The crowd at power forward for the Pistons, hand wringing over Boban Marjanovic’s lack of playing time and a dissection of what exactly rebuilding means are among the topics covered in the latest edition of Pistons Mailbag.
Detroit Buckets (@DetBuckets): We have too many fours, plain and simple. Do you see any of them as trade bait?
Langlois: Eh, not really. Not at this point, for sure. It’s clear Jon Leuer has Stan Van Gundy’s trust. Last year’s numbers showed Leuer was consistently one of the team’s best defenders, capable of guarding near the rim or out at the 3-point line. At his size, that makes him valuable. He was also an efficient offensive player before the All-Star break last season, then struggled. Van Gundy expects that guy all season, though his scoring is off through the painfully short sample size of four games. Anthony Tolliver was signed as a free agent, so he can’t be dealt until Dec. 15. Henry Ellenson could be the future at the position. If the Pistons were to include him in a trade, it would have to be for something attractive and a player Van Gundy views as a long-term piece. Tobias Harris’ versatility – he’s as much a three as he is a four – eases the logjam. The rotation is still in flux, but Harris has spent more than half his minutes at small forward in some games, like at New York on Saturday. If a need pops up elsewhere – injury the most likely cause – then it becomes a possibility.
Bigdog (@Busygod): Leuer seems to be getting “big contract” minutes and has not played well. Ellenson should be getting those minutes.
Langlois: Leuer is still the better defender and that’s not really a debate. Ellenson is surely the more versatile scorer with the potential to be a prolific scorer. If his all-around game warranted Ellenson playing starter’s minutes, he’d be a guy who’d probably average in the high teens. That day might not be that far away. But by Stan Van Gundy’s calculation – and it’s hard to argue against it – Leuer’s defense tips the scales toward him at this stage of their careers. If the offense struggles – and until Monday’s 86-point clunker, the offense hadn’t been an issue – then maybe Van Gundy has to compromise his defense to add Ellenson’s scoring. But even after Monday’s 86-point outing, the Pistons are still roughly an average NBA offense, 17th in offensive rating. He’s not going to abandon his quest to build a top-10 defense based on one lousy night that would’ve looked a lot different if all Pistons not named Langston Galloway hadn’t combined to shoot 3 of 26 from the 3-point arc.
Thomas (@thommc18): How worried should we be about how we looked against the 76ers? It was eerily similar to last year and Andre played no defense.
Langlois: One game? No more concerned than you should have been delirious with optimism after the Pistons scored 111 points in back-to-back road games on consecutive nights over the weekend. Philadelphia’s two young guys, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are immensely talented players and both had big games on the same night. When that happens this season – and I’m going to guess it’ll be sporadic – the 76ers are going to challenge a lot of good teams. Drummond appeared caught off guard by Embiid’s ability to put it on the floor a few times in the first half. He adjusted well after that, but Embiid has a feathery touch and shot it well that night. And let’s not gloss over Embiid’s seven turnovers and Drummond’s four steals. Those are pretty glaring numbers.
Steven (West Bloomfield, Mich.): In a recent Mailbag you said if this year’s team failed to meet expectations, SVG might start a (necessary) rebuild, stating that this logic applied to two-thirds of the league. But unlike two-thirds of the league, Stan would be facing the final year of a contract where – whatever excuses you feel like making – the first attempt would have been a confirmed failure where Stan’s most celebrated move was sticking us with a $5.5 million Josh Smith cap hold until 2020. The last decade has seen a lot of bad Pistons teams that looked like they were going nowhere and never approached a trade deadline or summer with the goal of rebuilding – not “tanking,” but submitting to the natural life cycle of a team where you trade win-now pieces for future assets when it’s just not your year. Joe Dumars sold Gores on the idea of keeping our foot on the gas. SVG sold Gores on the idea of keeping our foot on the gas. I give SVG zero chance of suddenly trying to sell Gores on a rebuild. It will not happen. I pray eventually someone will, but you can bet your life it won’t be Stan.
Langlois: First, let’s establish what we mean by “rebuild.” (“Submitting to the natural life cycle of a team” sounds like corporate speak for actively seeking failure – and don’t confuse that with grasping at straws in a delusional attempt at contention, either.) Maybe we should avoid that word “rebuild” altogether, since it seems to have taken on a different meaning with regard to putting a team’s roster together. In my mind, rebuilding means dealing parts of what you considered your core for other parts that you expect to better complement what’s left in an effort to enable a better future – if not immediately better in the short term, than not glaringly worse, either. If the Pistons fail to meet expectations this season – and that was the premise of the question you referenced – then, yes, I would expect that the Van Gundy administration would attempt to alter the roster. That doesn’t mean they’d purposely strive to get worse, however temporarily, in order to get better. It means they’d be looking to deal talent for talent in order to find a more complementary mix. As for your contention that the Dumars front office and the Van Gundy administration have “sold” owner Tom Gores on this approach, I’m not sure how you draw that conclusion. Gores has never given any indication he was “sold” anything. He and Van Gundy have always contended they shared the same vision – to try to win as much as possible now without sacrificing the future. They haven’t traded a single No. 1 pick even though they’ve had a young roster throughout the Van Gundy regime. Next season will be the last of the five-year deal Van Gundy signed in May 2014. Gores has been consistently supportive of Van Gundy, most recently a week ago when he said, “Do I believe in Stan? Absolutely. Do I feel good about the (dual-role) model? I feel good about it. I believe in the model. We’re seeing this through. Absolutely.” There was no equivocation in there and he could have easily given a bland answer that didn’t put Van Gundy on the hot seat but also didn’t offer absolute support. As for how Van Gundy will approach the duties of his job as president of basketball operations after the season, I feel confident in saying his contract status will have zero impact on his personnel decisions. He passed up several chances to get back into coaching during his two years between getting fired in Orlando and getting hired by the Pistons. He’s not desperate to remain in the NBA. He’s not going to deviate from his core philosophies to protect a paycheck.He’s financially secure and wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job in basketball or media if he wanted back in at some point. So, you’re right to contend Van Gundy won’t actively advocate for taking steps backward, but you’re wrong if your hypothesis hangs on Gores needing to be convinced that trying to win now impedes future success.
