Pistons flex new bench strength with Smith, Leuer
Auburn Hills — Unlike some teams during free agency, the Pistons didn’t need a complete overhaul or to compete for top-tier players.
The plan for president/coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower was more about improving the roster by bolstering their bench.
They ushered in the next era Friday, introducing their two free-agent acquisitions — point guard Ish Smith and big man Jon Leuer.
“These two young men were targets of ours from the very beginning,” Bower said. “We’re excited to have them with us; we have great hopes for them.”
Hours after free agency began, the Pistons pursued Smith aggressively, reaching an agreement for a reported $18 million over three years. Van Gundy said the Pistons weren’t scared off by the price tags for some of the other point guards, but established their needs quickly and identified Smith — who joins his 10th team — as the best fit.
“That was huge because I’ve been on the opposite end of the spectrum so many times,” Smith said. “I felt honored, humbled about the situation and opportunity here. For me, the team was already in place. (Bower and Van Gundy) have already put together a really good team.
“They knew the needs they needed and that’s probably why I came off the board so quickly. It didn’t take long for me to know this was going to be a good fit.”
Smith averaged 14.7 points and 7 assists in 50 starts last season with the 76ers. He was traded to the 76ers from the Pelicans, where he averaged 8.9 points and 5.7 assists in 27 games.
At 6-foot and 175 pounds, Smith is lauded for his quickness and defensive ability since coming out of Wake Forest, going undrafted in 2010.
“Ish adds great pace to our game,” Van Gundy said. “We can really have a second unit now that can get the ball up and down the floor. ... He’s a pass-first point guard and a guy who gets in the paint and creates.
“You could see from the comments of our two guys who have played with Ish before — Marcus (Morris) and Reggie (Jackson) — how respected he is.”
Leuer is a lower-cost alternative (reportedly four years, $42 million) to some of the other names on the market at power forward, such as Al Horford (four years, $113 million) and Ryan Anderson (four years, $80 million).
Leuer is 6-11 and 230, and was a backup perimeter threat with the Suns last season, averaging 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds in 67 games. He shot 38 percent on 3-pointers.
“Jon is a guy I’ve wanted to get since I was back in Orlando,” Van Gundy said. “We tried to trade for him both years that we were here.
“When we went through the playoff series with our team, it was pretty easy to see with our matchup with (Cavaliers forward) Kevin Love, that matchup presented the problem we just weren’t big enough up front. We needed to play a little bigger.”
With Van Gundy’s offensive system that emphasizes big shooters and perimeter play around the center, it’s another good situation for the versatile big man.
“When free agency started, I knew right away this is the place I wanted to be, knowing how (Van Gundy) coaches and this system would be a really good fit for me,” Leuer said. “I’m thrilled to be here and excited we could make it happen.”
Leuer is slotted ahead of rookie Henry Ellenson (No. 18 pick). Ellenson, 19, has had a good week in the Summer League, but Van Gundy doesn’t want to rush him.
“I remember saying before the draft that nothing that happened draft night would affect what we did in free agency,” Van Gundy said. “I’ve been really impressed with Henry and he could get on the court. We weren’t going to go in counting on a rookie with the 18th pick or 49th pick to be on the floor.”
With his experience, Leuer should be able to hold the position while Ellenson develops.
Jackson has been healthy at point guard, but Smith, in a bind, also could step in and play a larger role. That flexibility and experience is emblematic of Van Gundy’s philosophy in building the roster.