The Pistons success might begin and end with the effectiveness of their big men. That seems obvious when considering the importance of Andre Drummond – the face of the franchise and its highest paid player. But it extends beyond that. Who starts at power forward? Who gets minutes at power forward? How does that impact who gets minutes at reserve center?
There is certainly a glut of options in the frontcourt, and sorting out those issues is priority No. 1 for Stan Van Gundy.
Andre Drummond. Maybe you’ve heard of him. But hopefully not just the same old Andre Drummond. It is time for Andre Drummond 2.0. A player who is physically, mentally and emotionally locked into performing at the highest level every single night. Also, preferably, a player who doesn’t take a bunch of soul-sucking post ups that don’t work and ruin the flow of the offense. And, if I’m being greedy, hopefully a player that has shown a marked improvement as a rim defender.
Then there is Tobias Harris, Detroit’s best offensive weapon who spent the majority of last season playing off the bench. It looks like the starting power forward spot is his to lose. Harris can handle the ball in the pick-and-roll, and he is a capable enough spot up shooter and cutter. It’s going to be up to Van Gundy to transition Harris from the featured player off the bench to a starting player with a lot of the offense working through him.
That wasn’t really happening when he was sharing the floor with Reggie Jackson in a pick-and-roll heavy offensive attack, but it’s incumbent on both the players and coaches to figure it out and maximize Harris’ effectiveness. It should really be his offense.
Jon Leuer is also returning, though his role has yet to be defined. Is he a starting power forward as he was most of last season? Probably not. Is he a backup power forward or a backup center? I guess that depends on the effectiveness of the players around him.
While Leuer struggled mightily for the last 30+ games of last season, and he never really found his 3-point stroke, he was one of Detroit’s most effective offensive weapons. His ability to run the floor, finish, cut, find gaps in the defense and hit an open jumper were much needed. Van Gundy will probably try and find him minutes, but I’m not sure where those minutes are going to come from.
One of the biggest factors in determining Leuer’s role is a pair of returning players who are pining for more minutes – Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson. Marjanovic is the 7-foot-3 behemoth who can’t be guarded. Conversely, however, it’s unclear if he can actually guard anyone. As the league gets smaller and big men get more mobile, the plodding big man will have difficulty not getting torched on defense. That only matters, however, if he’s giving up more points than he’s getting on the offensive end. And with his touch, free-throw stroke and penchant for drawing a foul, he’s a point getting monster.
Ellenson’s story is a little more complicated. He’s a tweener that might not be able to guard either position in only his second year in the league. But he’s a dynamic offensive force who can score in a multitude of ways. He’s got a developing 3-point shot, but that’s not all he’s capable of. He’ll put the ball on the floor and use some fancy footwork to get to a spot any spot on the floor he wants. He seems like a rare player who can score ugly, and I mean that as a pretty high compliment. Defense will be an issue, though, and it might prevent him from seeing the floor again in year two. Van Gundy has raved about his work in the offseason developing his game, and that has translated into a couple pretty nice showings in the preseason. Does it mean he has a spot in the regular playing rotation? I have my doubts.
The Pistons are saying hello to an old friend in Anthony Tolliver. The stretch forward has been brought back to do two things – hit 3-pointers (a role Leuer and Ellenson might not be up for) and provide veteran leadership. It’s odd to think of a 32-year-old as a veteran leader, but he’s a really smart guy who has been through the NBA ringer to the tune of nine teams in nine seasons. And if he can ring that 39 percent 3-point shot he sported in Sacto last season then that’s all the better.
The only other new big man is Eric Moreland. Moreland played extremely well for Detroit in Orlando Summer League after two years being groomed with the Kings. He’s almost 26 years old, so there’s probably not a ton of upside to his game. Still, he’s a bouncy, rangy power forward/center who can block some shots, rebound the ball and, according to Van Gundy, is a very good passer. On a team without a lot of dynamic athletes he’s a good option for the end of the bench.
On Game Nights
Andre Drummond and Tobias Harris are going to make up the starting front court. Harris led the team with 13 shots per game last season, but that should probably tick up even more. If those shots came at the expense of a Drummond post-up or two, I wouldn’t be mad. You can probably also pencil in fewer shots for starting small forward (likely Stanley Johnson) in place of the departed Marcus Morris and his 12.7 shots.
Harris and Drummond can run the pick and roll both together or with Detroit’s starting point guard (hopefully a healthy Reggie Jackson). Harris can also space the floor as a catch-and-shoot scoring threat or take a dribble hand off to the rim if the lane is clear.
Off the bench is where things get really interesting. With Ish Smith and Langston Galloway in the backcourt you could see a rangy, running team that pushes the pace with Jon Leuer at center and Ellenson or Tolliver at power forward. You could also imagine a defensive-minded unit with Galloway joining either Avery Bradley or Stanley Johnson from the starting lineup and Boban Marjanovic as a half court offensive staple.
In a best-case scenario Marjanovic sees a lot of reserve minutes, and that is no slight on either Leuer or Ellenson. But with how insanely productive Boban has been in limited action for several years now ramping up his minutes and still seeing similar effectiveness would make him one of the most valuable bench pieces in the league. Conversely, if the experiment ends and Boban proves he can’t keep up or offset his shortcomings then Leuer becomes a primary backup center and he’s paired with a stretchier four in either Ellenson or Tolliver. That’s not a horrible scenario to be facing. It means a 3-point threat enters the rotation and Leuer gets to focus on his varied offensive skills and there is less pressure on him to become that catch-and-shoot 3-point guy.
Regardless of lineup defensive is going to be a concern in the Pistons frontcourt. Aron Baynes is gone, and while he stayed under the radar he was a huge factor in powering Detroit to an above average defense last season. With him gone more pressure is on Drummond to be a defensive difference maker. Rebounding is also somewhat a concern. Drummond is going to grab you 12-15 boards every night but Harris isn’t a strong rebounder at power forward. If Leuer plays a lot of minutes at center his rebounding, which was a plus as a power forward, suddenly becomes a negative.