Auburn Hills — The Pistons have a commodity most teams lack. He's Andre Drummond, seven feet of rare potential that can't be squandered.
That's why the next two major decisions of the Stan Van Gundy regime are critical, because the patchwork days have to be over. The Pistons have the guy who can command the middle and create space for others to get open shots. The next step? Make those open shots.
In the NBA draft tonight, Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower likely will choose between Kentucky 6-6 shooting guard Devin Booker and Arizona 6-7 small forward Stanley Johnson. Booker is the consensus best shooter and the youngest player in the draft, turning 19 in October. Johnson is slightly older, a better defender, but not as lethal a shooter.
If I'm Van Gundy (similar builds, after all), I'd take Booker because you can't tout shooting without shooters. One thing we've learned about Van Gundy is he's willing to take chances, and while Johnson is the safer pick, there's question about his upside. Everything changes if 6-8 Croatian wing Mario Hezonja slides to No. 8, where the Pistons would have to take him. And if Van Gundy can trade down and pick up someone such as Wisconsin's Sam Dekker, that's fine, too.
So that's the first important decision, and it's tied to the second one. The Pistons have money to court one of the few intriguing free agents July 1, and it could (should) come down to Atlanta's DeMarre Carroll or San Antonio's Danny Green.
If the Pistons draft Booker, they can target the 6-8 Carroll, a rising small forward. If they draft Johnson, they can target the 6-6 Green, more of a shooting guard, although in Van Gundy's system, there's not much distinction between big guards and small forwards. The Pistons wing players last season — Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks, Kyle Singler (gone), Caron Butler (gone) — weren't nearly consistent enough, although there's hope for Caldwell-Pope.
"I think the premium (on outside shooting) has been there for quite a while," Van Gundy said. "You see the NBA game changing, but at the same time, it's not the only one way to get it done. As the game is spread out more, people talk about the offensive part, but there's also a defensive part."
Three's the key
Sure there is, and Golden State used its defense as effectively as its offense to win the championship. But the growing impact of outside shooting in the NBA is undeniable, and it's not just because of the Warriors and Stephen Curry. It's because of a complex formula that I'll explain in detail here: Three is more than two.
Of the top 10 3-point shooting teams last season, guess how many made the playoffs? (I'll wait). Answer: 10. Just a decade ago, the average NBA game featured 33 3-point attempts. Last season it was 45.
The Pistons were 17th in 3-point percentage despite having an imposing inside presence in Drummond, 21. They also have a dynamic scorer in Reggie Jackson, who's 25. That youth is why Van Gundy talks about drafting a guy who will be the best player in three years, not necessarily next year. It sounds like a hedge toward Booker, who played the sixth-most minutes on Kentucky's loaded team and hit 41 percent of 3-pointers.
Van Gundy and Bower aren't shy about making moves, and their trades and free-agent maneuverings have been astute, so far. Acquiring Ersan Ilyasova was an underrated deal, and another indication of the shift. He's 6-10 and can shoot, and will replace Greg Monroe, who's almost assuredly gone, a solid player rendered redundant by Drummond.
By settling their power forward spot, the Pistons can concentrate on wing players — drafting at least one, signing at least one. They have the green to get a Green ($18.5 million in cap space), but no, it won't be Draymond Green, who isn't leaving the Warriors.
It could be Danny Green, a career 42 percent 3-point shooter who has been particularly effective in the playoffs. He's 28 and began blossoming in a Spurs system that perfectly complements inside play (Tim Duncan) with outside shooting.
Carroll, 28, is even more interesting, an all-around revelation for the Hawks. Either Green or Carroll probably would fit the pocketbook, but more important, the plan. You can't just collect pieces, as the Pistons did in the latter years under Joe Dumars — Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Josh Smith — and hope you can work 'em in.
Van Gundy has been retooling madly, and no one expected an immediate turnaround with the Pistons playoff drought now at six years. But playoff contention next season certainly is reasonable.
Brandon Jennings' Achilles injury staggered everything, but it led to Jackson's arrival, which could elevate everything. Rather than lament Jennings' uncertainty, Van Gundy and Bower went to work, and their next two moves can't be meek, either.
Barring a flurry of surprises, the draft probably will unfold as many predict. Free agency is where the intrepid will hunt.
"At No. 8, we're looking future," Van Gundy said. "We're not putting the kind of pressure on that guy or on ourselves that you've gotta have the eighth pick start. … We would like to get a guy (via free agency or trade) with a proven record of success. Clearly, shooting factors into that. When you're trying to build a team around Andre and Reggie, you want shooting to open the floor up."
Van Gundy said the Pistons crave shooting just like "25 other teams." True enough, but most teams don't have a Drummond, who should be a draw. The Pistons are about to take their shots, with an increasing chance of making them.