Pistons Mailbag - March 19, 2014

Pistons.com editor Keith Langlois answers your questions about the Pistons and NBA. Click here to submit your questions - please include your name, email address and city/state on the form. Return to the Mailbag homepage.

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Editor’s note: You can now submit Pistons Mailbag questions via Twitter. Include the hashtag #pistonsmailbag and, as always, your first name, hometown and state or country. Questions submitted via Twitter will also include the questioner’s Twitter handle.

Michael (@Michaelptrain23): Would you rather make the playoffs or keep the pick?

Langlois: Easy call. Make the playoffs. Make the playoffs and the pick you’re conveying would be no better than 15th. You’d hope to get a solid player with the 15th pick, but there’s no shortage of opportunities to find solid players. You’d hope to get a great player with a top-three pick and a solid starter with a top-10 pick. Now the choice becomes more difficult. Would you rather keep the pick or go for the playoffs but fail and get left with neither a pick nor a playoff spot? The Pistons for the last four seasons have won games in the final few weeks that affected their lottery position, but it would be hard to argue it cost them on draft night. Greg Monroe clearly would go much higher than No. 7 today and Andre Drummond would go no worse than No. 2 in a redraft of 2012. Brandon Knight and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope probably were drafted right about where they should have been, though the jury remains out in both cases. The Pistons have lost ground in the playoff chase over the past few weeks, not only falling farther behind Atlanta for the No. 8 spot with fewer games left to make it up – six full games behind the Hawks with 16 Pistons games remaining – but also slipping behind both New York and Cleveland as well. They’re going to have to close strong – 11-5? 12-4? – to have a shot. If they do that, it would give them some solid momentum heading into the off-season and evidence that the roster as constructed, plus tweaking, could follow the path management believed it had put the team on with last summer’s additions.

Mark (Sydney, Australia): Injuries aside, would our worst-case scenario be finishing eighth worst and have a team above us move up to the top three in the lottery?

Langlois: I don’t know about worst case – you can always conjure something more horrific than losing a draft pick – but that would be a punch to the gut, Mark. Especially after the Pistons have failed to pull a top-three pick in each of the past four lotteries. To have the odds flip and go against them this time would be tough to swallow. But things are almost never as bad as they seem in pro sports. Turnarounds can happen pretty quickly when you string a few good decisions together and then catch a break or two. The Pistons have drafted really well the past several years now. Fans often have skewed expectations of what the draft should yield, but given the history of NBA drafts and what the realistic expectations should be for picks in the range the Pistons have made them, they really have beaten the odds more often than not. So they’re not starting from scratch. There are plenty of teams today with better records than the Pistons who wouldn’t mind switching rosters for the chance to have young foundational pieces Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe alone. As of this morning, the Pistons are sitting with the eighth-worst record by winning percentage. They’re tied with Cleveland in the standings, but the Cavs have played two more games and split them. Of course, finishing with the eighth-worst record doesn’t guarantee that the Pistons keep the pick. If they get jumped by a team behind them during the May 20 lottery, they’d lose it. There is about an 83 percent chance of keeping the pick should they go into the lottery slotted eighth.

Mike (Bloomfield Hills, Mich.): I’ve been a season ticketholder for 25 years and go to 30 games a year. Now that the playoffs are out of reach, even you have to admit for the long-term health of the franchise they need to lose as many games of the last 16 as possible. I am not for tanking, but this year they need to have one of the worst eight records and keep that pick.

Langlois: First, a sincere thank you from the Pistons for your loyalty and sticking with the team through a down cycle. Over 25 years, you’ve followed a team that’s won three NBA titles. That puts you in pretty rare company. Only fans of the Bulls, Lakers, Heat and Spurs can say likewise. As for the need to lose as many games as possible, I understand what you’re saying in theory. It gets a little messy in practice, though. What do you do? Signal your intent by saying promising young players like Tony Mitchell and Peyton Siva are now going to play major minutes? Concoct fake injuries to multiple rotation players? Instruct the coach to make irrational substitutions or to order disadvantageous matchups? Tell your point guard to commit turnovers, force bad shots or ignore hot shooters? Suggest that players not guard as scrupulously as you’ve implored them to do since training camp’s first day? Throw some hellacious team parties the night before every game and encourage players to stay out as late as possible? As the team president or general manager, there’s a culture you take great pains in attempting to cultivate. You invest in the best people, equipment and resources available to support the belief that winning is of paramount importance. You stress the unwavering need for individual sacrifice to optimize the chances for team success. And then, at some indeterminate tipping point, you tell your subordinates, your coaches and your players to forget all of that for now … but, when you return next year, we’re going to be serious about all the commandments we’ve chiseled in stone? In theory, again, it’s probably easiest to go into tank mode in the off-season, when you cast aside talented players and value expiring contracts and minimum-wage talent above all else. In practice, even that takes an iron constitution. There wasn’t an impartial expert, analyst or observer out there that I’m aware of who didn’t list the Phoenix Suns as one of the surest “tankers” heading into the season. Until very recently, the Suns were in the playoff field in the ultracompetitive Western Conference. Many thought Toronto, as well, was positioning itself for a high lottery pick. The Raptors traded away their best player (or highest-paid, at least) in Rudy Gay and suddenly started winning twice as often as they lost, discovering chemistry in the process. I’d bank on maintaining my organizational principles and believing in my ability to eventually find the right people to strike the right balance – and my faith in karma, of getting out of something what you put into it – above the magic elixir of whatever the No. 8 pick in this draft might do to change Pistons fortunes.

