Pistons, Leuer want remedy to ‘frustrating’ finish
In the Pistons’ last win of the season, Jon Leuer put up a 3-pointer and seemed to exhale when he finally got the desired result.
It went in.
For one of the Pistons’ biggest free-agent acquisitions from last summer, the shots haven’t been easy nor plentiful in the second half of the season. It’s been a long, hard first go-around, with many ups and downs. That 3-pointer against the Memphis Grizzlies on April 9 dropped — his first in a season-long seven-game drought — and his last in his final 12 attempts of the season.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way.
Leuer, at 6-foot-10, was projected to be a key missing link for the Pistons: a big man who could guard stretch forwards and move over to play centers in small lineups. That was one of the Pistons’ bugaboos last season, as the Cavaliers’ Kevin Love feasted and helped sweep them out of the playoffs.
Last season, Leuer shot a career-best 38 percent from beyond the arc with the Phoenix Suns. The Pistons rewarded him with a four-year deal worth $42 million, with high hopes that he could bring that same magic to their frontline, alongside Marcus Morris and Andre Drummond.
Not so much.
Leuer finished at 29 percent — with an encouraging 33 percent before the All-Star break and an abysmal 21 percent in the final 24 games. Part of the issue was playing a career-high 26 minutes per game, seven more per game than he played with the Suns.
“It’s something we have to talk about with him. Jon was a very good player through the first 50 games of the season — one of the best power forwards in the league — and over the last 25 games, one of the worst,” coach Stan Van Gundy said. “How does that happen? The guy had a couple bad games and totally lost his confidence.”
He was splitting time at the forward spots with Morris and Tobias Harris. The results just haven’t followed along with the increase in role. He shot 123 3-pointers in his first 51 games; in the final 24, he attempted just 44 — or almost 50 percent fewer. The ball just wasn’t going in and it affected Leuer’s game.
“I just didn’t play at the level I’m capable of. It’s frustrating when you know you’re better than how you’re playing,” Leuer said. “I just wasn’t as consistent as I’d like to be and that’s something I’m going to focus on this offseason and just try to be better, like everyone in this locker room.”
Finding his shot
Van Gundy is counting on individual player improvement, with some likely changes to the roster, as components to the summer plan. He downplayed the likelihood of any blockbuster deal to enhance the roster — that seemed to be the idea last season, to go hard in free agency after Leuer, Ish Smith and Boban Marjanovic — to help augment the roster.
There’s no rush to judgment to cast away underperforming players just based off one year, but there’s also an increased urgency to find out what’s ailing the offense. The Pistons were one of the worst 3-point-shooting teams in the league, but Leuer turned out to be a more efficient scorer inside the arc than maybe they’d planned.
That, along with improved shooting, is the hope that Van Gundy is pinning some of his hopes on, that this season was just an anomaly and Leuer will get back to his career numbers — sooner than later.
“Jon has a lot of talent; he’s a good player, cares a great deal, is committed and plays hard. We’ve got to work through the whole confidence thing,” Van Gundy said. “He’s a lot better than he played down the stretch.”
The road to improvement may not entirely be on the court, though. If Leuer did wear down a little the solution could be in getting stronger and gaining stamina, so that he can push through the end of the season.
“That will definitely be something in my strength and conditioning that I’m focusing on, just being able to maintain that throughout the season,” Leuer said. “I didn’t feel worn down or anything — I just didn’t play as well; it’s as simple as that.
“I’m going to have to figure it out and play better.”
The big question is whether the Pistons will have to shed salary in order to stay under the cap and that could mean making some tough roster decisions.
With Leuer, the Pistons had the luxury of bringing rookie big man Henry Ellenson along slowly, playing him mostly in the D-League this season. They finally took an extended look at Ellenson in the last four games — and the rookie responded with 9.8 points and 7.3 rebounds, with 30 percent on 3-pointers.
If Ellenson continues to improve over the summer, he could push one of the incumbents out of playing time, making for a full house of forwards — and potential trade bait. There’s no indication that the Pistons are looking to trade any of them, but Van Gundy only conceded that most of the roster would be back next season, so anything is possible.
That’s not an immediate concern for Leuer, who just will concentrate on solidifying his game and getting more consistent.
“Any time you can get into a rhythm and make shots, that builds confidence. When the ball’s not going in, like I know I can shoot, it’s frustrating,” he said. “I never felt like confidence is an issue for me. This is basketball: my confidence won’t be shaken by a basketball game.
“If you’re missing shots, you’re missing shots — just keep shooting and believe it’s going in. When it’s not going in, it gets a bit frustrating. There was some frustration there, but I wouldn’t call it (a confidence issue).”