Assessing how much stock to put the 7-3 Pistons start, chatter about Reggie Jackson and the Phoenix trade of Eric Bledsoe to Milwaukee, plus your favorite topic – Boban Marjanovic – in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Ryan (@_RyanKraus): Could this start continue, getting the Pistons to 15-5 or 14-6 at the quarter mark?
Langlois: Will the Pistons win at a .700 clip over the rest of the season? Doubtful. That transfers to 57 wins and the list of NBA teams that won 57 or more last season is Warriors and Spurs. That’s it. That’s the list. But signs that there’s some measure of validity to their start are apparent. Andre Drummond is thriving at both ends with Stan Van Gundy’s new styles of offense (more movement, Drummond as facilitator) and defense (more ball pressure, more emphasis on active hands). Reggie Jackson is much closer to 2015-16 form than 2016-17 coming off a knee injury. Stanley Johnson is blossoming into the player they’d hoped he’d be. Tobias Harris appears an improved and more confident perimeter shooter, setting up his off-the-dribble game even more. Avery Bradley’s impact on team defense and demeanor is palpable. And Van Gundy has a deep bench that he’s shown he’ll use. Beyond that, players talk frequently of the bond they’ve developed. Here’s Drummond from Monday: “We all like each other. That’s the best part about this team. We all want to see each other succeed and we all made different sacrifices to our games to better our team and it shows in our standings.”
Ben (@BoobHero): Is this defensive play style unlocking Andre Drummond’s potential at both ends of the floor?
Langlois: As mentioned above, he’s finding his niche on offense and, perhaps most encouragingly, very much embracing the altered role. He’s been more focused and energetic on defense, as well. At this point, you’d bet money that he’ll return to the All-Star game after missing out last season.
Craig (@CPBoogren): After watching the Bucks last Friday, they had to make a move. Your thoughts on the trade?
Langlois: Initial hunch: clear win for the Bucks. Next thought: How does Jason Kidd maximize what Eric Bledsoe offers without dimming Malcolm Brogdon’s light? I suspect Bledsoe takes Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes but he’ll take more than that. Will he also take some of Tony Snell’s minutes? Could Bledsoe and Brogdon play a lot of overlapping minutes? That could be a weapon, but there will be a learning curve. Phoenix gets 70-some games with Greg Monroe, so the real prize is a lottery-protected first-rounder. That’s a pretty easy price to pay for the Bucks, I would think. It’s about as close to a can’t-lose deal for them as it gets.
Deviaire (Pontiac, Mich.): I’ve seen the trade rumors for Eric Bledsoe, but he doesn’t fit. He can’t shoot the three, but his quickness allows kick outs on the pick and roll and his defense doesn’t expose Andre Drummond’s inability to protect the paint as much as Reggie Jackson’s does. Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and Avery Bradley have been shooting well, so could we see Reggie and a pick maybe for Bledsoe? Also, can we see Boban Marjanovic and Jon Leuer for Jonas Valanciunas? I would take Tyson Chandler as a defensive presence, but Valanciunas is younger and Leuer’s play, except for better defense, doesn’t warrant his contract.
Langlois: Stan Van Gundy debunked the trade rumors involving Jackson last week, for what it’s worth, and Bledsoe was since traded to Milwaukee. I would have expected most teams to at least kick the tires on Bledsoe, given the fact that he’s a very good player and Phoenix put itself at a disadvantageous negotiating position by effectively banishing him. But it would seem an odd time, with the Pistons off to a 7-3 start and Jackson showing strong indications he’s on track to return to his 2015-16 pre-injury levels, to roll the dice. As I’ve written, Jackson and Bledsoe were comparable players that season and should be again. To attach what the Pistons probably would have been required to add to make a trade with those two at the heart of it – and I’m guessing a No. 1 pick or Luke Kennard or Stanley Johnson would have been Phoenix’s ask – simply to swap point guards and get off of one season of fairly comparable contracts seems a stretch. If Toronto trades Valanciunas, it would be for greater cap relief than your trade suggests, I’m guessing.
LOQuent (@LOQuent): Do you think that part of why the Pistons are winning is because they’re being underestimated by opposing teams and their defensive schemes?
Langlois: No, not really. It’s the NBA. Getting caught off guard happens once in a while, I suppose, but I’m not seeing who might have underestimated them. The Clippers when they were undefeated? Maybe. The Warriors should have been ready for them the next night, though, because of the way they came back to knock off the Clippers. The NBA is a small world. Players have crossed paths with most guys on other rosters at some point. They know that every NBA team is loaded with some of the world’s best players. These guys have all gone through college (or international professional basketball) and seen talented players in Summer League and pro-am tournaments who don’t even get to the NBA. Nobody is really surprised when any collection of NBA players, on a given night, beats anyone – from the Warriors on down. Now, sometimes teams over the course of 82 games have fluctuating intensity levels, and it stands to reason a given team’s intensity will be ratcheted up when the league’s marquee teams – powerhouses like Golden State, Cleveland, San Antonio, et al – roll into town. It can be hit or miss, otherwise, and is influenced by situation – back to backs, travel rigors, aches and pains, etc.
Paul (Masterton, Alaska): Curious to know why Stan Van Gundy hasn’t played Boban this season. I seem to remember him saying he would be in the rotation a lot more. Why is this?
