Wins over the Clippers and Warriors to start their road trip, Tobias Harris’ scoring, Stanley Johnson’s defense and why Luke Kennard isn’t playing are among the hot topics in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Alex (@aproffitt23): Are the Pistons really this good?
Langlois: Are they better than Golden State? Well, for one night they were. They had a really good week and a really road trip that came up one game short of spectacular with Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers to wrap it up. Along the way, a number of encouraging signs emerged. Will it hold up over 82 games? There surely are going to be ups and downs, but there are reasons to believe the Pistons are going to have more good stretches than bad. They’ve got depth on their side, they’re a better defensive team than they’ve been and their offense is a little less vulnerable to prolonged droughts because it’s less dependent on one player (Reggie Jackson) or one action (pick and roll) than they’ve been in recent seasons. But they’re adapting to new styles on both ends – more movement and sharing of the ball on offense, more ball pressure on defense – and it’ll take some time before all of that becomes second nature to them.
Jando (@lejandrotho): What’s more likely to come back to haunt us later: relying on Anthony Tolliver so much or Tobias Harris coming back to earth stat-wise?
Langlois: Neither? I wouldn’t say the Pistons are overly reliant on Tolliver. He’s not a staple of their rotation, but a guy who has the fairly rare ability to play to his capacity while not having a defined role. He’s helped the Pistons to two big road wins – at New York and the Los Angeles Clippers – in games where he wasn’t part of the rotation to start the night. The same pattern unfolded in Tuesday’s loss to the Lakers, where Henry Ellenson had difficulty with his defensive matchup in the first half and Stan Van Gundy went to Tolliver for the rest of the game. Harris isn’t going to shoot nearly 50 percent from the 3-point line, in all likelihood, but there’s a pretty decent chance he beats his previous career high for a season (.364) because this figures to be the year where he has the most opportunities as a primary scoring option – that coupled with the work he’s put in and the summer he’s coming off of where he especially focused on 3-point shooting.
Tom (Lebanon, Ohio): I’d like to know why Luke Kennard is inactive lately? Is he injured or is Stan Van Gundy sending a message.
Langlois: No, he’s not injured and, no, Stan Van Gundy isn’t engaging in back-channel communications with his rookie. It’s a numbers game. Reggie Bullock’s return gave Van Gundy three backup wings behind starters Avery Bradley and Stanley Johnson. Langston Galloway, at this point, is a more potent 3-point threat than Kennard and that’s a valued commodity coming off the bench. Bullock, though he hasn’t shown it yet, is an even better 3-point shooter, a better defender and someone who helps the offense with his cutting and passing. Kennard has a bright future. He’s got a chance to become a serious scoring threat. Like pretty much all rookies, he faces challenges in other areas of the game, defense foremost. The NBA is to college basketball as calculus is to algebra. It takes a while to become proficient at the more advanced stages of the same discipline. Galloway had four years of college and three prior years of NBA experience – scores of practices, time in the D-League, more than 200 NBA games worth of head start on Kennard. Bullock had three years at North Carolina and four years in the NBA. To expect Kennard to arrive in the NBA as a more complete and better player than those two underestimates the talent pool and the challenge of adjusting to what is essentially a different game. Kennard has shown Van Gundy plenty since the Pistons drafted him. He’s bullish on his future. But right now his belief is that Galloway and Bullock can do more to produce wins. The margins are razor thin and the situation could change in a week or a month. But the line between playing and not playing has to fall somewhere and, for now, it falls between Bullock and Galloway on one side and Kennard on the other.
Nick (Brisbane, Australia): I’m really enjoying the way we are playing this year with the first unit using a lot more ball movement and dribble handoffs from Andre and the second unit pushing the pace with Ish and always with a lot of shooters on the floor. Did Stan Van Gundy decide over the off-season to make a significant change in the offense or did this play out over training camp? On another topic, do you think Stanley Johnson can push for NBA All-Defense honors this year?
Langlois: He made the decision to diversify the offense after the roster was set and he saw what he had, but it wasn’t quite a random occurrence that he wound up with a roster better equipped for that style of play. It probably was something he was going to do even if Reggie Jackson hadn’t been hurt last year and the effect of their bread-and-butter option – the Jackson-Andre Drummond pick and roll – was diminished. Van Gundy said immediately after last season’s conclusion that a primary off-season goal was to add secondary ballhandlers to take some of the stress of creating offense off of Jackson and Ish Smith. Avery Bradley, Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard are all capable of doing so. More playing time for Reggie Bullock, whose passing and cutting achieves the same end, furthers the cause. Henry Ellenson can play a role in that, too, for his ability to make plays off the dribble at power forward. The subtraction of Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also shaped Van Gundy’s decision. Morris’ forte was isolations and post-ups; without him, the Pistons had to find something else. Caldwell-Pope was a catch-and-shoot guy whom they ran off lots of screens, but not someone who put the ball on the floor much to create plays. So it came down to Van Gundy (a) seeing a need to become less dependent on his point guards and (b) after finding the personnel to help him achieve that end, tailoring an offense to suit the strengths of a new cast. As for Johnson’s All-Defense chances, if he plays to that level – and that’s probably a stretch for a first-year starter who’s 21 years old – it usually takes at least a season, probably more, for his reputation to catch up with his performance. But the eye test says he’s already making the Pistons a better defensive team. I was asked before the season more than once who the Pistons breakout player would be and my answer was always that it had better be Johnson. They need him to build off of his promising rookie season and, so far, he’s doing just that. There are still going to be fits and starts on the offensive end, but my prediction is that by the end of the season the Pistons will feel they’ve got a long-term answer on the wing in Johnson. Take away Johnson’s dreadful 0 for 13 shooting night in the opener and he’s shooting 47 percent for the season and 41 percent from the 3-point line.
