Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Pistons' draft problem


If all things hold, the Pistons will have the number 8 pick in the draft, a windfall that few expected the team to have prior to the season. With one of the deepest drafts in recent memory, the new Pistons GM will have an opportunity to make a big splash in his first offseason. Unfortunately, the 8th pick stands as one of the worst for the Pistons to have in this draft.

The team's needs are clear: athletic wing player who can space the floor and defend. With Drummond, Monroe, Smith, Jerebko, Harrellson, and Mitchell at the power forward and center positions, the team would be ill-advised to add another top-tier draftee to those ranks; at some point, that depth begins to stunt the growth of young players and fails to optimize their talents and potential. In the back court, Brandon Jennings, though coming off of a underperforming season, remains a young, talented point guard with ample backups (Will Bynum is an effective backup PG and Peyton Siva began showing signs of life late in the season). Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had a disappointing rookie season but one that showed potential, and Kyle Singler continues cementing himself as a solid rotation player. But the Pistons are bereft a true small forward.

The consensus top of the NBA lottery has two wing players: Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. If the Pistons manage to win the lottery--let's be honest, this is never happening, but it's fun to dream--they'll have a decision to make that is nearly impossible to screw up. Unfortunately, beyond those two, most scouts have a bevy of power forwards and guards filling the draft boards: Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, Noah Vonleh, Marcus Smart, Gary Harris, Tyler Ennis, Nik Stauskas, and Dario Saric. It isn't until the #13 player (Doug McDermott, who is not a player the Pistons want on their roster) on Chad Ford's Big Board that another small forward makes an appearance.

The falloff between the top-tier wing players in the draft and the mid-tier is severe. Reaching down draft boards to grab a position of need is both a risky proposition and against the traditional thinking most NBA GMs. With a new head of basketball operations in Detroit, it's unlikely he'll take a gamble on someone like James Young. This leaves the Pistons in quite a predicament in which they have, in my view three options.

Take the best available
Arms like wut?

If you follow ESPN mock drafts, this would be either Indiana PF Noah Vonleh (Chad Ford) or Syracuse PG Tyler Ennis (Jeff Goodman). Other players in that general range include Oklahoma State PG Marcus Smart, Arizona PF Aaron Gordon, and Michigan State SG Gary Harris. Noah and Gordon present roster-fit problems for the Pistons who do not need another power forward. Meanwhile, I'm not sold on Tyler Ennis as a top-10 pick and believe that Jennings can blossom into a more complete point guard if he has a coach that knows what he's doing.

Gary Harris, meanwhile, should blossom into a good shooting guard, but drafting him will signal an end to KCP's long-term future with the Pistons. I'm still bullish on KCP and believe that next season will see significant improvements in his finishing abilities, spot-up shooting, and ability to affect games. I don't believe Harris has a higher ceiling than KCP. Drafting him to replace the sophomore shooting guard would be premature and reactionary.

Though this option doesn't present any slam dunk options for the Pistons, I believe it's the path the team will take. Having a new GM complicates things here. Without previous experience with the franchise to afford some leniency, the safe move is probably the one that the team takes. Unfortunately, the safe move also means further overloading a position the Pistons are flush at. Barring some mid-season trades, this likely does not end well.

Reach

If the Pistons are going to reach down draft boards to select anyone, it should be Kentucky SF James Young. A native Michigander who went one-and-done with Kentucky, Young's upside has upside. Unfortunately, with the #8 pick, taking a player that will likely take a few years to develop (and who may not pan out) is a risk the Pistons do not want to take.

Other options here include Doug McDermott, Rodney Hood, or Nik Stauskas. I have serious questions about McDermott's ability to defend at an NBA level, and not in a Kyle Korver Can He Defend?-type of way. McDermott has an odd physical type that isn't suited to keeping up with the leaner wings in the NBA. Hood has endless range and the height to play SF in the NBA, but his age (21) and lack of defense and rebounding could be issues. Finally, Stauskas has tons of NBA potential (I've said for quite a while that he'll be Manu Ginobili) but drafting him would necessitate either a move of KCP to the small forward position or benching one of the two, neither of which is ideal.

