With the Pistons’ playoff hopes ending in with a wet fart, it’s time for the narrative to officially shift from tactical to strategic.
Most of these are talking points that we won’t see a resolution to for months, by which point they’ll be hashed and re-hashed to the point that we’re all sick of hearing about it. Heck, some of them have already been going on in segments of the fanbase for a while now.
But those talks were mostly premature. Now, with the Pistons looking to miss the playoffs for the third time in what will be SVG’s four-year tenure, it’s reasonable for most things to be on the table. So let’s dive in on the things that will likely consume DBB for the next few months.
Playing time and rotations
First up, the most present.
It’s easy to be cynical about Stan Van Gundy and his unwillingness to develop young players. But the cynicism isn’t always accurate.
Last year he didn’t throw in the towel in on the season and let Henry Ellenson get some playing time until the final four games. But that wasn’t entirely unreasonable. Frustrating, yes. But not unreasonable.
Coming off of a four game road stretch where the Pistons dropped all of them and had lost six of their past eight games by double digits, it was probably time to call it and get the young guys out there. But instead, SVG gave it four more games before calling things off. The Pistons lost three of those games.
Still, all of them were close. One was a one-point loss and two were three-point losses. Had those close games gone a little differently, the Pistons would have been tied for the seven seed. Instead they were sitting firmly out of the picture in the 10th spot in the East before SVG was willing to let the season go, which was frustrating for some fans. Even though it was probably the correct call.
It’s unlikely that three or four extra games for Ellenson would have really moved the needle in his development and the push for the playoffs was a reasonably realistic one. And the guy fans whine about missing in the draft was still available to the Pistons despite their playoff push. In the end, little was lost in the playoff push.
So to presume that SVG is just going to stubbornly push for the playoffs at the sacrifice of the future isn’t exactly an accurate narrative. It’ll just be one worth watching.
At five games back and well below .500 while the rest of the Eastern conference playoff contenders are over that mark, we very well may see the season called earlier rather than later.
That means the needed changes would be swapping Luke Kennard back in the rotation for Langston Galloway, Henry Ellenson soaking up the majority of the backup big man minutes, and definitely, for the love of God, no more Jameer Nelson. It might even be worth getting Kay Felder some time with the Pistons to see if he’d be worth a roster spot next season.
But as long as the playoff push is still in place, don’t expect to see much of Kennard or Ellenson. As an aside, I kind of get a kick out of the criticism for removing Kennard from the rotation - much of it comes from the same contingency that also complained about Galloway getting DNPs. So...their solution is to bench Reggie Bullock, I take it?
The bench has played better with a more aggressive shooter like Galloway. But part of what will help Kennard show that kind of play next season will be the chance to pin his ears back in some chances where failure is ok.
Kennard has shown flashes of being the kind of elite, efficient scoring threat from the wing that the Pistons haven’t had since...hm. Ummm. Rip Hamilton, I guess? But rather than being a midrange specialist, Kennard’s game is much better suited for the modern game.
With the emergence of Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson’s improved play over the past month, the Pistons look to have a solid wing rotation for the future. Speaking of Stanley, continuing to figure him out as a player will also be an important part of the next month.
Johnson’s February was the best of his career. He averaged 11.5 points per game on 55 percent true shooting percentage along with 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 assists, easily the best monthly stat line he’s ever posted.
He was in and out with injuries earlier in the season, so it’s tough to say whether his struggles before were based more on quality or injury. Personally, I vote injured. Earlier this year, Johnson had no explosiveness and his athleticism looked shot.
There’s a whole thread there.
Since then, he hasn’t had nearly the same problems at the rim. Prior to returning for good from injury, Johnson was shooting 55 percent from inside but with only 17 percent of his shots coming from that area. Since then, it’s been 61.9 and 33.7 percents.
When Johnson’s able to convert through contact, it opens his game up so much more. He becomes a threat to actually do something with the ball when it comes his way and less reliant on his unreliable jumper.
Another month of solid play would be a strong sign of Johnson belonging as part of the Pistons’ future rather than banking on one good month offensively over his three year career so far.
Henry Ellenson is really where the wild card comes in. Johnson is going to get minutes. The gap between Galloway and Kennard isn’t that wide. But Ellenson is the 21 year old power forward who has flashed plenty of talent at times but has struggled to distinguish himself so far. If you’re trying to win games, there’s no reason he should be playing ahead of Anthony Tolliver. But if you’re looking forward to next season, get him out there.
Tolliver has been so dang good this season that it’s a solid reminder of the potential of Ellenson. If he manages to figure things out, he could be an even better version of AT - which is saying an awful lot, Tolliver is awesome. But Ellenson has a more versatile scoring repertoire, is a better rebounder, and has some passing instincts to go along with the quick shooting trigger that both players share. He just needs to get some time on the court to actually figure out how to put those traits to productive use.
Yes, the Pistons do indeed have some talented young players. Not necessarily franchise player type of young players, but guys who you want as part of your team. But it’ll take a shift in philosophy to get all of them on the court at the same time.
Front office and coaching
Rumors have already started rumbling that Stan Van Gundy’s hold on the front office is over and that his coaching job security is also in a precarious spot.
