Sitting on the edge of the playoffs, the Pistons have discovered a rare sense of hope among the often despair franchise. For once, the future looks bright. But the last place an NBA team wants to end up is in perennial 8-seed purgatory--not quite a contender, but just good enough to miss out on the spoils of tanking. What are some potential moves Stan Van Gundy can plan for this offseason to keep his team on a track for growth?
With the offseason approaching, the Pistons are in an interesting state. They're an 'up-and-coming' team in a notoriously soft conference, but don't pose a serious threat to come out of the East. It's like the first layer of paint has settled; Stan Van Gundy can't leave it as is, he has to round out the roster, but also has to be increasingly more selective about what the team needs. In the next few weeks, I'll be highlighting various ways he can address those needs as part of a series called "On The Cusp." Part 1 will focus on the '16 NBA Draft, where the Pistons are projected to pick 18th in the 1st round.
Today, at age 30 when most NBA players are at the tail end of their prime, Darko Milicic is a professional kickboxer. He's 0-1 after suffering a leg injury so bad the referee stopped the fight. Almost as laughable as his reputation as a fighter is his reputation as arguably the greatest NBA Draft bust of all time. All of this is to show that the Draft is mostly a crapshoot. There are "sure things" once in a blue moon--Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Karl Anthony Towns--while every other pick is a gamble to some degree. Even those prospects, the obvious No. 1 types, came with questions. Remember when KD couldn't bench 185 pounds once? Spoiler alert: he figured it out pretty fast. But it's this uncertainty around the draft that leads to the highest highs (see: Boston landing Isaiah Thomas with the last pick), and the lowest lows (see: Darko). For a team like the Pistons, a non-FA destination on the fragile upswing of NBA relevance, they can't afford to whiff with their pick. Projected to have around 14 million dollars in cap room this summer, Detroit's going to have just enough space to sign either a complementary star or a collection of lesser-valued players that fill holes for them, but they won't have enough to put a top-tier guy next to Drummond. In other words, it'd be a big win if they could find a productive player on a rookie contract in addition to any free agent moves. Here's 4 players that they might want to target:
Demetrius Jackson - PG 6'1, 201 lbs
Pro comp: Eric Bledsoe
The Notre Dame junior is a little small for the next level, but is already drawing comparisons to Russell Westbrook with his explosive, fearless drives to the basket. To me, he's Eric Bledsoe with a little Kyle Lowry thrown in the mix. He's a good shooter, better than Bledsoe, but not a deadly one. On Pick & Rolls is where he really shines, where he's actively probing the defense with a never-ending series of funky in-and-outs and hesitation dribbles before blasting into the interior where he loves finishing through contact. Also very capable as a P&R passer--whether its a pocket-pass, a kick-out, or a lob. On defense, he's an absolute hound, has good ball pressure and fights around screens, although he'll have problems with bigger guards in the pros.
The Pistons need him for:
Another P&R playmaker that could also be groomed to fit into the defensive identity SVG is building.
The Andre Drummond dive to the rim off the P&R is such a central part of Detroit's offense, and Reggie Jackson is currently the only reliable guard that can run it. Having Demetrius Jackson as another option when Reggie rests, or even when they share the floor would go a long way to spicing up the offense without complicating the system, especially if Demetrius can provide much-needed floor spacing by knocking down the open 3. On the other end of the floor, Demetrius would have to improve on his off-ball defense, but he would seem to fit in with the Piston's budding profile of athletic, physical defenders (Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Reggie, Drummond). He probably won't be available with the 18th pick, but if he is, the Pistons should take a hard look at Jackson.
Tyler Ulis - PG 5'9, 160 lbs
Pro comp: Isaiah Thomas
Due to similar stature, Isaiah Thomas is the obvious comparison for the Kentucky prospect, but they really do offer similar strengths and weaknesses. Ulis is a really funky playmaker with an uncanny change of speed on both fastbreaks and in the halfcourt. Like IT, he's not a traditional pass-first point guard, but he's not a selfish player either, he's simply a shot creator. He's not quite as crafty with the ball as Thomas yet, and some of his straight line drives will get snuffed out by better rim protectors, but he already has a growing bag of deep step-backs and pull-ups. Shot is streaky, but he can score. One move he could steal from IT is the little fake-spin hesitation dribble he uses to blow by his first defender. Ulis could also use a more polished floater game to make finishing inside easier. His height should be less of an issue on offense, and more so on the other end, where he has good defensive principles, but at 5'9 will be a liability. He's a pest on that end, has good timing on his gambles, and his stickiness nets him a lot of charges, but he'll have trouble guarding someone like Shaun Livingston, who will just post the crap out of him.
