If there were an NBA expansion draft held today, who are the eight players the Detroit Pistons would protect? Who would be left exposed?
With all the brouhaha surrounding the NHL Expansion Draft that is taking place today for the Las Vegas Golden Knights, and more specifically the outrage of the Red Wings selections, I decided to step into Jeff Bower and Stan Van Gundy’s collective shoes and determine who I would keep on the Detroit Pistons in the event an NBA expansion draft were to take place today.
In this expansion draft scenario, the Pistons are able to protect eight players and unrestricted free agents are not eligible to be protected or selected by expansion teams. Here is my list, in order, of the players I would protect as general manager of the Pistons:
The first player that would be absolutely be protected is Andre Drummond. Drummond, at age 23, has already secured himself as the league’s best rebounder and one of the deadliest pick-and-roll big men when paired with a healthy, competent point guard. Drummond’s major weaknesses are at the free throw line, shooting only 38 percent at the line, and in post-ups, where he averages 0.81 points per possession – the Pistons’ worst offensive play.
However, the positives of having Andre Drummond on the Pistons’ roster outweigh his weaknesses at the free throw line. Drummond makes the Pistons one of the best rebounding teams in the league and is the focal point of Stan Van Gundy’s “four out, one in” system. Drummond is a positive defender with a 99 defensive rating (per Basketball Reference) and a +2.9 defensive box plus minus. His contract is large, but if unprotected, an expansion team would scoop him up in a heartbeat.
The second player that would be protected is Tobias Harris. Harris emerged as one of the Pistons’ best scoring options last season, averaging the highest true shooting percentage among non-centers on the squad (56.8 percent) and the second highest effective field goal percentage on the team (53.2). At only 24 years old, Harris can become one of the Pistons’ focal points on offense through catch-and-shoot opportunities where he recorded 1.07 points per possession and out in transition. With Harris signed through 2019 at a very reasonable $15-16 million, it was an easy choice to protect him.
The third player that would be protected is the player that I believe has the highest ceiling on the Pistons in Henry Ellenson. Ellenson is the new mold of power forward/center that the NBA is headed towards. Standing nearly 7’0″ and only 20 years old, Ellenson has the ability to step out and shoot from the perimeter at a decent clip (shot 33 percent with the Grand Rapids Drive in the NBA D-League last season) and can rebound the basketball as well (8.6 rebounds/game in Grand Rapids).
At a minimum, Ellenson can be a Jon Leuer, but his ceiling could be as high as Kevin Love. Piston fans should be excited at the potential Ellenson has and be grateful that he is under team control through 2020, making him extremely valuable.
The fourth and arguably the most controversial choice would be to protect Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Caldwell-Pope finished the year as the Pistons’ third-best three-point shooter connecting on 35 percent, but otherwise had an average offensive year. However, this may have been due to injury. Before the shoulder injury against Golden State, Caldwell-Pope had a 111 offensive rating, 51.6 percent effective field goal percentage, 55 percent true shooting percentage, and a 40.4 three-point percentage. After the injury, his numbers dropped significantly to a 101 offensive rating, 44.2 percent eFG, 48.4 percent true shooting, and only 29.7 percent from three.
Also Caldwell-Pope is criminally underutilized in the Pistons’ offense. Being a volume scorer, Caldwell-Pope needs to have a high usage rate to be effective. In games where Caldwell-Pope’s usage rate was greater than his average of 19.2, he had a 108 offensive rating, 50.5 percent eFG, 54.4 percent true shooting, and a 37.4 percent from three. Caldwell-Pope’s potential on offense and his elite defensive skills make his protection and max contract inevitable.
The fifth player protected by the Pistons would be Stanley Johnson. Johnson is the inaugural first round selection in the Van Gundy era and has faced criticism since day one because of who the Pistons passed on. While Myles Turner and Devin Booker excel in their respective cities, Johnson experienced a setback last season, even getting benched during the course of the season.
Johnson has been discussed in many trades, all of which Stan Van Gundy has shot down, and fans are beginning to wonder what Stanley Johnson’s ceiling is. Johnson is a good, not great defender and has really struggled from beyond the arc. However, Johnson is still very young and is constantly adding to a very physical frame.
If Johnson can put together a season of shooting above 30 percent from three, he should be able to see the floor more often and eventually crack the starting rotation. Johnson’s contract is team-friendly, and may entice teams in potential trade negotiations.
The sixth player protected is per-36 minute superstar, Boban Marjanovic. Marjanovic has shown flashes of brilliance when given minutes to perform. Per 36 minutes, Marjanovic is averaging an eye-popping 23.5 points per game, 16.0 rebounds per game, and 1.5 blocks per game. In a previous piece, I clamored for Marjanovic to receive more minutes and after the news of Aron Baynes opting out of his player option, Marjanovic becomes extremely valuable to the franchise as he steps in as the backup center.
Marjanovic is a force in the paint that has made opposing guards to think twice before penetrating in the paint, but he needs to improve when defending other big men. Being a fan-favorite, Detroit fans would riot if Boban is left unprotected.
The seventh player protected would be Ish Smith. When Ish Smith inked his three year, $18 million contract with the Pistons, nobody had expected him to have a major role in the offense. Reggie Jackson‘s injury opened the door for Ish Smith to melt the hearts of Piston fans around the world. Ish Smith served as a good starter in Jackson’s place, but Smith’s bench unit proved to be extremely effective.
Smith’s penetration in the paint was world-class and allowed for the other shooters on the floor to be effective from the outside. When Smith was on the floor, the offensive rating was 5.3 points better than when he sat on the bench. Smith provides a change of pace and a spark off the bench that a Pistons’ squad that ranked 22nd in the league in overall pace needs badly. If left unprotected, there is a good chance Ish Smith gets selected by the expansion team.
The last player that would be protected in an expansion draft is Marcus Morris. Last season, Morris was the Pistons’ second best spot-up shooter and the Pistons’ best isolation scorer, scoring 1.05 points per possession. Spacing affected the ability for Morris to shoot from beyond the arc at a high clip, and with more guard penetration, he should be able to return to his 2015-16 three point percentage of 36 percent.
Morris provides a fiery, veteran presence to the locker room and would be a key individual to have on a young roster. Morris contract is extremely team-friendly, as he’s only owed another $8.4 million through 2019. By comparison, the ghost of Josh Smith will make more than Morris per year during Morris’ time as a Piston. If necessary, Morris can be also be included as a sweetener in any trade deal the Pistons make.
Notable Unprotected Players
The first notable unprotected player is Jon Leuer. Leuer was originally brought in to take the role of departed Anthony Tolliver as the first stretch big off the bench. Leuer’s expectation was to at least shoot the ball above 30 percent from the perimeter and provide rebounding off of the bench. Leuer did just about everything but those two tasks during the course of last season. Leuer shot below 30 percent and averaged less rebounds per game than his time in Phoenix. Owed another $30 million through 2020, it was easy to leave Leuer unprotected and hope that the expansion team removes him from the Pistons’ books and locker room.
Many fans must be wondering what happens to our embattled point guard, Reggie Jackson, if he goes unprotected in the expansion draft. With his massive contract and questions surrounding his health, it is safe to say that no expansion team will touch him. Jackson should be able to slide through the expansion draft without being selected. In the event Jackson is selected, the Pistons would immediately be relieved of the $51 million that Jackson is owed through 2020 and can begin to focus on developing a new, young, and healthy point guard to guide the Pistons to success.