Beard: Five ways I’d try to fix the Pistons
After making the playoffs last season, the Pistons won 37 games this year. It was a disappointing turn in the third year for Stan Van Gundy, who wears both hats in his dual role as the team president and coach. It wasn’t the expected return to the postseason, nor was it the rematch with the Cleveland Cavaliers to prove last season’s sweep was a fluke.
What now? How do the Pistons move forward — in what will be a defining year for Van Gundy and for the roster he put together — as they head into their first year at Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit?
I’ll tell you. I’ll go Van Gundy and wear a second hat as well — as the beat writer and team president for a day — to try to fix the Pistons. Here’s a look at the changes and roster moves I’d make to help to get them back on the right track:
1. Decide on an identity
It’s the first step in deciding a direction for a franchise. Are we going to be a pick-and-roll team? Can the 3-point shooting improve? What’s our identity as a team?
If we remain a pick-and-roll offense, then that means we’re keeping both Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. It’s not a popular call, but unless there’s something better on the trade market — without giving up too much for too little — there’s no point. I’m not giving up either of the franchise cornerstones for a couple of draft picks.
The roster is built around Jackson, who wasn’t near 100 percent this season. I believe this year was more the anomaly and 2015-16 was more who Reggie Jackson really is — and that he can get back there if his knee tendinitis isn’t a big issue and he gets completely healthy.
The defense improved this year, but the offense lagged, mostly because Jackson only played 52 games and Ish Smith, one of the key free-agent acquisitions last season, had to play 32 games as a starter.
2. Look at the trade market
Trade everybody! That got your attention, right? Although many Pistons fans would agree with that plan, it’s not the way to turn things around. Trade Drummond? For whom? An escalating contract with $24 million for next season and three more years won’t be easy to unload. Then, who would we get in return?
There aren’t very many good options out there, but if we’re set on trading, here’s one to consider: the Nets’ Brook Lopez. That’s not a bad exchange, but it’s sacrificing one of the best rebounders in the league for a significant return in versatility on offense. Lopez is on an expiring deal worth $22.6 next season and he added the 3-pointer to his repertoire, hitting 35 percent. That’s about the same rate as Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Striking a deal with the Nets won’t be easy, but without their first-round draft picks this year and next, they could have a franchise player to build around. If they’re convinced Drummond could be that, it could be the way to go.
Getting rid of Drummond is not a must — he’s got plenty more upside and he hasn’t scratched the surface to being the dominant big man that he can be. That’s my job No. 1: to figure out how to draw that out of him. Based on my end-of-season meeting with Drummond, I’d have a better sense of whether it’s worth pursuing a trade or giving it another — with a healthy Jackson making Drummond more effective in the pick-and-roll — or looking elsewhere.
3. Re-sign KCP
This is another hot-button issue with the fan base — but it’s a necessary move.
Forget about the argument of whether Caldwell-Pope is worth a max contract for a minute — there just aren’t very many other options. For what he brings on defense, along with his improvement on offense, there’s something to like in his game, plus reason to believe he’ll continue to improve.
Caldwell-Pope is only 24 and has plenty more improvement to make — and he has the work ethic to get there. His versatility in guarding either backcourt position is rare in the NBA, and because we didn’t jump last season at what likely would have been his asking price of $18-$20 million, the extra is just the tax. We’ll have to save the money from the salary cap elsewhere.
4. Play the young guys
Play more guys. Play different guys. Adjust the rotation to have a better sense of what players like Boban Marjanovic and Henry Ellenson can bring. It finally came in the last four games of the season, after the Pistons were eliminated from the playoffs, but why not sooner?
If Marjanovic is going to be the backup center next season after Aron Baynes’ departure, he needed to get more game time to figure out what the offseason plan will be. As it turned out, Marjanovic averaged 15.8 points and 10.8 rebounds. Of course, that’s a small sample size and some of that came against second- and third-string centers, but it’s an indication of what he can do. I’m going to let Boban be Boban, defensive deficiencies and all.
Ellenson had the same concerns about his defensive abilities. He’s going to learn through baptism by fire. We may lose some games, but we’re going to figure out what we have in him. Jon Leuer played the most minutes of his career; having a rotation of four forwards by giving Ellenson some of those minutes can work.
5. Tweak the roster
There’s no clear place to do it, but with Baynes, Reggie Bullock and Beno Udrih likely gone, there’s some space to wiggle with lower-priced talent, including through the draft with what’s likely the No. 12 pick. There’s some extra room with the mid-level exception, to bring in a lower-priced veteran who can be a leader.
It’s time to make a decision on Stanley Johnson. He’s an asset defensively, but it’s been difficult to fit into the offense, with his turnovers and shot selection. Some of that, I’m just going to have to live with.
The bigger question is whether he fits in the long term. He has the talent and upside to be a starter, but in the current configuration, he’s going to have a hard time passing either Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris in the starting lineup.
It’s not time to give up; rather, it’s time to make a decision.
That’s the plan. It might blow up in my face — and my one-day contract might not be renewed by team owner Tom Gores — or the Pistons could be on the way to a playoff spot, making a big jump back to the playoffs, like the Wizards and Bucks this season.
And if it works, Gores can double my salary as a volunteer team president.
As a matter of fact, if it works, triple it.