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Hot Take: The Pistons should trade Stanley Johnson

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Detroit Pistons v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Stanley, in the Doghouse

Stanley Johnson, the offensively challenged third-year small forward who nevertheless plays the role of defensive bulwark for the Pistons, is no longer starting. Stan Van Gundy changed the lineup before the game against Denver, citing Stanley’s lack of consistent aggressiveness on defense. That’s a rationale I have trouble understanding, if not believing.

To Pistons watchers not named Stan Van Gundy, it appears Stanley Johnson’s offensive struggles since his return from his hip flexor injury finally caught up with him. SVG replaced Stanley in the lineup with a better shooter and worse defender (Reggie Bullock), which belies the defense-first rationale.

So, once again, Stanley Johnson is in Stan Van Gundy’s doghouse. Last year, recall, that SVG sent Stanley to the D-League, ostensibly not as punishment but to get his mojo back. SVG has played Stanley out of position for the first two years of his career (which didn’t help his development). Over the summer, the two appeared to hash it out, having a “brutal conversation” about what Stanley’s role would be moving forward, but now that his role has changed, it’s fair to ask if this pairing is going to have a positive ending.

To be fair to Stan Van Gundy, Stanley has clearly been the worst starter for the Pistons, weighing down the starting lineup’s net rating when he’s on-court. If Stanley continues to shoot this poorly (from three and overall), it’s really difficult to find a lineup that you can put him in that works offensively. Putting two non-shooters on the floor at the same time is like fighting quicksand in today’s NBA,and the Pistons always have at least one of their collection of traditional (non-shooting) centers on the floor at all times. Their projected stretch-five, Jon Leuer, is still out with an ankle injury - and it’s not like he was a knockdown shooter when he played earlier this year.

Even if the hope is that Stanley’s defense can turn every matchup into 4-on-5 on both ends, Duncan Smith of The Athletic lays out all the reasons that won’t work:

“It's becoming more obvious by the game that the Pistons are a team whose fatal flaw may be a lack of awareness that they can't get by playing four-on-five under the optimistic assumption that their defensive specialist can battle opposing stars to a draw. When Johnson makes life difficult for Kevin Durant but still gets outscored 36-2, there's no way to twist the calculus for this to be a winnable equation for the Pistons.”

It’s possible that Stanley’s at his best in a limited application as a small-ball 4 - not that SVG hasn’t shown roster flexibility to try something like that. However, even if that’s the case, that means that not only is Stanley’s best role limited by what kind of lineups he can handle that matchup against, it makes Stanley’s fit gated by the rest of the roster. Without many small forwards on the roster (SVG has appeared to permanently shift Tobias Harris up to power forward), Stanley needs to fill that spot.

Escaping the Doghouse

John Hollinger invented the concept of a “second-draft” trade - trading for players still on their rookie deals that just hadn’t succeeded where they were drafted. Two members of Stanley’s draft class (Jahlil Okafor and D’Angelo Russell) have already found themselves “second drafted,” to the same team, no less. The Orlando Magic declined Mario Hezonja’s team option, making him another member from that draft class who will have to find success elsewhere. This isn’t an unprecedented scenario.

We already know from the Zach Lowe piece last year that teams were sniffing around Stanley. If Detroit could get back a more developed 3-and-D small forward, or salary relief for the Pistons, it’s not impossible that the Pistons would trade him to develop elsewhere. The lack of return is probably the biggest thing stopping an actual Stanley trade - he’s been so inefficient and under-utilized to date that it’s hard to imagine a team giving up anything of value for him.

However, there are definitely teams that could use a guy with Stanley’s skillset. A team that doesn’t play a traditional center, which would leave Stanley the only non-shooter on the floor, would probably be a good fit. Two teams that immediately fit the bill of shooting bigs and no wing depth are the New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies. Could SVG trade Stanley for the cheap shot creator this Pistons team desperately needs? Would it be worth it?

Ultimately, Stanley Johnson just might not work on the Pistons, which would be extremely disappointing and another mark on Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as President of Basketball Operations in Detroit. It also wouldn’t be the first time in recent memory the Pistons have missed out on a promising wing prospect for... reasons (Khris Middleton, Robert Covington, to a lesser extent Caris LeVert). If going to the bench doesn’t help Stanley offensively, this hot take is going to cool to a simmer.