Take Luke Kennard or Donovan Mitchell? Trade the 12th pick for veteran help? The draft starts us off in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Posa (@JustPosa): Who besides Kennard do you think the Pistons like?
Langlois: There’s not really a “like” and “dislike” pile. I suspect they find much attractive about Duke’s Luke Kennard and several other prospects, but nobody outside the walls of 6 Championship Drive has any real notion which players the Pistons prefer relative to the field. When you pick 12th, you don’t expect to be able to draft anyone you’d rank in the top seven or eight players. The Pistons had the 18th pick last season and wound up getting Henry Ellenson, a player they rated 10th. It’s one thing to have the 35th pick and wind up with a player you have rated eight spots higher, but I doubt many teams picking in the top 20 wind up getting that sort of value. When you’re picking 12th, it’s even less likely you’ll beat your spot by more than a couple of picks. So let’s start with that. The Pistons would be thrilled, I’m sure, to come away with a player they rank 10th this year even though they’re picking six spots higher than a year ago. Under Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower, the Pistons put their draft board together in the 48-72 hours before the draft. I suspect they have a pretty decent idea of the players they expect to be gone before the 12th pick even today. In the first wave would be Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum and, perhaps, one or two more. There’s about a 99 percent certainty, based on everything we know today, that all of them will be gone before the Pistons pick. There’s another group that includes Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox, Jonathan Isaac, Lauri Markkanen and Dennis Smith that is only slightly less certain to be picked. Then comes a group headed by Zach Collins and Frank Ntilikina. If you asked me to pick the 11 guys to be taken ahead of the Pistons, those are the names I’d give you. But now you get into a grayer area where the pool deepens and differences of opinion on players will vary more from one organization to another. If Dallas, picking ninth, or Sacramento (10th) or Charlotte (11th) loves a player that’s 14th or 15th on the Pistons board, that wouldn’t be a shocker. I know that doesn’t really answer your question, but it sounds better than “I don’t know and neither does anyone else.”
Adam (@AT_Niner_Niner): The Pistons aren’t really thinking about drafting a third-string point guard in Mitchell with the 12th pick, right?
Langlois: If they draft a point guard with the 12th pick, it’s certainly possible (likely?) that he’d be the No. 3 point guard next season behind Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. But it’s certain that the Pistons would view that player as someone with starting potential and the ability to crack the rotation within a few seasons. When you’re picking 12th, that’s pretty much the high end of reasonable expectations. You hope you’re getting a star, but history says the odds favor something a rung or two below that level. As for Donovan Mitchell specifically, it will be interesting to see how teams view him. He’s played shooting guard primarily, almost exclusively, but there’s enough there to believe that he could develop into, at worst, a serviceable option at point guard who could provide a second ballhandler next to the point guard as his primary role. If Mitchell can become more than that – a full-time point guard capable of starting – well, then you’re really talking value with the 12th pick given his potential as a shooter/scorer and high-level defender.
Al (Wolverine Lake, Mich.): Saw a report this week that says the Pistons are willing to deal the No. 12 pick. Do you believe that is the case?
Langlois: It would not come as even a mild surprise if the Pistons were to deal the pick. The surprise would be if they weren’t willing to engage those who called to ask about the availability of the No. 12 pick. Stan Van Gundy already traded his 2016 first-round pick, getting it back when the deal with Houston for Donatas Montieujunas was rescinded. At the time, he said the Pistons didn’t really need another teenager to develop. That’s even truer now after adding Henry Ellenson last year. They showed in 2015-16 that they have a playoff roster when healthy. It would be unreasonable to anticipate the 12th pick this June making an impact in 2016-17. That doesn’t mean they’re going to take 50 cents on the dollar for the pick, but if they can get someone they fully expect to come in and give the offense a boost – and if they don’t think anyone left at 12 is likely to develop into an impact player – then, sure, they’re open for business. It would surprise me, not shock me, if they were to do the deal before draft night, though. There’s always the chance someone you value highly falls unexpectedly.
Tony (Warren, Mich.): If Andre Drummond does not improve his free-throw shooting, are the Pistons better served using him as a cleanup player on offense rather than a pick-and-roll focal point?
Langlois: I don’t think there’s a great deal of separation between those options. Using Drummond to set screens and roll to the rim without the ball puts him in a position to (a) receive lobs and (b) grab offensive rebounds in the likelier case that he pulls defenders toward him and creates scoring chances for others. The greater question is if the Pistons limit Drummond’s post touches or if Drummond develops a quick trigger in his decision making for fear of drawing the foul if his foul shooting doesn’t tick up. That wasn’t the case last season, though Drummond’s foul shooting was better than his career norms for the first two-thirds of the season before crashing after the All-Star break. Stan Van Gundy said after the season that it would again be an issue to address over the off-season, so their focus is on drawing out improvement from Drummond. That doesn’t mean they won’t put thought into how to adjust if no improvement at the line comes.
Zach (@zgarrow20): Which of the 18 power forwards on the roster do you think will be back next season?
