The Trade that Was and the Trade that Wasn’t: Harris’s Fit with the Pistons
Stan Van Gundy, Head Coach and President of Basketball Operations for the Detroit Pistons, was a busy man last week. He arranged two trades in advance of the NBA trade deadline. The first trade was a befuddling swap with the Orlando Magic, flipping aging rotation pieces Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings for stretch four Tobias Harris. The other trade, as we all know by now, didn’t turn out as well. The three team trade between the 76ers, Rockets, and Pistons was voided due to an injury to key piece Donatas Motiejunas. The seven foot Lithuanian big man had been limited to only 7 games this season with a back injury, but he had shown promise as a floor spacing big who could step out to three point range. When further tests done by New York and Detroit based doctors revealed there might be further complications, SVG and the Pistons backed out of the deal. So instead of getting bench chucker Marcus Thornton and another space making big, they keep end of the bench Joel Anthony and their first round pick. The main question remains, do these moves (or non-moves) make the Pistons a playoff team? Do these trades move the needle enough to make a difference in either the short or long-term? The answer seems to be… sort of. Maybe. To be determined.
Let’s start with the trade that actually worked. Getting Tobias Harris on a very team friendly deal for expiring contract Brandon Jennings and partially guaranteed Ersan Ilyasova seems to be a coup. Ilyasova was the Piston’s starting four, but he wasn’t exactly blowing the doors off the competition. With the Pistons he averaged 11.3 points per game, good for last place among starters on the team. He was a complementary piece, not a focal point of the offense. Much of his time was spent standing in a corner waiting for a three, or prowling the three point line. Harris, on the other hand, brings a lot more variety to his game. His 3-point stroke is historically inconsistent, hitting about 31.9% of his career threes, but he shoots well enough opposing defenses have to respect his shot. If he can regain his three point stroke from 2014-2015, when he hit over 36% of his threes, he would be about right in line with what Ilyasova brought to the table from deep.
Where Harris will shine is his off the dribble creation. Ilyasova was a catch and shoot floor spacer. He brought little to the game in terms of his post-up action and even less when it comes to beating his man off the bounce. Harris can be a reliable second ball handler if the first Andre Drummond-Reggie Jackson pick and roll fizzles. More importantly, he can also see action as a “point-forward” when Reggie Jackson needs a breather. Having a reliable play-maker while Jackson takes a rest is the biggest area of need after shipping off Jennings. Jennings hasn’t been quite the same since his Achilles injury last year, but he did provide a boost off the bench when he returned this season.
That backup facilitator duty now falls on the shoulders of 35-year-old journeyman Steve Blake, and his defense and scoring prowess are nowhere near his prime when he could be counted on as a reliable bench contributor. Harris instead can initiate action with Aron Baynes and get the offense moving if need be. If all else fails, his post game seems to be improving as well, and he will try to punish smaller defenders on the block. Tobias Harris is without question an upgrade to the starting lineup. In a very limited sample size, he has increased his usage to 21.4% of the Pistons plays while increasing his True Shooting Percentage to 61.4%. That is the dream, a player who not only increases how much he handles the ball, but does so more efficiently. We will probably see those shooting numbers trend down back towards his career averages, but if they can remain at a high level the Pistons will have struck gold. He is 5 years younger than Ilyasova which places him right on the same age curve as the rest of the Piston’s starters. With this first trade, SVG has effectively set four fifths of a potential playoff contending line-up.
The more pertinent issue, however, is with the trade that wasn’t. When Detroit voided the trade to grab Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton, it gave up a lot of potential bench production. The main problem with the Harris trade is Detroit sent out two rotation pieces to get one in return. Not a big deal if you have depth or if you plan on replacing the missing man. Detroit would have been giving up fringe rotation piece at best in Joel Anthony (who is so much on the fringes of the lineup that he only saw 5 minutes of action in a blowout win against the 76ers on Wednesday) for two reliable bench players. Thornton and Motiejunas (provided he could actually play) would have immediately stepped in off the bench as no worse than the 8th and 9th men of the rotation. That would have boosted a bench that has been beleaguered all year and might have provided the push Detroit needed to not only reach the playoffs, but to try to get to a 6th seed or better. That would be imperative to have any hope of advancing out of the first round since they could avoid the Cavs or the Raptors, both teams which figure to roll to the conference finals.