Langlois: He played him a few times, notably at New York, and he had his hands full trying to guard Kyle O’Quinn. It was a very small sample size, granted, but it served to reinforce the worst fears of playing him. And on a team with numerous options, the margins for error are pretty thin this season. But, hey, let’s not write Boban Marjanovic off just yet. Stan Van Gundy knows what he has and he’ll find a spot over the course of the season’s final 72 games to use him. His pinch-hitting job against Charlotte last season when Aron Baynes was hurt (15 points, 19 rebounds in 22 minutes) made an impression, as did his production in the season’s final four games. The flip side is the game is increasingly becoming unfriendly toward players who lack lateral mobility. To a lesser degree, it’s the same challenge facing Henry Ellenson as he sits on the fringe of Van Gundy’s rotation. Both players are offensive marvels. They don’t have to grow into star – or even average, perhaps – defenders. But they have to hold their own.
Tim (Battle Creek, Mich.): Does it look like Eric Moreland is the official backup for Andre Drummond? If Stan Van Gundy is all in on defense, it seems like a no-brainer. (No offense to Jon Leuer, but Moreland has the physical skills needed.)
Langlois: All three of Stan Van Gundy’s options to use when Andre Drummond sits – Eric Moreland, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic – offer something different. And Van Gundy, more than any previous season, will use the player he feels gives him the best matchup on a given night. Leuer also is a plus defensively, especially against more perimeter-oriented centers – an increasingly common skill set among today’s wave of big men coming off the bench.
Mike (Detroit): Reggie Jackson needs to be traded. Stan Van Gundy needs to utilize the whole team, even the bench players getting paid to sit and not to play.
Langlois: We’re 10 games into the season and all 14 players on the roster have had a turn in the rotation with games on the line. Without poring over every roster and box score, I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been a time in this century where that’s happened for the Pistons. Not sure what you might expect. As for Jackson needing to be traded, nah. He’s the starting point guard for a 7-3 team. That might not make him untouchable, but it surely doesn’t qualify him for a fire sale.
Peter (Jackson, Mich.): Would you agree that the Pistons have a problem at the backup center position? Jon Leuer is getting abused and cannot seem to find his shot. Stan Van Gundy does not seem to trust Boban Marjanovic and has not played Moreland extended minutes. Andre Drummond’s minutes count is too high to be sustainable. What is the solution?
Langlois: I would not agree. If Leuer had hit a handful of mid-range and closer shots, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I suspect your assessment that Leuer is “getting abused” was motivated by the issues he had staying with Julius Randle of the Lakers last week. He’s generally a very good defender with size and mobility. Teams are going to have to adjust to Randle, who’s not really a center but is playing the position for the Lakers second unit. I suspect the next time the Pistons play the Lakers, Stan Van Gundy will guard him with Anthony Tolliver or even Stanley Johnson. Your question came in before the weekend sweep of the Bucks and Kings when Leuer sat out with a sprained ankle and Moreland filled in well, helping spark the comeback from an early nine-point deficit against Milwaukee. And I don’t think Drummond’s minutes are alarming. He’s averaging 32.7 minutes a game. What’s the worry? He averaged 32.9 two years ago. He’s 24 years old and, he says, in the best shape of his career.
Andrew (@Katona32): Coming from a fellow Negaunee Miner, is Andre’s free-throw shooting a fluke or here to stay?
Langlois: Let’s hope Negaunee’s basketball season goes better than its football season, right? As for Andre Drummond’s free-throw shooting, I’ll vote for “here to stay.” He might not hit 75 percent for the season, as he’s done through 10 games, but he’s not going back to 38 percent, either. As Fivethirtyeight.com posted this week, the odds of a career 38 percent foul shooter making 30 of his first 40 free throws are 459,000 to 1. So either Andre Drummond got outrageously lucky or his new approach to shooting free throws has taken root. I’ll vote for the latter.
Aidan (@arasharp69): How impactful is the new NBA/G League swing contract on developing players like Luke Kennard and Henry Ellenson?
Langlois: Little to not at all. I assume you’re talking about the two-way contracts, of which NBA teams can hold two at a time. The Pistons have Luis Montero and Dwight Buycks on two-way deals, so they’ll spend the bulk of their time with the Grand Rapids Drive. Kennard and Ellenson both played one game for the Drive, Sunday, and returned immediately to the Pistons. While Kennard and Ellenson are with the Drive, their development takes precedence so they’ll get minutes and be put in situations that allow them to work on the things Stan Van Gundy wants them to hone. As he said on Monday, that’s Kennard playing at a higher pace and for Ellenson it’s working on his defense.
Steven (@steven_welling): The Pistons seem to be one of the only teams with top draft picks barely getting any playing time (Ellenson and Kennard). Why is that?
Langlois: Haven’t done a deep dive to compare playing time for rookies and sophomores, but everybody’s situation is different. Ellenson is fighting for minutes with veterans like Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver and right now their defense gives them the edge. Ellenson has the highest offensive ceiling of the group, but he’s 20 and came to the NBA with everyone acknowledging he needed greater strength and time to work on his lateral mobility. Kennard is jockeying with Reggie Bullock and Langston Galloway for one, sometimes two, spots in the rotation. Like Ellenson, his upside is greatest, but he’s also finding his way in certain areas.