Langlois: Rick Mahorn, Earl Cureton, Sidney Green, Orlando Woolridge, Terry Mills, Otis Thorpe, Grant Long, Don Reid, Jerome Williams, Loy Vaught, Christian Laettner, Cliff Robinson, Rasheed Wallace, Antonio McDyess, Amir Johnson, Jason Maxiell, Jonas Jerebko and Charlie Villanueva.
Timothy (Grand Rapids, Mich.): My favorite Piston is Stanley Johnson. I love his confidence and his drive to be the best ever. I want to buy a jersey, but with his lack of production in year two I don’t know if he will be here long term. Should I invest?
Langlois: If the bar for buying a jersey is going to be set at “they’re never trading that guy,” then the NBA would print about a dozen jerseys across the league every season. Between trades and free agency, player movement is robust. That’s more the norm than the exception. Churning might be especially active among lottery teams, but even playoff teams short of elite are usually either looking to add the next piece or retrench and start over. I would not expect Stanley Johnson to be moved this summer for a few reasons. He just turned 21 and the Pistons knew when they drafted him that he needed skills development in order to allow his physical gifts to be exploited. A player on a rookie contract with room for growth is an asset. But Johnson’s depressed production last season had to have a negative effect on his trade value, so on the face of it he’s worth more to the Pistons than he’s likely to fetch in trade this year. Bottom line: Go buy your jersey, Timothy.
Ryan (Aliso Viejo, Calif.): Any updates on Reggie Jackson’s knee? Is he 100 percent now?
Langlois: Jackson reported no pain in his knee after returning from injury and Stan Van Gundy said Pistons medical staffers gave Jackson a clean bill of health long ago. Whether it was Jackson lacking confidence in his knee or losing a half-step in explosiveness due to not being able to partake in conditioning or strength training while he recovered or something else entirely, he never performed at 2015-16 levels for anything close to a sustained period last season. And as improvement failed to occur, it appeared – based on statements from Jackson and from Van Gundy late in and following the season – it became a psychological burden that further affected performance. Both Jackson and Van Gundy expressed confidence that an adjusted off-season training regimen and a fresh start will have Jackson back to previous levels in the coming season.
Josh (Ferndale, Mich.): The NBA is a star’s league and you need multiple superstars in today’s era just to be relevant at all (see Cleveland and Golden State). Shouldn’t the Pistons trade away any assets for picks and tank the next few seasons for top-three picks if they want to compete?
Langlois: It’s been a minute since Mailbag was assaulted with suggestions that tanking was the proper course for the Pistons. Here’s a question: If all teams without multiple superstars were to adopt your approach – and Cleveland and Golden State is pretty much the list – then which teams do you think would be handing over picks with a fiddler’s chance of landing in the top three? I mean, if 28 teams are going into tank mode, where are the trade partners coming from? Even if you allow for the possibility that teams on that next tier – Houston, San Antonio, Utah, Boston, Toronto, perhaps one or two more – fancy themselves contenders, that still means more than two-thirds of the league would be in sell mode. And that wouldn’t make for much of a seller’s market. If Stan Van Gundy saw the potential for trading for a top-three pick or two – in this draft or any other – I suspect he’d be willing to engage in trade talks. And if you’re saying the Pistons should tank so hard they get their own top-three picks, cite all the teams who’ve won championships after adopting that philosophy. I’ll hang up and listen. The problem is, even if you out-tank the tankers and finish with the league’s worst record, you’ve got a 25 percent shot at the top pick. There are plenty of seasons where landing the No. 1 pick doesn’t net you a player that automatically changes the course of the franchise. And – again – you first need to out-tank everyone and then hope for a 1 in 4 shot at the top pick. The reality is you probably need incredible luck in three lotteries to have the nucleus of a championship team. The Seattle/Oklahoma City example comes to mind: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden. For as much potential as that core held, the Thunder have zero championships and one remaining core player to show for it.
Luke (@WolthuisLuke): Do you think the starting lineup needs some tweaks? Also, what starting lineup would you prefer?
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy said as much as the season was winding down and has reaffirmed his desire to make a move or two if the Pistons can find the right trade partner. I don’t think there’d be a sense of despair if they can’t do anything significant with the current roster, but that’s another question. I think the moves they make will be ones designed to bolster their offense and, likely, do so by adding some proven shooting. The difficulty with that idea is that the Pistons hardly will be alone in their pursuit of better shooting. That’s probably the thing most teams would list as their primary off-season desire – unless it’s defenders capable of guarding multiple perimeter positions and making it more difficult to launch open 3-point shots. I don’t see a lot of wiggle room in the roster when you’re pondering the starting lineup as it exists. Reggie Jackson (the healthy version) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are clearly the best options in the backcourt, Andre Drummond at center and Marcus Morris at small forward. Tobias Harris belongs in any list of the best five Pistons, but he was exceptionally productive off the bench and might prove too valuable there to remove from the second unit. But that requires Jon Leuer to play like he did before the All-Star break so the first unit isn’t consistently handing the bench a deficit to make up. If those decisions get tougher because Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson, to cite two examples, elevate their levels of play, so much the better. If you’re going to pick players with the greatest chance to make a greater impact next season, those are the two.
Chris (Auburn Hills, Mich.): We need to play like the “form a wall” Pistons again.
Langlois: Yes. It was the most magical 0.1 second in Pistons history.