(Editor’s note: Pistons.com continues a five-part series looking at the roster after a summer that saw them add five newcomers. Stan Van Gundy sees four essential position groups: centers, point guards, forwards and wings. Today’s Part II looks at the four forwards on the roster.)
AUBURN HILLS – He didn’t hang around long enough to put his plan into motion, but Rob Henigan’s whiteboard priority list for Orlando’s off-season gave a glimpse into the shifting nature of NBA thinking with regard to personnel and stocking a roster.
The most prominent feature of the leaked picture – in the background when Patricio Garino’s agent posted a picture of his client signing a Magic contract last spring in Henigan’s office – was the heading for “hybrid,” a forward who melds some of the traits of both conventional small and power forwards.
On the list was a player the Magic traded to the Pistons in February 2016, Tobias Harris. So were two of his teammates, Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson.
Depth chart: Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer, Anthony Tolliver, Henry Ellenson
Options: Stanley Johnson has occupied the two wing positions for the Pistons in his first two seasons and likely will play both of those spots again, but with greater wing depth this season with the trade for Avery Bradley, the drafting of Luke Kennard and the signing of Langston Galloway, Johnson is more likely to guard power forwards than shooting guards this season. Eric Moreland is primarily a center, but he’s athletic and mobile and could be used to guard more conventional power forwards like LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love.
Flexibility: Harris likely will again split his time between the two forward spots. Van Gundy expects to use Leuer more at center this season and Ellenson, he believes, will have the same capability to play center when opponents play with a perimeter-oriented big man. Tolliver is primarily a power forward, but Van Gundy says he can move him one position up or down depending on the matchup.
Bottom Line: Harris is likely to play the most minutes of this group for his scoring ability, though it’s possible he could come off the bench if Van Gundy feels it better balances starting and bench units. He anticipates Leuer playing considerably more at center this season than last. Tolliver’s 3-point shooting ability was a key to the success of the bench unit during the 2015-16 playoff season and was sorely missed last year. Ellenson might be hard to hold back given his scoring potential; defensive readiness will determine his role.
“There’s a lot of those guys in the league now, three-four type guys,” Stan Van Gundy said. “It’s become – that sort of combo forward – a very, very important position. You’ve got to be able to guard both spots, got to be able to play both spots, so it’s different.”
The Pistons had to deal one of them, Morris, to Boston to land a player Van Gundy expects to be a lineup mainstay this season, Avery Bradley. But the Pistons have reshaped their roster over the off-season to give Van Gundy more legitimate options and greater depth and versatility than at any time in his tenure with the Pistons, heading into his fourth season.
Mostly because of roster construction, Van Gundy expects Johnson to be more of a “wing” player – someone who guards mostly small forwards or shooting guards, positions virtually interchangeable in most modern schemes – this season, though he also expects Johnson to play some power forward against similar players as other teams go to smaller lineups.
Van Gundy lumps players into four position groups – centers, point guards, forwards and wings – though he believes that any combination of players can be used at the three positions between point guard and center. The four players he considers forwards on his current roster – Harris, Jon Leuer, Henry Ellenson and Anthony Tolliver – all come to training camp with a shot to land a spot in the rotation.
As always, Van Gundy will attempt to strike a balance between offense and defense in choosing his starting and bench units. His instinct has always been to lean toward defense in close calls, but he’s also keenly aware of the growing imbalance to reward offense. The Pistons finished 11th in defensive rating last season but only 25th in offense, largely driven by 3-point inefficiency.
Tolliver is easily the most accomplished 3-point shooter of Van Gundy’s options, shooting 39 percent last season for Sacramento on a high volume. Sixty-six percent of Tolliver’s shots were triples, which was down from 80 percent two seasons ago in Van Gundy’s offense.
“Tobias has certainly proven the most. There’s no question there,” Van Gundy said of sorting out his options. “But the thing I like is they all bring different games. Tolliver, obviously, is the best shooter of the group – just stand out and stretch the floor, pure shooter.
“Jon’s probably the best inside guy of the group and a guy who can play on the move, making passes and moving into plays the best. And then Henry’s a scorer, can create his own shot, shoot the ball and a pretty good rebounder. So they all bring a lot to the table.”
It wasn’t by happenstance that the Pistons wound up with greater depth this season, signing Tolliver and Reggie Bullock to the last two roster openings. Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower made it a priority to give him more options than ever – and now Van Gundy is disciplining himself to be more open-minded in his use of the roster. It could well be that the last few spots in the rotation vary from game to game to suit matchups.
“It’s just a very, very hard position to guard,” Van Gundy said. “They’ve got to guard so many different kinds of people. There’s not as many of the big, strong, post-up fours – there are some – but then you’re going to have to guard more three-men type guys who are fours who can stretch it out to the 3-point line and put the ball on the floor and all of that.”
The Pistons have given themselves as many options to defend the spectrum of NBA forwards as possible – and, at the same time, given their opponents a challenge in defending a variety of skill sets. Now it’ll be up to Van Gundy to figure out the best way to make the puzzle come together.