleased with what the Pistons were able to get done.

He thinks they got a top-10 talent with the 18th pick in Henry Ellenson and a player with first-round ability with the 49th pick in Michael Gbinije, a prospect knocked down because teams look differently at 24-year-olds than they do at 21-year-olds.

Van Gundy is even more certain they got it right in free agency, at least where the 2016-17 season and more immediate needs are concerned. Ish Smith and Jon Leuer were the guys at the top of their wish lists at point guard and power forward – once Al Horford chose Boston after including the Pistons among the list of suitors from which he entertained offers – and Boban Marjanovic gives them the league’s deepest stable of true centers.

But if you expand the definition of “off-season” to include the decision to allocate a big chunk of their available cap space in the February trade for Tobias Harris, then Van Gundy becomes even more enthusiastic about the makeover general manager Jeff Bower’s front office, under Van Gundy’s direction, was able to achieve.

“People forget that over half of the potential cap space was used on Tobias Harris during the year,” Van Gundy said. “So you really have to look, even though we did it at the trade deadline, that was a cap space move that allowed us going forward to do it and still be able to acquire other guys. So I throw Tobias into that. When you look at him in that group, to me it’s definitely an A (grade).”

The cost to acquire Harris was Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova. Jennings was one-third of a season away from unrestricted free agency and the Pistons held a team option on Ilyasova’s final season, so the $16 million in cap space they could have created by hanging on to both players until season’s end was instead spent on acquiring Harris and the three-plus years left on his contract.

By subsequently dealing Jodie Meeks – also to Orlando, as it turned out – they created an additional $6.5 million in space. That allowed them to not only add Smith and Leuer but make the move to get Marjanovic a year ahead of truly needing him when Aron Baynes is expected to opt out of his contract.

It’s given Van Gundy an extraordinarily deep roster that he feels provide him weapons to answer whatever lineup combinations the Pistons encounter over the course of the 2016-17 season.

The different texture Smith and Leuer lend the second unit revolve around Smith’s quickness and Leuer’s size and versatility.

“We thought we wanted to add a little bit more quickness and pace to our second unit,” Van Gundy said. “We thought Ish did that. We thought we definitely needed more size at the four spot coming off the playoff series. There’s always guys who play well. Kyrie (Irving) had a great series. But we just didn’t really have a matchup, size-wise, to go to with (Kevin Love).

“We wanted to add more size at that spot but not give up athleticism, not give up shooting, and Jon Leuer was really the only guy out there that we thought fit everything that we wanted in that spot. Shot 38 percent from three, 6-foot-11. He’s a very good athlete with great quickness. He’s a guy we had our eye on for a couple of years and we just thought would be a really good fit to what we wanted.”

The Pistons had just enough cap space left after addressing those two critical needs to entertain what Van Gundy called “an outside-the-box move” – the offer sheet to San Antonio’s Marjanovic as a restricted free agent. They correctly gauged that San Antonio, after coming to terms with Pau Gasol, wouldn’t have enough cap space left to match their offer to Marjanovic.

It was motivated in large measure by their look ahead to 2017 when they (a) expect Baynes to opt out, (b) question their ability to match a similarly aggressive offer sheet and (c) expect a thin crop of free-agent centers to replace Baynes, if it comes to that.

“We’ve probably got more true centers than anybody in a league that’s going away from true centers, but looking at Aron’s situation – and the part that people understand is he’ll opt out, probably, based on the salaries we saw this year – and the part they don’t understand is if he opts out and because he’s only been here two years, we’re limited in how far we can go in our offer. It wasn’t a matter of you don’t want to pay him or you don’t think he’s worth it. It’s that we’re limited.”

So think of the Marjanovic move as giving the Pistons a jump on the 2017-18 off-season – in the same way getting Tobias Harris 4½ months before free agency opened gave them a head start on their 2016-17 off-season.

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