Now, however, a weak bench is just weaker. They no longer have their 6th man in Brandon Jennings. A rash of injuries have taken their toll on the bench as well. Darrun Hilliard has already been forced into low rotation minutes due to Jodie Meeks lingering foot injury. Stanley Johnson and Anthony Tolliver are both going to miss extended time. Johnson is expected to be out for up to 2 weeks, and Tolliver is day-to-day with a knee sprain. Spencer Dinwiddie is also on the shelf, although despite reports that SVG and the Pistons have visions of him as a backup ball handler, he was having trouble playing meaningful minutes, only averaging 12 minutes a game when he was healthy. Playing four men down is tough for any team. Playing four men down when you only have a capable rotation of 10 players means a lot of players you don’t want playing big minutes are going to be doing exactly that. When your team has to turn to Reggie Bullock to provide scoring pop off the bench, odds are you are going to be playing against a mismatch. Bullock did admirably in his bench role Wednesday against the 76ers, but we have to remember the 76ers are a team that is somewhere above the D-League, but somewhere below the NBA in terms of talent.
Against real teams and real defenses, these bench players the Pistons are forced to rely on may struggle. Five of the next seven games for the Pistons are against teams at least in the playoff hunt. The Reggie Bullocks of the team may not be able to stand up to prolonged minutes against the Hornets, let alone the Spurs or Raptors. If that begins to be the case, prolonged minutes for the starters could lead to some dead legs down the stretch.
So moving forward, the best scenario might be to hope the Pistons DON’T make the playoffs for the 8th straight year. Getting the losing monkey off your back is important, but the best way to grow a team is through the draft. It will give you a player on a very team friendly contract for 4 years. The cap savings the Pistons will enjoy from the difference between Motiejunas and their first round pick could mean a veteran role player addition in free agency. The draft is the only real way a non-destination city can land a superstar these days. If you don’t have a Steph Curry, a LeBron James, or a Russell Westbrook you just don’t make it past the conference finals. In an era where teams can legitimately afford 3 max players make it next to impossible for small market teams to hope one splash in free agency will bring them to that next level. Granted, landing a superstar in the late lottery or late first round is a crap shoot. For every Kawhi Leonard there are dozens of players who don’t even last their rookie contract. The fact remains that there ARE Kawhi Leonards, Paul Georges, and Draymond Greens that slip through the cracks. In the right system, you have an All-NBA level talent that you can lock up for years to come. If the Pistons can turn a low lottery pick into a solid off the bench contributor, that has the potential to do more for them than a Motiejunas or Thornton. It won’t happen as soon, but the result could be just as sweet.
So I’m with you Pistons fans. The next few months will be… confusing. Either the team rallies together, guys get healthy faster than expected, Tobias Harris embraces his new found role, and the Pistons roll to a 5th or 6th seed in the East, possibly even advancing a round. Or, the dead legs from so many minutes sap the starters and the Pistons start dropping games and fall out of playoff contention. Either result is entirely possible, and either result wouldn’t be all that bad. SVG is setting up his team well to compete long-term. Whether playoff experience or a potential young rotation piece is more valuable is up for debate, but the direction the team is heading is the same. Up.
Colin Anderson covers the Detroit Pistons for MFST.
Latest posts by Colin Anderson (see all)
- Carolina Panthers Day 2 Recap - April 30, 2016
- Detroit Lions Day 2 Recap - April 30, 2016
- Carolina Panthers select Vernon Butler with the 30th Pick - April 28, 2016