The Detroit Pistons finished a disappointing 37-45 last season. As the team looks to improve and regain a spot in the playoffs, Detroit Bad Boys is examining three things each player can do to improve their game and improve the chance the team wins. Whether you’re new to the game or a season Pistons watcher, these are important factors that anyone can appreciate and will help you understand and evaluate Detroit’s team as we get ready for the 2017-18 season.
“The Tolliver Effect” was real, and leadership was definitely an area the Pistons were lacking in last year. Stan Van Gundy openly said as much in Tolliver’s return press conference:
“He’s one of highest-character guys in the NBA,” Van Gundy said of Tolliver, “and what he will do in terms of leadership I think is important to our team, but it’s important that he’s a guy that can go out and play. It’s tough to be a leader who’s not playing and A.T. still plays at a high level.”
Yes, this is an element of the team that fans should hope (but not expect) Andre Drummond to step up in. If that doesn’t happen, though, having consummate professionals like Anthony Tolliver back on the roster should play dividends.
It’s already begun, according to small anecdotes like these from Keith Langlois:
Steps like getting everyone on the same page about what kind of team they want to be over a dinner in Vegas before the season starts seem so small, but it’s the sort of thing that shows progression towards a united work environment. Knowing where you’re going is a vital part of getting there.
Tolliver’s leadership should have an outsize impact on the kids: Stanley Johnson, Luke Kennard, and Henry Ellenson. Ellenson, in particular, should absorb lessons from a guy who’s made it in the NBA at his position. Who can forget Tolliver’s words of wisdom to Skal Labissiere?
.@kayte_c on Anthony Tolliver’s comments to Skal Labissiere: “My job is to teach you how to take my job.”— Aaron Bruski (@aaronbruski) March 26, 2017
The question Pistons fans are asking themselves, though, is “Can Tolliver still play?”
Shooting at PF
Well, at the absolute least, Tolliver appears to still be an accurate and willing shooter. With a true shooting percentage of 59.5 percent, Tolliver shot 39 percent from three last year on three and a half attempts a game. For comparison, he averaged slightly over five shots a game - more than half of his shots come from long range. It’s safe to say he knows his shooting is the reason why he’s still in the NBA.
Tolliver’s rebound rate still leaves something to be desired, and his defensive rating last year was north of 110 - but some of that can be attributed to how poorly the Kings as a whole were on defense. To the eye test, Tolliver appears to still be capable of being an average defender, and he knows the defensive system he will be asked to play in Detroit.
He can play a valuable role, but Stan Van Gundy shouldn’t lean on Tolliver the way he leaned on Jon Leuer in that role last year. Tolliver is a reserve - he hasn’t averaged more than 25 minutes a game since 2009-10 in Golden State. Tolliver’s presence on the roster should actually enable Stan to make better use of Jon Leuer, and prevent Leuer from wearing down like he did last year. Of course, there’s a chance Henry Ellenson gets the first crack at the backup power forward minutes:
Maybe Ellenson has already taken Tolliver’s job?
Even if he’s competing with Ellenson for minutes, Anthony Tolliver’s presence on the roster also unlocks some more stretchy lineups. A Reggie Bullock-Tolliver-Leuer frontcourt offers a ton of spacing, and playing all those guys together allows Stan Van Gundy to rest three presumable starters in Stanley Johnson, Tobias Harris, and Andre Drummond at the same time.
Especially on nights where Boban Marjanovic isn’t a good matchup for stretch centers (like Orlando with Mo Speights or Cleveland with Channing Frye), I would also expect to see at the very least the Tolliver-Leuer pairing in the frontcourt. Let Boban smash the Miles Plumlee’s and Enes Kanter’s of the NBA.
Stan Van Gundy was often his own worst enemy when it came to lineup flexibility last season - Stanley Johnson played a lot of backup shooting guard, Jon Leuer didn’t play enough backup center, Boban just flat didn’t play enough. Having another player that he trusts with playing time on the roster can help Stan avoid some of his worse rotational impulses.
Also, if you think that Henry Ellenson’s long-term future is at center, there’s no harm in experimenting with Tolliver-Ellenson or Leuer-Ellenson lineups to see their offensive burst potential. Getting a backup center like a Greg Monroe or an Al Jefferson chasing Ellenson around the perimeter should open up his game, but it was harder to do that last year when Leuer and Ellenson were really the only “true” power forwards on the roster. Adding Tolliver to that rotation enables SVG to slide Ellenson up to center if he sees reason to.
Ultimately, Tolliver is back in Detroit to make threes and be a voice in a locker room that was - to be generous - muted last season. If he does either of those things with any degree of success, it’s the bi-annual exception well spent.