What the future beyond this season could hold for the Pistons, a dive into Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic’s roles and a Little Caesars Arena review get put on the front burner in this week’s edition of Pistons Mailbag
Tyler (@T_Harb23): If this season doesn’t go well, could we possibly see SVG go and have a rebuild with this team?
Langlois: Sure. You can apply that logic to … what, two-thirds of the league? When you project a season that “doesn’t go well,” what you’re really saying is a season that fails to meet expectations. Last season failed to meet expectations for the Pistons after they made the playoffs in 2015-16; subsequently, there was some reworking of the roster – most significantly, trading Marcus Morris for Avery Bradley and eliminating the need to make a decision on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that would have deepened a commitment to the 2015-17 core. Before camp started, Anthony Tolliver told me that he sensed a heightened maturity from the teammates he returned to after a year spent in Sacramento and, part of that, he said, was the realization that if they don’t rebound from last season there would be a lot of change around the Pistons. I think that’s fair and accurate. Unless there’s a compelling reason to explain a failure to meet expectations – as last year’s injury to Reggie Jackson was a defining incident – then it’s probable the Pistons will make more radical changes to the roster. But, again, that’s a lot of teams. As for what those expectations are, I think it starts with making the playoffs. After that, it really depends on whether the sense is they are on an upward trajectory or have maxed out.
David (Potomac, Md.): We have heard a lot from Stan about continuing to be tough on players but backing off on the condescending yelling and screaming. So after Eric Moreland put in a phenomenal game but missed one play, Stan yanks and screams at him. Stan later said he regretted it. Is Stan changing or not and how does this impact the team? Seems Stan expects his players to “improve each year” but he won’t or can’t.
Langlois: Let’s start by clearing up a few things. It wasn’t “after” Moreland put in a phenomenal game – 13 rebounds in 21 minutes – it was during the first half of the game when the Pistons surrendered a rebound because Moreland was guarding the wrong guy. After Van Gundy told him which player to guard while a foul shot was being taken seconds before the layup was sacrificed. And “yelling and screaming” is a little dramatic. He clearly and vociferously let Moreland know that he’d just committed an unpardonable sin – it’s one thing to blow an assignment out of confusion, quite another to not follow the most basic directive seconds later – and they moved on. Van Gundy talked to him before the next practice, Sunday, to let Moreland know that he didn’t want that to be his takeaway of Van Gundy’s impression of his play. I talked to Moreland after Friday’s game. He gave no evidence that Van Gundy’s admonition had dampened his enthusiasm or scarred him. Not all coaches would have reacted as forcefully as Van Gundy – though a good deal many would have – but even fewer would have gone to him later and cleared up any potential misunderstanding. If you’re concerned the Moreland-Van Gundy interchange portends tension brewing on a larger scale, you can relax.
Badboysremix (@badboysremix): Are Boban and Moreland competing for the same minutes? It’s starting to look like it.
Langlois: Almost certainly. Boban Marjanovic is a center and nothing but a center. On a roster with plenty of versatility, he’s not one who’ll play multiple positions. Moreland, I suppose, could play a little power forward because he’s a very mobile defender with great feet. But if he’s at power forward, it would have to be next to a center who thrives playing on the perimeter. That’s not Boban. Both have done well in preseason, but it still could be that they wind up No. 3 and 4 at center behind Andre Drummond and Jon Leuer. While Stan Van Gundy said he didn’t have a depth chart coming into the season – his way of saying he had no preconceived notions on how his rotation would play out – it’s fair to say at center it went close to this: 1-Drummond; 2a-Leuer; 2-b Marjanovic; 3-Moreland. Drummond is virtually guaranteed to get 30 to 34 minutes a game. The rest are up in the air at this point. I think Moreland has made himself a viable option, though I’d still rank him behind Leuer and Marjanovic going into the regular season. One injury and one opportunity could change the equation overnight.
Darrell (Detroit): There seems to be a push to move Stanley Johnson into the starting lineup at small forward. But I believe the Pistons would be best served by starting Tobias Harris at small forward. There’s too much of a logjam at power forward, which means either Jon Leuer or Henry Ellenson – both of whom are more talented than Johnson at this point – will see very few minutes if Harris starts at power forward. By starting Leuer and Harris, this would allow Ellenson and Johnson to consume 18 to 20 minutes as backups. Ellenson is the best reserve on the team and I believe the Pistons do themselves a disservice by giving Ellenson’s minutes to makeshift small forwards in Bullock, Galloway and Bradley. I understand SVG’s thoughts on wing players, but there is still something to be said for traditional roles and using size to one’s benefit. Excuse the cliché, but it’ll always hold true – you can’t teach size. More often than not, talent and size beats talent and undersized.