I would not be opposed to the Pistons taking a flier on Young, but there's almost no way that they do unless he shows something in workouts that teams weren't expecting. He has range, size, and athleticism, all traits that would both help the Pistons in the short-term and have room for growth in the league. Again, a new GM is unlikely to make a move like this, though. Breaking NBA logic this drastically is a dicey proposition.

Trade down

Yes, another Trade Monroe screed, but this one comes with lots of upside. The Pistons have been not-so-quietly trying to trade Monroe and then Josh Smith and then Monroe and now Smith again since the Literal Big Three experiment flopped as hard as expected. With Smith an untradeable contract (albeit still a talented player), the Pistons may be able to bundle Monroe's upcoming max contract with the #8 pick to slide a few spots down the draft and secure future assets. Meanwhile, they'd be in prime position to select someone like James Young in a more appropriate value position. There a few teams that might be interested in this trade.

Minnesota Timberwolves (#13 pick). Sensing the impending loss of Kevin Love, the Timberwolves could be in the market for a power forward. Bringing in Monroe would allow the team to trade Love for the shooting they desperately need. Unfortunately, moving up in the draft doesn't really address many of the team's needs. The Ricky Rubio experiment is only occasionally successful, so signing one of the younger PGs in the draft (either Tyler Ennis or Marcus Smart should be available at #8) could be a viable path forward. The Wolves would have to send something back to match Monroe's salary, which they don't have much of (Chase Budinger sticks out as a possibility), as well as some future picks/assets.

Phoenix Suns (#14, #18, #27 picks). The Suns have three first round picks and are a year away from having a pretty clean salary cap situation. They'll have to sign Eric Bledsoe to a big contract in the offseason, but trading up in the draft may be a way to avoid that. With the #8 pick, the Suns could take Gary Harris and let Eric Bledsoe walk (or sign and trade for more assets). Getting significant value from rookie contracts is how good teams turn into contenders, and Harris should be NBA-ready and prepared to contribute. Monroe might be a tough fit for the run-and-gun Suns, but he's also been decent in transition and may give the team a post threat that they could take advantage of in the halfcourt. The Pistons could take James Young with the #14 pick. In reality, they teams could swap picks and players: Monroe/#8 for Bledsoe/#14. The Suns could also part with a few of their picks to entice the Pistons if they're set on keeping Bledsoe.

Orlando Magic (#11 pick). The Magic have the #3 overall pick and will likely take Dante Exum, creating a terrifying trio of Exum, Oladipo, and Afflalo. Trading up in the draft for the #8 pick and Monroe could turn the Magic into instant Eastern Conference contenders. If they're able to grab Aaron Gordon at #8 (or Noah Vonleh), a starting five of Exum, Oladipo, Afflalo, Gordon, and Monroe would be young, endlessly athletic, and League Pass darlings. Without significant resources to send in return, the Magic would need to send several future first round picks, of which they have a few.

The only other fringe trade candidate here would be the Denver Nuggets. Brian Shaw still needs a post player to run his triangle offense, but with $12 million tied up in JaVale McGee, bringing in Monroe would basically be impossible. For the Pistons, trading Monroe allows them to move Josh Smith to his natural power forward position, draft a wing player at the proper valuation, and acquire some future/young assets. Brandon Jennings, KCP, James Young, Josh Smith, and Andre Drummond makes a lot more sense than the current starting lineup.

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The most likely situation is also the worst for the Pistons' current roster: taking the best player available and sort it out later. It is hard to justify the Pistons adding another front court player to this roster, but it may be the path they have to take. "Sorting it out later" will likely mean benching the new draft pick, keeping the same broken roster/rotation that failed the team this season, and eventually trading one of the team's young assets at lowered value. The trade scenarios, though logical ways of improving the team's current and future situations, are probably the least likely. The franchise seems intent on keeping Monroe, which means paying him more than he'll be worth. Depending on the new GM, reaching down the draft boards could be a possibility, but whoever the new executive is, he'll be staking his reputation and good will on the success of a lower-rated prospect.

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