Auburn Hills — Thursday night might have been about the future for the Pistons, who appeared to fill a glaring need by selecting Duke sharpshooter Luke Kennard with the 12th overall pick in the NBA draft.
But soon enough, it might be time to turn back the clock. Because at present, the question Stan Van Gundy still must answer, along with owner Tom Gores and the rest of a downtown-bound front office, is how strongly they feel about the core of this roster they’ve constructed the last few years.
Will the center hold? And if not, how long can they wait before deciding to move forward without him? Andre Drummond’s name once again surfaced in trade rumors in the wild run-up to this year’s NBA draft, and whether there was much substance to it — Drummond to Sacramento for a first-round pick in one report, or to the Los Angeles Clippers for DeAndre Jordan in another — the questions aren’t going away anytime soon.
In fact, after flying in from Los Angeles to take part in the Pistons’ draft night party at the Palace, it was Drummond himself asking his coach — and team president — about it Thursday.
“What I told him today is — the rumor he specifically asked me about, Sacramento for the fifth pick I think is what he asked me about — and I said, ‘No, that hasn’t been discussed,’” Van Gundy said. “But I’m not gonna look him in the eye and say. ‘I’ll never trade you.’ I mean, we won 37 games, which was my other point to my team at the end of the year. So we’re gonna look to do anything we can to get better. That’s just the reality of it. And I reiterated that to him tonight.
“We’re not out shopping any of our guys. But … if you have a chance to do something that makes sense, you do it. We don’t have that right now.”
Caught in a trap
No, and they didn’t back in February at the trade deadline, either, right before the bottom fell out on a disappointing season. It was then that reports first surfaced suggesting the Pistons were open — maybe even looking — to trade Drummond and Reggie Jackson, the two talents Van Gundy ostensibly built this team around.
And as Van Gundy admitted Thursday night, it was then that the 23-year-old Drummond was “hurt” by the news.
“I think it would be fair to characterize it that way,” Van Gundy said. “Now he’s been through it. Look, any of us would be bothered by it. But it’s a fact of life in the NBA. I mean, two weeks ago, he and Reggie’s names were both in there in trade rumors — on teams we hadn’t even talked to. These things come up.”
That’ll surely continue as the NBA calendar turns to July’s free-agency period and a flurry of activity around the league. Just don’t count on the Pistons playing a big part in any of it.
Because with Jackson’s performance crippled by knee problems last season, and Drummond’s growth clearly stunted — offensively, that’s no coincidence, but his defensive shortcomings remain a glaring issue — the team appears trapped.
There’s talent on the roster, and Kennard — a southpaw with a scorer’s mentality — brings something that was lacking last season, when the Pistons’ painfully-inefficient offense ranked among the league’s worst in 3-point shooting.
”We can be a lot better’
Kennard, who led Duke in scoring (19.4 points per game) as a sophomore, shot 44 percent from deep last season — on 5.4 attempts per game — but he’s not merely a catch-and-shoot option. He’s also a player who moves well without the ball and could help Van Gundy add more offensive creativity to his second unit next season, even if he’s a defensive liability.
Yet coming off a 37-win season, the Pistons — unlike most lottery teams — lack the kind of flexibility financially to do much else to change their fortunes, outside of making a major trade involving one of their starters.
That’ll be even more true if, or when, they pony up to re-sign shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, a restricted free agent who will command a near-max deal this summer, what with teams like Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Phoenix flush with cap space to extend offer sheets. The luxury tax is looming, and even with backup center Aron Baynes opting out of his contract, there’s no room to add veteran help.
That said, there also isn’t any great desire to buy high and sell low, which is where the market suggests the Pistons are at with their two would-be stars right now. But unless the Pistons get things rolling again with Jackson and his ball-dominant pick-and-roll game, and unless Drummond, who is due more than $100 million over the next four years, can look more like the All-Star he was in the first half of 2015-16, Van Gundy may have to do just that.
Thursday night, he was brutally honest about a lot of things. So I guess we’ll have to take him at his word when he says he likes his team as is.
“I’ve said that many times,” Van Gundy said. “We didn’t have a good year. But we can come back with the same group and with better health and guys with a little better focus, I feel we can be a lot better. I like our group. Does that mean we’re not gonna do our due diligence and try to find things that make us better? Not at all.”
So all this trade talk? Drummond and the rest of the Pistons better get used to it.