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Pistons Mailbag: Small forward remains an issue

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s always good to get the first victory of a month — even if it comes two weeks into it. Win streaks start with just that: one win.

The Pistons got off the Giant Slide of a seven-game losing streak and stayed above .500 with their win over the Atlanta Hawks on Thursday and have another tough one against the surging Indiana Pacers on Friday.

It’s only a relief they didn’t lose to the Hawks, who have the worst record in the league. It doesn’t mean everything is better, but if the Pistons had lost … well, let’s just not consider what coach Stan Van Gundy’s postgame press conference would have been like.

This week the mailbag takes a look at more rotation questions, plus my taste in music:

Question: Is coach Van Gundy getting in GM Van Gundy’s ear about finding him a 3&D starting wing, and is the price Stanley Johnson or more? — @hermaphro

Answer: I imagine there is significant back-and-forth conversation within the all-in-one Van Gundy. I’d imagine that’s the one weak spot he senses in an otherwise good roster: lack of depth at small forward. Johnson has had ample opportunity to show he can take the starting position and run with it, but has had — at best — mixed results.

“He had a really good practice (Wednesday) and I told him: ‘No. 1, I want to see that every day and I asked him why I can’t get that every day,’” Van Gundy said Thursday. “That’s my concern: I don’t get that energy all the time; I don’t get what I know you can bring nightly.”

That’s part of the growth process for Johnson — and Van Gundy has been resolute that he’s just not going to hand out playing time; Johnson has to earn it and continue to deserve it. I wouldn’t even start to hazard a guess of what his current trade value might be.

In any case, it’s too early to give up on a 21-year-old prospect, with his athletic upside. Many have said that Van Gundy is using him properly, but that’s the role that’s available right now. The same could be said for the last two first-round picks: Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard. There has to be a mix of win-now and building for the future, which is a hard balance to strike.

Q. What does Anthony Tolliver do that Ellenson can’t? — @M_Donlon

A. There were several similar questions submitted, but this one piqued my interest because of the attachment to Tolliver. Of all the storylines this season, Tolliver’s resurgence is maybe one of the biggest developments of the year. The Pistons re-signed Tolliver after they saw the void in leadership last season without him.

On the court, he’s distinguished himself as a go-to defender against the likes of Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo, while still contributing on the offensive end — and not just with 3-point shooting. For his salary, Tolliver has turned out to be an even better bargain than Marcus Morris was on his contract.

Tolliver is an excellent communicator and has the respect of everyone in the locker room and is a key liaison with the coaches. Henry Ellenson is not that yet. He’ll be a good player and could become a big piece for the Pistons — eventually. He’s 21 years old and has plenty of years to develop all aspects of his game. They’ve worked with Ellenson as backup center, to try to find more playing time for him.

Q. What would you say is our biggest strength and biggest weakness so far? — @TheRealSugar99

A. The depth is maybe the biggest strength, with their bench outplaying most other teams’ the majority of the time. That takes significant pressure off the starters to have to be at peak performance every night — and during the recent skid, they obviously haven’t.

Their biggest weakness is inconsistency. It’s forcing Van Gundy to make more decisions in the rotation than normal and try to figure out alternate playing groups. There is not one leading scorer, which can be good, but it also means sometimes having to search for the right piece that works on a given night.

Q. Who are your top five MC’s of all time? — @bigdrawls55

A. I have a different, old-school-flavored taste. Since you said MC’s, I’ll list emcees, rather than just rappers: Rakim, Tupac, B.I.G, Big Daddy Kane and Jay-Z (no order). KRS-One and Black Thought aren’t far behind.