TheUrbanPolitico (@Urban_Politico): What does Stan Van Gundy have against Boban? Or is Eric Moreland that much better.
Langlois: Better? To be determined. What is clear is that they are emphatically different players. Marjanovic is an offensive force, Moreland is far more nimble. And in today’s NBA, with shooters creating space and point guards necessarily skilled at pick-and-roll machinations, a center who has trouble moving laterally is often a sitting duck defensively. There will be matchups that favor Marjanovic, but Van Gundy is going to have to pick his spots. He gave him a shot at New York, but Marjanovic struggled over a four-plus minute stretch during which the Knicks scored 12 points to expand their lead from nine to 15. The guy Marjanovic was guarding, Kyle O’Quinn, not regarded as a big scorer, hit two uncontested mid-range jump shots during that time and drove around Marjanovic for a layup before Van Gundy went back to Drummond and then used Jon Leuer as his backup in the second half.
Shaun (@greatmurbinski): Can we finally admit it was a huge mistake to sign Boban Marjanovic to a three-year, $21 million contract if we’re not going to play him?
Langlois: If the Pistons in July 2016 could have predicted what happened to the market for big men in July 2017, then, yeah, they would not have used San Antonio’s cap predicament to offer Marjanovic a contract they knew the Spurs couldn’t match. What drove their decision to sign Marjanovic as a free agent in 2016 was their full expectation that Aron Baynes would opt out of the final year of his deal at $6.5 million and cash in with a deal of double that or more. They didn’t think they could afford Baynes – in fact, they were capped at offering him no more than $11.7 million because they only held partial Bird rights – and they didn’t expect many quality big men to be on the market in looking at potential free agents. Their belief on where the market was headed was based on the deals handed out to borderline starter/backup centers the previous summer when Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahimni and Timofey Mozgov all got long-term deals with annual averages of $16 million or greater. Baynes, it turns out, had to settle for a one-year deal with Boston for less ($4.3 million) than he would have made had he not opted out. All of that doesn’t mean the Pistons can’t still benefit from having Marjanovic on the roster. But they surely would have allocated their cap space differently if they could have foreseen where the market was headed.
Brad (@bradhosmer95): Is there any adjustment you would make to the starting five?
Langlois: Not yet. I don’t see any question about four of the five positions. There’s a case to be made for bringing Stanley Johnson off the bench, but don’t judge him off of the first four games of the season, particularly when he’s been dealing with a back issue. His defense – and we saw that especially in the opener when he had an impact on the game despite going 0 for 13 from the floor – is too important and, by all logic, best used in the starting lineup where the opposition’s best frontcourt scorer is likely to play the most overlapping minutes.
The North Remembers (@xTheeSpaniard): What value does Andre Drummond have in today’s NBA?
Langlois: Elite rebounders with the lateral quickness Drummond possesses to counter pick-and-roll attacks are coveted more than ever. The trends he’s establishing since the preseason – a more streamlined offensive game focused on being more of a facilitator and cutting down on back-to-the-basket stuff unless he’s established favorable post position; vastly improved foul shooting that enables him to be on the floor in close games in fourth quarters; and a greater conditioning level that draws out his athletic ability, primarily – will only serve to make him a more desirable player. Big men who can give you 30 to 35 high-level minutes a night are rare. The game’s evolution to more 3-point shooting and smaller lineups isn’t threatening the value of players like Drummond but enhancing it. With more space to operate, his offensive rebounding and role in pick-and-roll equations becomes an even greater weapon. Any notion that Drummond would be tough to deal on a max contract is off base.
Lance (@wirelessguy831): The Pistons should pick up Jordan Crawford. He played well in his comeback to the NBA off the bench for New Orleans and is a Detroit native.
Langlois: The Pistons are well aware of Crawford. They invited him to their free-agent minicamp in May 2016 and that led to Crawford signing with the Grand Rapids Drive. He played well enough with the Drive last season to catch on with New Orleans. The Pistons don’t really have a need at that position, though, with Avery Bradley, Luke Kennard, Langston Galloway and Reggie Bullock all available at shooting guard. They have an open roster spot, but I wouldn’t anticipate they’ll fill it unless a specific need arises, via injury or other means. Word is the Pelicans liked Crawford and didn’t part easily with him, but needed a roster spot to add Jameer Nelson, who filled a greater need, and Crawford’s contract made him the logical candidate. With injuries already starting to pile up around the league, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Crawford scooped up quickly. Teams know exactly who he is – a scorer, first, last and always.