The Pistons need him for:
The same reason they'd draft Demetrius Jackson, a secondary ball-handler that could relieve some pressure off of Reggie Jackson.
His style is different than Demetrius, but the Pistons would look for similar contributions from Ulis -- particularly productivity out of the P&R -- although Ulis offers more tough shot-making when the offense breaks down than Demetrius. Ulis will be an inferior on-ball defender, but has better feel for off-ball defense than Demetrius right now, who is totally lost in that facet of the game.
Furkan Korkmaz - SG 6'7, 185 lbs
Pro comp: Doug McDermott
The memory of Darko still makes Pistons fans cringe at the idea of drafting another European prospect with a first round pick, but the Turkish Korkmaz has potential. He's shown an ability to take and make tough shots in isolation, and has a nice stroke on catch-and-shoot 3s. Like McDermott, Korkmaz needs only a small amount of space to get his jumper off, he's got a quick release, and a nice pump-fake to get cleaner looks. When he doesn't have the ball, he likes to cut hard to the rim and has nice timing and finishing ability down there. In P&Rs, he's like if you bought the free version of CJ McCollum and it only came with herky-jerky crossovers into pull-up twos. Very fluid athlete that can get those pull-up twos off, but doesn't hit them at a great clip yet. Creative passer, but often turns it over going for the hail-mary pass rather than the easy one. The biggest issue with him is that he isn't an elite shooter from anywhere on the floor, and doesn't get to the line, but he's only 18 and if he keeps improving his shooting, the looks that he can generate will be very valuable. Thin frame and poor defensive posture will make him a defensive sieve in the league, and he won't be able to stay on the floor his first year because of it. Makes good gambles for steals, but is often caught ball-watching. Potential for a bust, pretty high ceiling.
The Pistons need him for:
Spacing. Detroit ranks in the top 11 for 3s taken this year and rank in the bottom 8 for 3pt percentage. Korkmaz is also a confident playmaker out of the P&R (can you guess what I think the Pistons' biggest need on offense is?), and if he grows into his body and sharpens his defensive fundamentals the hope is that he'd at least develop on defense to the point where he's not unplayable. Korkmaz is a risk, but this isn't the #2 pick, where the pressure to land a franchise-changer is high, this is lower-mid lottery. If Korkmaz is their best option, they might want to gamble on an unknown commodity with a potentially high payoff.
Source: not provided
Denzel Valentine - SG/SF 6'6, 223
Pro comp: Greivis Vasquez
Everyone and their mother seems to think Denzel Valentine has a shot at being the next Draymond Green. I guarantee you he's not. They just don't offer the same weapons on the court. Draymond's biggest strength is that he's a good enough in the post to defend NBA bigs, is quick enough to jump out and smother a P&R, is long enough to offer great closeouts, has the timing to jump passing lanes and block shots. He might be the most productive defensive player in the league! Valentine just isn't that kind of player. The Michigan native, Lansing born-and-raised, isn't great moving laterally or vertically, and I think he'll have a hard time guarding NBA wings. Imagine Wiggins taking him to the rim. What the hometown kid does offer, though, is very good shooting, especially off the catch, and a feel for the game that is beyond his years. He's a deft passer, and is always scanning the floor. His court vision is always on, and he's scrappy on the glass. His lack of quickness limits him from getting to the line, and I feel he'll be inefficient finishing over NBA guys.
The Pistons need him for:
Spacing and tempo. Valentine's ability to catch and shoot combined with his willingness to move the ball to an open shooter could really unlock Detroit's offense. Also, his scrappy board-work should ?add to the Piston's elite offensive rebounding totals (thanks to Andre "3000 Putbacks" Drummond), where defenders are less likely to box out a perimeter guy running in to crash the glass. If Valentine can avoid being a complete catastrophe on defense, he'll also be able to fill in for Tobias Harris and KCP to stay fresh.
The 18th pick probably won't be the factor that makes the Pistons a contender. If that happens, it will be interior growth (Drummond becomes a top 10 player, KCP becomes an elite perimeter defender, etc.). Or, it could come in a big personnel change. However, there is nothing more valuable than getting productivity out of a rookie contract, and the only way to get that value is through the draft. With major needs for spacing, P&R playmaking, and a secondary ball-handler, the Pistons need to find ways to improve without slicing too far into their cap space. They're going to need every bit of it if they want to land a franchise-changing star.
Skal Labissiere, who is a homeless man's version of Chris Bosh. Didn't include him because he's projected to go much higher.
Domantas Sabonis, a big man with the motor of a NASA rocket.