Bob (Albany, Oregon): After a good off-season, it’s nice to get back to NBA action. It’s great to see Henry Ellenson getting minutes. His size and skill set balances the rotation. Getting him at 18 was an absolute windfall. Tobias Harris looks like a go-to scorer. Andre Drummond making free throws should be worth about 10 more wins. Now if they can just eliminate those 20-point deficits.
Langlois: As an aside, always amazed to see how Pistons fans are spread out across the country and, indeed, the globe. I’m sure there’s a story behind your Pistons fandom as an Oregonian, Bob. Ellenson, much like Luke Kennard, is a guy I can see scoring 15-plus points a game in the near future. It really comes down to how well they master the nuances of the game – in large part, on the defensive end – so that Van Gundy feels comfortable playing them the minutes it takes to get to that level of scoring. We caught a glimpse of Van Gundy’s hesitance with Ellenson on Tuesday when, to start the second quarter, he had difficulty matching up with either Lakers frontcourt player, Kyle Kuzma or Julius Randle. But those situations are becoming a little fewer and farther between for Ellenson. His draft class looks like it’s going to be one of the best of its generation. If you noticed that Ellenson didn’t play at Golden State a few days after Stan Van Gundy said he was going to play every night, he explained later that it was entirely due to the unique nature of the opponent. “I had a feeling based on how Steve (Kerr) normally plays it that it would be tough (for Ellenson),” he said. “There are some times they play with a more traditional four, but not very often. And it wasn’t so much even a quickness issue; it was more an experience issue. The way Golden State plays is a little bit different and (Anthony Tolliver) has seen it a lot more. A lot more familiar with it.” As for Harris, yes, I think he’s going to lead the team in scoring ahead of Reggie Jackson, who’s growing comfortable in picking his spots and getting off the ball more than he did during his outstanding 2015-16 season. This is in keeping with the newly diversified offense, as discussed in my answer to Nick’s question.
Buk (Bangkok, Thailand): It seems the Pistons offense is best when Tobias Harris is featured. Do you think we’ll see him get close to 20 shots per game moving forward?
Langlois: Twenty is a lot of shots. There were three players last season – three – who averaged at least 20 shots per game: Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan and Anthony Davis. There were only 18 that averaged 18 or more shots. I’d guess Harris will settle in somewhere around 16 shots a game and there were only 25 who averaged that many last season.
Spooner (@KingSpooner): Jon Leuer played only seven minutes against the Warriors, none in the second half. Are his days in the rotation numbered or was it a one-game instance?
Langlois: I’ll vote for a one-game instance. Leuer started to lose confidence in his perimeter shot in the final two months last season. Whether that affected the rest of his game or – as Stan Van Gundy suggested – Leuer wore down after already exceeding his previous career high in minutes by the All-Star break, who knows? The shot has still been an issue this season, but Leuer has done what Stan Van Gundy wants from him otherwise, though he, like Henry Ellenson, struggled to guard Julius Randle – as a lot of people have this year in Randle’s new role as second-unit center. When Leuer’s at center, where he’s played most of his minutes so far, he gives the Pistons a different look.
Ari (@AriHoopsWagner): Am I the only one who thinks there’s a “spooky” curse on Reggie Jackson that can only be lifted if he allows the No. 1 to be retired forever?
Langlois: No, you’re not the only one. There’s a segment of Pistons fans for whom this is an obsession. I’m not one of them. A number is a number to me. Chauncey Billups had his No. 1 jersey retired after Jackson had already joined the Pistons and been wearing it for a year. When Jackson leaves the Pistons, the number won’t be issued again.
Harry (Farmington Hills, Mich.): Wondering why Pistons fans haven’t embraced Little Caesars Arena yet? Embarrassing crowds so far. Your thoughts?
Langlois: I haven’t done any research, so this is all speculation. Start with the fact that the attendance is about on par with what it was last season at The Palace so far. Anecdotally, there appears to be a large number of fans who go to the game and spend their time in the bars and restaurants inside the arena, or roaming the unique concourse. I saw a picture taken of the crowd at the start of the Red Wings game on Tuesday night and there were a sea of empty red seats for them, too. So maybe it really is the case that folks are still caught up in seeing all the bells and whistles of the new arena for now. Apart from that, I’m sure there was a significant percentage of the fan base for which the move 30-plus miles south was a deal breaker. The reality is the Pistons have moved closer to the geographic center of the metropolitan area, but the immediate result might be that you lose more fans through the gates than you pick up. It might take a while for fans from Downriver, western Wayne County, the east side and Windsor and other parts of Ontario to warm up to a Pistons arena experience that – because of the distance to Auburn Hills and Pontiac before that – hasn’t been part of their world for 40 years. Winning is the biggest draw, of course, and if the Pistons sustain the momentum from their 5-3 start they’ll naturally start to attract more fans, which would have been true if they were still at The Palace, as well.