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Anthony Tolliver signing likely means Tobias Harris is your starting small forward

Tolliver’s introductory press conference sheds a little light on what the Detroit Pistons plan to do with rotation

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Stan Van Gundy and Anthony Tolliver were quite clear in the latter’s introductory press conference — Tolliver’s role with the Pistons is to be a veteran leader, and for leaders to be most effective they need to be on the floor.

Tolliver came back to Detroit to play. In fact, he might have come to .... start? Maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but let’s explore the issues surrounding Tolliver’s addition.

“One thing that I made clear ... I’m not taking this role just to be a mentor; to just sit on the bench. I have a lot more basketball left in me,” Tolliver said, noting it’s strange feeling to be the wise veteran of a team at the ripe old age of 32.

Van Gundy, while extolling Tolliver’s many leadership qualities was unequivocal.

“It’s tough to be a leader who doesn’t play, and (Tolliver) still plays at a high level,” Van Gundy said. “What he will do in terms of leadership is important to our team, but it’s more important that he is a guy who can go out and play.”

Tolliver might have been the 14th player signed to the roster, but he’s not coming here to sit at the end of the bench. He came here to contribute, and from the sound of things is expected to play significant minutes off the bench for the Pistons.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Who plays power forward?

The Pistons are bringing back three players who played significant power forward minutes last season and they don’t have room for all of them — Tolliver, Tobias Harris and Jon Leuer.

Tolliver played around 1,300 minutes at power forward in his last go-round with Detroit and he doesn’t have the positional versatility to play any other position. The other two combined for 3,675 of a possible 3,975 power forward minutes. So what gives?

That’s right. A grand total of 151 power forward minutes have opened up courtesy of the departures of Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes. It should be noted that Harris was pretty clearly Detroit’s best player and Leuer was one of the most efficient on the offensive end among members of the playing rotation. Yes, even with his horrible close to the season Leuer was good.

Not all of these can be true

So let’s review some key assumptions we have about the Pistons playing rotation so far, because not all of these statements can be true:

  • Tobias Harris, power forward, is Detroit’s best offensive player and should be a starter.
  • Jon Leuer, power forward, is a key contributor is likely best suited to a role off the bench.
  • The Pistons would like to find time for second-year player Henry Ellenson, power forward, who showed some offensive punch in Orlando Summer League.
  • Anthony Tolliver, power forward, is Detroit’s best stretch big and will play significant minutes.
  • Boban Marjanovic, center, will finally play significant minutes backing up Andre Drummond.
  • Marcus Morris, small forward, was traded to open up playing time for Stanley Johnson, who is in line to be the starting small forward.
NBA: Preseason-Toronto Raptors at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

No role for Ellenson

If not all of these statements are true then we need to start figuring out what’s false. The easiest might be that Pistons fans were too quick to pencil in Ellenson for any sort of significant playing time.

If SVG thought Ellenson was ready to contribute then there is no way he signs Tolliver under the presumption of a significant role.

While young Henry scorched some nets in Summer League his defense was equally set ablaze. The signing of Tolliver is an indication Ellenson is slated for more time in the G-League and in the trainers room.

Is Harris a small forward or power forward?

Whether Harris is more effective at small forward or power forward in this rotation is likely an argument that will sustain this website through the summer months. But regardless of position, Harris is playing a huge amount of minutes and will have a major role in the offense.

Harris is able to use his speed to blow by defenders as a power forward. Harris was the most effective ball handler in pick-and-rolls in Detroit last season, scoring .98 points per 100 possessions and finishing in the 87th percentile. That advantage goes away when he’s matched up against much more athletic small forwards.

Conversely, a move to small forward would hypothetically help mitigate some of Harris’ issues with rebounding and defense.

Regardless of Van Gundy’s determination about Harris’ role, Johnson seems to have his role in the rotation secured. He’s either a fifth option on offense as a starting small forward or he’s the primary backup small forward.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

What happens to Jon Leuer?

How the team seems Leuer fitting in is much less clear.

To make one thing perfectly clear, let me just say that Leuer was one of Detroit’s most effective offensive weapons last season. Yes, he couldn’t hit a 3-pointer to save his life, and, yes, he wore down near the end of the season. All that being said, he was a reliable catch and shoot player, a great cutter and fantastic finisher.

Van Gundy, however, prized adding 3-point shooting in the offseason and that’s one thing Leuer didn’t provide, and likely can’t be counted on to provide.

Enter Tolliver. He instantly becomes Detroit’s most reliable 3-point shooting big and appears to be slated for significant minutes. If Harris starts at small forward then Leuer and Tolliver will split power forward minutes between them. If Harris starts at power forward, however, the path to playing time for Leuer is much harder to square.

Harris would, in that scenario, play the majority of power forward minutes with Tolliver as the primary backup. That would leave Leuer fighting for scraps as a reserve power forward or center.

And any minutes at center would be at the expense of Boban, and I’m just not even ready to consider that possibility.

Perhaps if the signing of Tolliver proved anything it might have been a firm commitment to start Harris at small forward. If we accept that then perhaps the real intriguing question becomes who makes the most sense in the starting lineup -- Anthony Tolliver or Jon Leuer?


Another starting lineup poll — Who you got?

This poll is closed

  • 54%
    Drummond, Harris, Johnson, Bradley, Jackson
    (449 votes)
  • 24%
    Drummond, Leuer, Harris, Bradley, Jackson
    (204 votes)
  • 17%
    Drummond, Tolliver, Harris, Bradley, Jackson
    (146 votes)
  • 3%
    Drummond, Harris, Bullock, Bradley, Jackson
    (31 votes)
830 votes total Vote Now