AUBURN HILLS – It’s a stretch to say Stan Van Gundy’s level of confidence in the readiness of Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson for expanded roles will drive off-season roster building.
But off-season roster building might wind up meaning expanded roles for the two youngest Pistons.
Van Gundy admitted after the season ended that as Pistons coach, he gets a little more restless than his boss, Stan Van Gundy, Pistons president, or the guy he really credits with adjusting his perspective meter, general manager Jeff Bower. There are times after a tough loss, he admits, when he wants everyone traded.
In fact, he cited two potential pitfalls of his dual role as coach and president of basketball operations – one to overreact to losses or lulls, two to don blinders on players you brought on to prove the merits of a trade, signing or draft choice.
“I don’t think either of those outweigh the strength of the model,” he said of the setup Pistons owner Tom Gores settled on three years ago in putting Van Gundy in charge of both sides of the operation. “Unlike a lot of places in the league and in other sports, we don’t have the conflict between the front office and coaching that was Tom’s reason for it – the synergy. I think it’s a great strength.”
So whatever moves they make this off-season will come after thorough deliberation. At the heart of their summer, though, is this question: How much better are we at the offensive end – the overwhelming factor behind the drop from 44 to 37 wins – just by having a healthy Reggie Jackson next season?
Van Gundy emphatically stated his belief that Jackson would be back to full speed next season and better for having endured the adversity of the 2016-17 season. So there’s a pretty big clue as to how the Pistons will go about their summer business. They don’t feel cornered and aren’t going to make deals from a position of weakness.
But 3-point shooting has been a drag on the Pistons’ offense for two years running. It was mediocre in 2015-16, the Pistons finishing 22nd in 3-point percentage but balancing it to some degree by being 10th in attempts. They fell off in both areas in 2016-17, to 26th in attempts and 28th in accuracy. Jackson’s absence was the biggest obvious reason, less for his 3-point shooting – though he would have clearly been the biggest 3-point threat among Pistons point guards – than for the attention he demands and the space his penetration creates.
So a healthy Jackson helps next season’s 3-point shooting if nothing else changes. But other things will change. Van Gundy anticipated, with solid logic, that young players like Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson would see their 3-point shooting improve last season – because young players, as a general rule, see their shooting averages tick up as emphasis on shooting drives the evolution of the game and dictates workouts.
Instead, all but Caldwell-Pope saw their numbers decline. The law of averages alone says that’s not likely to happen two years in a row, but Van Gundy isn’t leaving it to chance. He talked after the season about changing the nature of off-season shooting drills.
Then we get to the roster building. The strong hunch is they’ll explore deals to add certain shooting – the guys every team lists in the scouting report with the admonition to “don’t give this guy an inch of room” – and that almost surely will cost Van Gundy a player he brought to Detroit, someone he values, someone who played every night the past year or two.
That becomes a little easier to do – not easy, but easier – if he thinks he’s got players ready to fill bigger roles. Enter Messrs. Johnson and Ellenson, each unique in his own way. Johnson had a flat-out miserable shooting season – 35 percent overall, 29 percent from three – and needs a great summer, but even amid a largely disappointing season he flashed the things that stamp him such an intriguing prospect.
Ellenson’s offensive upside is enormous. With his first full off-season in an NBA strength-training regimen and that much more time to refine an already advanced skill set, he could be ready enough in all those areas where he might have been a liability as a rookie to win the playing time that will allow his scoring skills to flower – and give an offense that needs scoring certainty a shot in the arm.
So faith in Johnson and Ellenson might not drive roster building this summer. But a key deal or two to address offensive shortcomings might crack the door to an expanded role for one, the other or both of Stan Van Gundy’s youngest players.