Our first foray into draft talk and even more banter about what direction the Pistons choose to take in the off-season top the list of topics in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Paul (Phoenix): Who are some of the names rumored in draft consideration for the Pistons? And do you think the players have lost confidence in Van Gundy and vice versa?
Langlois: We have 2½ months left until the draft and while all NBA teams have vast databases of information on hundreds of college and international amateur players who might – or might not – decide to make themselves available for the June 22 draft, the sorting-out process is in its relative infancy. By that I mean they have tons of raw data and written evaluations of individual players, but they haven’t yet sat down to compare Player A to Player B and actually put together a draft board to rank prospects. That’s why it can’t be stressed enough that the various websites devoted to tracking draft prospects are really just educated guesses of consensus opinion based on bits and pieces of information they’re getting from NBA personnel evaluators – some of which is intentionally parceled out to mislead. Be wary of their relevance, in other words. That said, I think it’s fair to say the draft is (as usual) heavy on freshmen, probably deeper than a typical draft with regard to number of players who project as average or better NBA starters, and especially deep at point guard among top-10 or lottery prospects. As for what the Pistons will be looking for: as usual, the best player available. They won’t draft for need, but they will consider the roster to an extent. That means, for instance, they probably would rank a prospect who projects to center – where Aron Baynes is very likely to be elsewhere next season – above a player of equal talent who projects to power forward, given the presence of Jon Leuer and, especially, Henry Ellenson. Ellenson gives them one projectable 20-year-old at the position, a player they regard every bit as enthusiastically today as when they drafted him and judge him to have plus potential as a scorer. It would be tough, in my estimation, to draft another player who fits that profile. So let’s say Gonzaga frosh Zach Collins decides to enter the draft after burnishing his resume with a strong Final Four. If it comes to the Pistons’ spot in the draft and he’s the guy they have ranked highest on their board of those still available, they would take him. But his ultimate spot on their board will get knocked down a peg or two based on their roster. (And all of that assumes, as part of our hypothetical, that they see Collins as a power forward and not as a center.) As for your second question – the confidence level of Van Gundy in his players and they in him – in general terms there is almost never one answer when it comes to how “players” feel about their head coach in the NBA. A roster with 15 players is always going to have many levels of approval or disapproval of the coach; a coach is going to have varying degrees of confidence in players across a range of subjects. Where this Pistons roster and Van Gundy are concerned, there is nothing to indicate anything approaching a crisis of confidence in either direction. The Pistons failed to meet their own expectations this season and that will always generate frustration. Frustration, absent strong leadership, can lead to organizational dysfunction. Van Gundy isn’t one to allow things to fester, though. He’s just not wired that way. A lack of self-awareness takes down a great number of coaches – across sports, at all levels – but that won’t ever be Van Gundy’s undoing. He’ll lead a thorough off-season assessment and he’ll put no one to the test more strenuously than himself.
Josh (Elmhurt, N.Y.): What do you think about the Pistons trading Andre Drummond to Boston for Isaiah Thomas since the Celtics will have a high draft pick and are looking at getting Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball? And then trade Reggie Jackson to the 76ers for Jahlil Okafor. I know there would have to be others in the deal as well to make the salaries work, but it would be cool to see Thomas with the Pistons.
Langlois: As a debate topic, a deal centered on a Drummond-Thomas core would make for spirited conversation. An athletic rebounding force dropped into the middle of that Celtics team would conjure intriguing possibilties, for sure, except for one thing – Boston’s offense revolves wholly around Thomas. Danny Ainge would have to be an enormous believer in Fultz, Ball or any other point guard to whom he would move into the hole left by trading Thomas. If the Celtics and Pistons were to engage in a trade involving Drummond, my guess is pretty much everything else would be on the table outside of Thomas or this year’s unprotected pick. That’s a statement on where the Celtics are right now. Ainge is a risk taker, I get it, but the Celtics have gone from the lottery to 50-plus wins over the past few years. They have last year’s No. 3 pick, Jaylen Brown, plus what figures to be a top-three pick this year and a decent shot at another top-three pick next year (when they have the right to swap first-rounders with Brooklyn as final payment for the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce deal). In other words, Ainge already has a lot of bullets to fire at high-risk targets without having to dip into his top producers to fill his revolver. The caveat worth putting on all of this is that Thomas, by most analytics, is a considerable defensive liability. Maybe the Celtics, who are as beholden to analytics as pretty much any organization this side of Houston, will decide that they have a ceiling that’s short of legitimate title contender so long as Thomas is going to be on the floor for two-thirds or three-fourths of a game. And if that’s the case, maybe Boston would be quietly open to deals involving Thomas. As for Jackson, it’s tough for me to find the upside in trading him when his value is almost certainly at its historic low. The Pistons expect him to come back as the player they saw in 2015-16 and in training camp last fall before being shut down to address left knee tendinosis. But other teams aren’t very likely to offer something in trade that returns equal value for that player until they see the evidence of it.
Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): Is there any scenario where SVG the team president would fire SVG the coach?
Langlois: In a word, no.
