As I continue to look at the options for the Pistons starting lineup, today I cover the pros and cons of Jon Leuer in the starting five.
Why Leuer Should Start
The most common argument for Leuer starting is that he is a "true power forward", which admittedly doesn't hold a whole lot of sway in today's NBA. The better way to put it is that Tobias Harris is a bit undersized as a four, and Leuer is actually pretty big for a four, big enough to even play center.
Stan Van Gundy has not made any secrets about the fact that he doesn't really like playing Tobias as the starting four because of the size differences. Remember that Tobias was never really even supposed to go into that role, as at the same trade deadline when the Pistons acquired Harris, they also traded for a big power forward in Donatas Motiejunas, who in theory was to take over full-time at the four spot. With that in mind, it wasn't exactly a shock that SVG gave Leuer a try as a starter last year, or that he would do it again this year. The real question is whether or not it would be a good idea.
While I'm not sure I think a lack of size at the four spot is as big an issue as SVG does, it is undeniable that having Leuer next to Andre Drummond made some headaches go away defensively as Andre no longer had to get every rebound and was not the only guy on the floor who could consistently be any sort of deterrent in the paint.
It was particularly beneficial on the offensive glass, as Leuer found himself in the same beneficial position as Ersan Ilyasova had the previous year. Andre takes so much attention to keep off the glass that you can pick your spots to scrounge some easy put-backs when sharing the floor with him, and Leuer found himself in the 92nd percentile for efficiency on put-backs last year, an increase from the 79th percentile the previous year in Phoenix.
Whether or not Leuer is a good option to start will rely pretty heavily on whether or not last year was an outlier shooting the ball from deep for him. He entered last season as a career 37 percent shooter and coming off a season in Phoenix where he shot 38 percent from deep.
That did not carry over into last year, as he shot just 29 percent from deep and not on very high volume either, and after the All-Star break he shot just 20 percent from deep and by the end of the year it was almost painful to watch as he would catch the ball behind the arc and pump fake despite being wide open to drive into a packed paint. Although I would be shocked if his deep ball was that broken again, if it is, then he isn't really viable as a starter for the kind of offense the Pistons want to run. However, if he can shoot closer to 35 percent, he suddenly becomes much more attractive. He can be a viable off-ball threat, he helps the Pistons more on defense than any of their other options at the four spot, and he does a lot of other things that just make your team better with great effort, whip smart passing, and ability to kill teams when the switch smaller guys onto him.
Could it be that starting Leuer over Tobias would potentially not actually lose out on too much shot creation? Although Leuer is obviously not the all around scoring threat as Harris, Leuer finished last year in the 83rd percentile in the NBA in post up efficiency and was very good with the shot clock under four seconds. That is not on terribly high volume, but in theory, he could take on a few more post up looks as an alternative to the constant pick and roll dance for Reggie and Andre.
Essentially, Leuer as a starter would have some of the geometry work well. If you bring Tobias off the bench, then the starting lineup is entirely geared towards the Jackson/Drummond pick and roll, as Leuer doesn't need the ball in his hands to be useful in the same way as Tobias does, while at the same time providing enough as a post up player to offer a decent alternative to the hundreds of pick and rolls. And Leuer helps plug some holes on defense to help take some pressure off of Andre to do everything, while also taking advantage of Andre's gravitational pull on the offensive glass.
Even with his horrible outside shooting, Leuer finished last year with a true shooting of 55 percent. He is a true complementary player who will not get in the way of the Pistons' two cornerstones while, in theory, providing just enough extra stuff to be really useful next to them. With all that said, if he shoots miserably again, I don't see how you can justify starting him.
Why He Shouldn't Start
What if he can't shoot? He has some history of being a pretty good shooter from outside dating all the way back to his high school career, but it is entirely possible that last year was not a fluke. Despite entering the year with a 37 percent career mark, he had played so little up to that point that he nearly took as many threes last year as he had in the rest of his career combined, and his career percentage now sits at 34 percent.
It was truly worrying the way he broke mentally, he couldn't hit outside shots, and didn't want to take them, and opponents knew it. If he shoots like that again, then you can't have him start, or even play very heavy minutes, as there is simply no way to run a spread pick and roll offense when one of your spot up shooters can be freely and totally ignored. Especially if they bring Tobias off the bench to start Stanley Johnson next to Leuer, as it would likely be a fatal lack of shooting.
Beyond his shooting though, is that Leuer is probably just not a starting caliber player. A good backup, but not a starter. For instance, one of Leuer's best strengths is that despite being legitimately big, he has some real ball skills, whether that be putting it on the floor, passing, finishing at tough angles, or drawing fouls, which makes him a fairly versatile offensive player even without good outside shooting.
The ranks of backup power forwards of the NBA are not exactly full of versatile defenders, and as such, Leuer can find ways to beat guys with regularity when going against backups. As a starter in today's NBA though, it is expected that power forwards have some basic ball skills and as such guys are used to defending them. So instead of being a versatile offensive player who can find holes in the opponents game and exploit them, no matter what they may be, he becomes just a fairly run of the mill offensive player except that he can't shoot threes.
Lastly is the fact that as a backup, he will play with Ish Smith more, which is particularly beneficial to Leuer. Other than a fairly cramped floor in the half-court as a result of them sharing the floor, they are a great fit together. Ish's best ability remains his ability to push the ball at every opportunity, and that is an area where Leuer thrives.
For starters, he is just a good fast break player, he has the right combination of motor and speed to run with Ish at every chance, and his ability to catch and finish in a variety of ways, whether slamming it home over someone or a tough layup around a big, make him a great passing partner for the finishing challenged Smith. Leuer's ball handling abilities also really shine on the break and give Ish another option to give the ball off too and have confidence he won't screw it up. Beyond just that, is that even if they don't finish a fast break with an immediate bucket, pushing the ball creates confusion and mismatches, and as stated earlier, Leuer absolutely owns smaller guys in the post. Simply put, his lack of shooting from deep limits his usefulness in the half court, but on the break, it doesn't really matter that he isn't a good three-point shooter, and Ish helps create those opportunities as much as anyone in the NBA.
For what it's worth, the numbers are not overly striking, but he just generally played better coming off the bench than he did as a starter. His most striking split remains the pre and post All Star break, regardless of starting or not, but his numbers are generally better coming off the bench.
I think Leuer should come off the bench, at least to start the season. If he shows that he has fixed his outside shot then maybe they can bring him back as a starter, but I just don't think the Pistons can risk him crapping the bed again. Beyond that, I just believe he is a much better fit as a versatile bench player than a starter.
From what I see, the only good argument to start Leuer is if you really feel that Tobias should not be playing any significant minutes at the four anymore because there is no way I'm starting Leuer next to Stanley. How he starts the year will be important though, as he has real skills to be a rock solid player who brings a lot of value to the team, much like he did before the break last year. However there is going to be some real pressure on him for minutes from both Anthony Tolliver and Henry Ellenson this year, and if he plays poorly, I don't think SVG will hesitate to pull him from the rotation altogether.
What do you think? Should Leuer start? Should he be in the rotation at all?
This game against the Pelicans is a great example of the damage he can do when he finds himself guarded by smaller guys regularly.