But the Pistons basically look forward to this offseason with three main options:
- Stand pat.
- Remove Stan Van Gundy from the front office role.
- Cut ties with Stan Van Gundy altogether, move on to a leadership situation.
Each option comes with its own pros and cons. Yes, even the standing pat option. In fact, let’s start with that one.
Standing pat pros
Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower pushed the chips to the middle of the table with the Blake Griffin trade. With such a hefty investment in the Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond core, we might as well give them a year to see how it all works together.
There’s really little risk in it. If it fails, SVG’s contract is up at the end of the season and it’s a natural point to part ways. If it succeeds, great. The franchise would finally get some long term continuity. Check out this piece on Dwane Casey and the Raptors for how beneficial that continuity can be.
Besides, most suggestions for replacing SVG is just change for the sake of change. The vast majority of replacement options are just some retread who was fired from their last job. They didn’t move the needle there, so why would we expect for them to do so for the Pistons?
Standing pat cons
Because the case for “standing pat pros” is basically a shrug.
Remove front office role pros
It takes away the ability to mortgage the franchise in his lame duck season. It’s unlikely that SVG would sell off future assets when he must know how hot is seat is, he doesn’t seem like that kind of guy. But better safe than sorry.
Remove front office role cons
It’s a half measure. It’s a vote of no-confidence in SVG. It’s that ownership no longer believes in the route that led to SVG’s role in the first place, but doesn’t have the confidence to outright fire him.
All that would result from this route would be kicking the real decision down the road a season. If they really want to move on, better to get it over with now rather than later.
Fire SVG pros
The benefit of SVG as running both the front office and coaching jobs was that you knew where accountability fell. And the team is about to miss the playoffs in three out of four seasons. The results speak for themselves.
Fire SVG cons
Remember how fun riding the coaching carousel was?
The summer needs an honest evaluation of this roster. Can the Pistons win with Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin as their best players? Can they trust Reggie Jackson? Is there enough talent here to make it worth staying the course or should it be a full teardown?
Odds are that they’ll stay the course. But when you’ve got $74,351,673 budgeted for three players next season, it’s worth checking that you actually really want to do that before heading into it.
I’ve already laid out much of my thoughts on Blake Griffin here. The basics: we haven’t seen the best of him as a Piston yet, he brings a lot of really good things to the table, but he sure is expensive. Fair enough, right?
Andre Drummond is a more interesting question though. Out of any player the Pistons have, he’s the one who would bring the most back in a trade - especially after a nice bounce-back season. But still, that bounce-back season wasn’t enough to make the Pistons a good team.
While the SVG era has largely been a failure, what comes along with that is that the Andre Drummond as franchise player era has also been a failure.
He’s opened up his offensive game this season, ditched the post ups to help himself become more efficient, and still the best offensive rebounder in the league. But when you think of the good offensive centers in the league, the ones to come to mind are Nikola Jokic, DeMarcus Cousins, and Joel Embiid, not Andre Drummond.
His defense was much improved this year after a disastrous season on that end last year. But it’s still tough to call him an actually good defensive center.
Can a team win when their best player is only really good at rebounding?
I don’t mean that as a loaded question. I could see it going either way. Drummond is able to be an absolutely dominant force at times and some of the box scores he’s put up this year have been absurd. But there’s other times where he’s just invisible.
The DBB podcast talking the Miami Heat preview was an interesting one, as Heat analyst Nekias Duncan talked about the challenges of the team being built around a player who you couldn’t trust to be engaged and whose effort ebbed/flowed like Hassan Whiteside. Laz pointed out the similarities between our situation with Drummond and I just can’t help but wonder if we’re two or three years from being in a Whiteside situation with Drummond.
Then there’s Reggie Jackson. For two and a half months, all of DBB was relieved the Pistons didn’t just dump him for whatever they could get last summer. For the past two and a half months, it’s a return to wanting to dump him for whatever you can get.
We’ll see if Jackson actually makes it back this season and what kind of player he is once he returns. That’ll impact much of his potential trade value and expectations for his play next season.
But whether he’s in a Pistons uniform or elsewhere, no one in their right mind is going to trust him to stay healthy. It’s going to require hedging a bet in Jackson. But how do the Pistons do that? Langston Galloway was supposed to be that hedged bet, but then it turned out that Van Gundy didn’t trust him to play point guard.
I don’t know the answer, but the question is at least clear: do you keep Jackson around and, if so, how do you hedge that bet? And if you do move on from Jackson, how do you fill his spot?
Then there’s the whole other route when it comes to personnel. If you don’t trust the Jackson-Griffin-Drummond trio, then what? Do you just blow the whole thing up? Try to just move part of the trio? Are you trying to go young or still be competitive? And if there is a change made to that core and the current strategy, does it also require a change in leadership from Stan Van Gundy first?
Oh, to be a Pistons fan. We never fail to start off the season optimistic and hopeful, then there’s the Five Stages of the Pistons Season from there: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
“We can really make it this season!”
“It was a scheduling losing streak.”
“What if this move is what turns our season around maybe right?”
“Basketball’s stupid, keep the whiskey coming barkeep.”
And now to the acceptance phase of the season. So what say you for the big decisions looming DBB? Any big ones that I missed?