As the season winds down through the final three weeks, the Pistons are on a relative high, coming off their first back-to-back wins since Feb. 7.
They’re not completely out of the playoff hunt, but barring an immense collapse by the Milwaukee Bucks, currently in eighth place in the East, they’ll be in the draft lottery for the second straight season, likely sending their first-round pick to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Blake Griffin deal.
They have Reggie Jackson back healthy and are looking to see what they can glean from the final dozen games with him in the lineup and how well their version of the Big Three — Griffin, Jackson and Andre Drummond — can fit together next season and beyond.
Even with a shred of opportunity remaining this season, there’s an eye on what changes could be made for the future to help keep the Pistons competitive.
This week’s Pistons mailbag answers early questions about the late-season push and plans for the future.
■ Question. What is the % likelihood that the Pistons re-sign Tolliver and Ennis, respectively? —@shamshammgod
■ Answer. Any offseason roster questions will have to be tempered with the Pistons’ tight situation with contracts the salary cap. Tolliver’s one-year deal for $3.3 million this season was a bargain and the price tag likely would increase for next season. He is a valuable veteran leader on the court and in the locker room, and supplanted Henry Ellenson early in the season as the backup power forward. Ellenson can only start to grow if given playing time, and as long as Griffin and Tolliver are ahead of him, that’s not likely to happen.
Ennis’ is a different situation. He’s been a suitable backup and started eight games. He shoots 36 percent from 3-point range and plays good defense. His contract is $3 million and will be an unrestricted free agent. The Pistons will have to play the market and see if a suitable replacement is available, but it’s not likely at that price.
■ Q. What potential work, if any, can the Pistons do in the off-season? — @PleaseCallMeDjm
■ A. There’s plenty of work that can be done in skills development to improve. Outside of a trade, that’s the most likely way the roster can improve. For Jackson, just getting healthy will be the goal, gaining strength without pushing his body too hard. If he can come back completely healthy with no setbacks from the knee tendinitis or ankle issues, that would be ideal.
For Stanley Johnson and Ish Smith, they’ll need to continue working on their 3-point shot. Drummond also is looking to add a mid-range jumper — and maybe a 3-pointer — to his arsenal. Even Griffin, seemingly the most versatile of the starters, will look to establish better chemistry with his teammates with some pick-up games before training camp.
Younger players such as Luke Kennard and Ellenson will continue to hone their games with workouts, which could include time in the Las Vegas Summer League to give them some live action.
■ Q. Why would a team of professionals, with (realistically) no draft pick to tank for, stop trying when they could be 7-8 seed with Reggie back? — @D_Schandy24
■ A. It’s not that they’re not trying — it’s that they weren’t trying hard enough. It’s very hard to play at a high level for an entire 82-game schedule — and yes, I know that’s the expectation, but it’s not realistic. A sales manager, a mechanic, an office attendant or even a fast-food worker will have days that they have it and days they don’t. As they reach toward Game 60 and Game 70, some players tend to wear down, especially younger players.
The Pistons have no reason to tank, but maintaining that level of focus and production is a difficult task. It happens to every team, but seemed to happen to the Pistons at the most inopportune time of the year. It’s another level of their development that will have to happen if they’re going to lift themselves out of the middling category of NBA teams.
■ Q. What do you think is the Pistons’ biggest need this offseason? — @MrESPN
■ A. The quick answer is a slick-shooting first-round pick, but I digress. More than anything, given their roster situation, they’ll need a player to come back better than before. This year, that was Reggie Bullock. Next year, it could be Kennard or Ellenson.
The biggest need overall is a healthy Reggie Jackson, who will complete their Big Trio.