Dave (Ann Arbor, Mich.): I know this is a low point, but it’s very hard for me to see this team jelling in the future. Seems like the Grant Hill-Jerry Stackhouse-Christian Laettner era. Some talent, guys who can put up numbers, but not a contender-level group as a whole. The championship teams had leaders who wouldn’t tolerate half-hearted effort, which this bunch offers all too often. Really hard to watch.
Langlois: I didn’t get much “really hard to watch” last season with mostly the same group of players. Their problem isn’t half-hearted effort, though I get why that’s a brush that often gets used to paint teams going through anything approaching a prolonged malaise. The Pistons have been a poor to mediocre offensive team for the great majority of the season. I’d cite Reggie Jackson’s injury first and foremost to explain that result and there wouldn’t be any obvious candidate for second aside from poor shooting, which is also at least partly, if not largely, attributable to the absence of Jackson’s penetration and its effect on defenses. The byproducts of the frequent scoring droughts that their poor shooting engendered are frustration and diminished confidence – and those things often manifest themselves in that thing that’s hard to define but usually easy to spot: a lack of assertiveness. When you hear players say “they hit us in the mouth” or “they took it to us,” nine times out of 10 that’s what they’re saying. Last year, it was the Pistons in the role of aggressor more often than not; the table was turned this year. I don’t think it’s because their character changed, but their levels of confidence and frustration did.
Moe (@Gimme_SomeMO_): As deep as we are in cap space and commitment, what now after all the failed gambles this season? How do we get better?
Langlois: I’m not sure what gambles failed. They haven’t made a trade since the February 2016 deal that netted them Tobias Harris, which surely wasn’t a failure – and, given the cost in personnel and the time remaining they would have spent with the Pistons – not really a gamble, either. Their off-season last summer consisted of filling the two needs they identified, point guard and power forward. Ish Smith has given them everything they expected – more, given the expanded workload due to Reggie Jackson’s injury and subsequent struggles related to it – and so did Jon Leuer before the All-Star break. He’s struggled since then, largely tied to his shooting, but there’s no buyer’s remorse on either signing. How they get better is the question Stan Van Gundy and his staff will begin to address when the season ends, but let’s be clear about the impact of Jackson’s injury. The front office is going to press on every front for improvement: internal strides by players currently on the roster with the coaching staff fanning out across the country to guide workouts at home bases of players; honestly assessing the individual talent on the roster; evaluating NBA talent on the 29 other rosters to target for trade or free-agent pursuits; looking at potential help from players in professional leagues around the world; and gauging all of those evaluations with the compatibility of the roster foremost in mind.
Steven (@Steven_Welling): Since it’s clear this team needs some major changes to take the next step in the Eastern Conference, what do you think is the biggest priority in the off-season?
Langlois: Major changes? I’m not sure that will be the determination of Stan Van Gundy and his front office. If I had to guess, I’d say they’re going to prioritize shooting in the off-season. Does that mean they’ll need to trade or let go one of their main perimeter players – Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a restricted free agent) or Stanley Johnson – in order to open minutes or cap space? Or does Van Gundy have another path to better team shooting in mind, keeping in mind that a return to form from Reggie Jackson should only benefit perimeter shooting by giving them more space and time as Jackson pulls defenders toward him.
Detroit Sports (@DETsports_): Do you see us going point guard in the draft and trading Reggie Jackson in the off-season?
Langlois: They’re going to draft the best player as they see it, not completely without regard for position but largely without it, and that could be a point guard given the reported strength of that position in this draft. Keep in mind, though, that the Pistons are very unlikely to be picking in the top 10, where as many as five point guards are expected to be drafted. So a strategy to turn point guard over to the consensus sixth-best rookie point guard probably isn’t going to be Plan A for the Pistons. As for trading Jackson, that strikes me as highly improbable. Stan Van Gundy expressed his confidence this week that Jackson will be back as good as new, but it’s also improbable that any team would give the Pistons close to equal value – never mind a comparable point guard – until they see with their own eyes proof of Jackson’s status.
Cody (@iamcodyrowland): Anybody in the draft you’d like to see in a Pistons uniform next year?
Langlois: I don’t get to see nearly enough college basketball to be confident in my evaluations of players. I think the standard “best player available” fits the Pistons well this season, though, given their roster makeup. After the season ends, we’ll roll into draft coverage, including reports from the NBA draft combine in Chicago in May.
Luke (@LukeWolthuis): Do you think we should re-sign Baynes? He seems to be playing the best of the Pistons at the center position this year?
Langlois: Not the first time I’ve covered this ground, probably not the last. The Pistons cannot – as in, barred from doing so by the NBA collective bargaining agreement – offer Aron Baynes a contract with a first-year salary of more than 175 percent of his salary this season. That means that if Baynes ops out of the third year of his contract (a virtual certainty) and becomes an unrestricted free agent, the Pistons would be powerless to compete with any team that offers more than $11.375 million. Bismack Biyomobo got an $18 million annual average last season and Ian Mahimni a $16 million annual average, both in four-year deals.