Langlois: Harris and Ellenson are better pure scorers than Johnson at this point. Johnson is undeniably the best defender of the three and the gap between Johnson and Ellenson isn’t particularly close. Van Gundy has determined Johnson’s primary role this season will be to guard the opposition’s best forward. The easiest way to get that done is for Johnson to start since, almost certainly, the opposition’s best forward will be a starter. Harris, Van Gundy said, is in more of a comfort zone at power forward, though I think that’s primarily on offense where he usually gets the ball in the middle of the floor, up top, with space to operate against often slower defenders. Harris is likely to play minutes at both forward spots, possibly in nearly equal amounts. Some of that will be determined by who else makes the cut in Van Gundy’s rotation. If, for instance, two of Jon Leuer and Anthony Tolliver or Ellenson are in the rotation, then Harris will have to play some at small forward. If Reggie Bullock or Luke Kennard are in the rotation, some of their minutes could come at small forward and that could keep Harris primarily at power forward. You’re right that good and big beats good and small, but players who combine size with some combination of great skill and athleticism are rare. It’s why every lineup with LeBron James or Kevin Durant in it works. There just aren’t many of those guys. So it’s almost always a tradeoff: Do you give up size for athleticism/skill, or give up athleticism/skill for size? For what it’s worth, through the first three preseason games Johnson sported the highest net rating of all Pistons players at 29.2, ahead of Ish Smith in second place.
Travis (@TBritko): Do you expect Reggie and Dre to mesh better this year, especially on pick and rolls?
Langlois: Assuming Jackson is back – and there were only positive indications in his return Monday, amplified by the fact he felt good enough to play Tuesday, as well – then I would expect them to pick up where they left off in 2015-16, when they formed one of the most effective pick-and-roll combinations in the NBA. I don’t think it was ever about “mesh” with them when it tailed off last year; it was all about Jackson lacking the strength and explosion in his legs after returning from a knee injury that idled him for two months. It might take a minute for them to reignite their chemistry given that Tuesday’s game at Toronto was their first time playing together in a game since last spring, but there’s no reason to think they won’t rediscover it as quickly as they found it when Jackson joined the team in February 2015.
Sridhar (San Francisco): I love SVG but have become frustrated with the nine-man rotation. What other NBA coaches stick to nine-man rotations?
Langlois: Without doing a deep dive, I’d guess Van Gundy is still in the majority of coaches who prefer a fairly established rotation. And even among the ones a little more willing to tinker or expand the rotation, the differences aren’t profound. Van Gundy has talked often over the summer and into training camp about being more flexible this season, but here’s what that really means: determining who his top seven or eight players are and playing them the majority of the minutes and then sprinkling in a ninth, 10th or 11th player based on the needs for that game, that night. But injuries often wind up making decisions for a coach. We’ve certainly seen that be the case for the Pistons in the preseason, where Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and Avery Bradley have all missed two of the first four games.
Jason (Adelaide, Australia): I think the Pistons do a great job engaging us fans with their social media, the great articles written by you, Keith, regular videos, the Wired podcasts, etc. But it is disappointing from an overseas fan of the team who pays for League Pass to watch all of the Pistons games to not have Pistons preseason games shown on League Pass. Why do some teams have their preseason games shown on League Pass and others like the Pistons do not?
Langlois: There’s no dark secret here, Jason. If one of the two competing teams is airing the game, then League Pass will pick it up. But it’s not unusual in preseason for neither team’s regional sports carrier – in the case of the Pistons, Fox Sports Detroit – to air the game. So it’s not available for League Pass to pick up. Tuesday’s game at Toronto was available via League Pass because the Raptors local TV carrier, TSN, aired the game.
Jason (Hamtramck, Mich.): Last Sunday, Little Caesars Arena hosted a WWE event but then was used by the Pistons on Monday. How did everyone change the arena from a wrestling to a basketball venue within 24 hours? Also, what is the difference between the new Little Caesars Arena compared to The Palace of Auburn Hills?
Langlois: I’m not an expert on the conversion of a facility from one purpose to another, but I don’t suspect that was a tough changeover. Moving from hockey to basketball – which LCA and many other arenas must undergo routinely during their NBA and NHL overlapping seasons – is a tougher chore. Because the ice surface is considerably larger than a basketball court, seating configurations must be significantly adapted. But they plan accordingly to accommodate the transition. I’ve been in Staples Center in Los Angeles on weekends where they’ll host a Saturday matinee basketball Lakers or Clippers basketball game, a Saturday evening Kings hockey game and switch back for another NBA game the following day. I’ve been there when they’ve hosted a Sunday matinee Clippers basketball game (that went to double overtime) with a 12:30 p.m. tip and then a 6:30 tipoff for the Lakers. And, keep in mind, they have to put down a new basketball court since each, of course, have their own logos and color schemes plus change seating configurations to match their ticketing plus unveil the appropriate team’s banners, retired jerseys, etc. It’s an art form. As for the differences between LCA and The Palace, one is 29 years older. Technology and the changes it spawned in communications means LCA was built with all those things in mind while The Palace has had to be retrofitted to accommodate need. In any number of ways, you see evidence of that at LCA. On a cosmetic level, The Palace had three distinctly placed suite levels – one midway up the lower bowl, one at the top of the lower bowl, one above the upper bowl. LCA has two levels of suites, stacked one atop the other, that separate the lower bowl from the upper levels. Also, LCA is built much more vertically so the upper-level seats aren’t set back nearly as far from the event level but is higher off the floor. The Palace remained one of the top 10 NBA arenas to its last breath – and that’s a conservative ranking; top five, perhaps – and always will be hailed as a groundbreaking arena that helped change the NBA business model. LCA is visually stunning and has drawn high marks in its early days. The vision of LCA as the nerve center of District Detroit growing up around it could make it even more transformative if it achieves its goal of bridging downtown and mid-town Detroit and accelerating the comeback of one of America’s great cities.