Gary (Middlebury, Ind.): I’m curious to see if we could swap contracts this summer between Milwaukee and Detroit – I’m thinking O.J. Mayo and Josh Smith with a few pieces thrown in to make the cap work. It would be in the Pistons’ best interests to keep Greg Monroe, given that he is younger. Maybe throw in a conditional first-rounder to sweeten the pot like they did with the Gordon-Maggette trade.

Langlois: You’ve got to be careful about throwing around first-rounders, Gary. The fact the Pistons used one in the Gordon-Maggette deal likely would make them a little more hesitant to part with another so soon. First-rounders on rookie contracts can be, and often are, among the most efficient players on a roster if measured by production vs. salary. You’re talking about dealing away a starter and one who plays heavy minutes. The Pistons could slot Kyle Singler at small forward, but they’d really need to fortify their frontcourt depth behind Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe if Smith is gone. Long-term, that would be tougher to do – while also maintaining a competitive roster on the perimeter, too – if you send a second No. 1 pick away in your proposed deal. The Pistons have some good young players now, thanks to good drafting, and the two years Drummond has left on his rookie deal give the Pistons some wiggle room. But dealing away another No. 1 pick would shrink their margin for error in every other personnel decision.

Larry (@LarryOpalewski): How is it possible for a pro team with so many athletes (Smith, Drummond, et al) to be so miserable at defense?

Langlois: Fair question. The Pistons have a matchup advantage in athleticism at center virtually every night, Larry. But Andre Drummond is also one of the league’s youngest players at 20 and came to them as an eager learner but a very raw prospect. He’s a dominant rebounder capable of grabbing boards out of his area, but when you’re out of your area in other aspects of the game, good players will make you pay. Drummond has vast potential as a rim protector but he’s not yet a dominant defender. Josh Smith is an elite athlete, but his athleticism edge is diminished when playing at small forward. Then it’s more of a size-strength advantage, which perhaps is less of an overall plus for the Pistons in an era when the NBA has become weighted more to finesse and shooting. I don’t know that the Pistons have athleticism matchup advantages at the other spots. Both Maurice Cheeks and John Loyer have often talked about the need to be better at stopping dribble penetration this season, a real concern. Brandon Jennings has to battle through picks that make it tough on his slight frame. Once that first line of defense is cracked, the Pistons have to go into scramble mode – reaction and recovery – and that requires a level of cohesion and chemistry that has proven elusive. I think I was as guilty as anyone of underestimating that aspect coming into the season. It’s been a struggle. The Pistons aren’t pretty offensively, but their offense – by and large – works pretty well. They’ve averaged more than 100 points a game this season, which should have been enough to finish .500. They’d have to go 16-0 to do so now.

Brian (@Brian_Parker5): Any word on Andre Drummond? Is he practicing or doing anything?

Langlois: He’s out for tonight’s game at Denver, Brian. We’ll see after that. If he doesn’t practice Thursday in Phoenix, it would be unlikely he’d play Friday against the Suns. But it appears he dodged any serious injury when his head ran into the brick wall that is Roy Hibbert’s thigh. His neck was stiff and turning his head in either direction was painful, but tests showed nothing serious. I wouldn’t expect him to be sidelined for the remainder of the season unless the initial round of tests missed something and his pain and stiffness linger.

Michael (Sydney, Australia): I’ve never liked the idea of making Brandon Jennings the franchise point guard. The Pistons are more likely headed to the lottery instead of the playoffs. Should the Pistons draft someone like Marcus Smart and shift Jennings to the bench role or trade him?

Langlois: I’d be surprised if Smart were still available if the Pistons take the No. 8 spot into the lottery and stay there, Michael. I saw Smart hold his own against the very best of the NBA’s young point guards – Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday – last July in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball minicamp. He’s got a great NBA body, he’s smart and he’s tough. He needs a more consistent perimeter shot, but there’s no reason to think he won’t become at least an average NBA perimeter shooter. And he’s got the makeup to become an elite defensive point guard. If the Pistons keep their lottery pick and wind up with Marcus Smart, I don’t think anyone would regret the choice. But that’s not an indictment of Jennings. It’s been a disappointing season for the Pistons, but Jennings has performed well, all things considered. The lack of consistent perimeter shooting the Pistons field in their starting lineup makes it tough for Jennings to find many openings to attack.