Windsor: SVG, Bower steering Pistons back to NBA's upper tier

BY SHAWN WINDSOR, THE DETROIT FREE PRESS

The Detroit Pistons missed out on signing All-Star forward Al Horford. But he considered them, and that’s important as the team continues its path back to relevance.

Horford chose the Celtics, a team, like the Pistons, that offered a promising young core led by an innovative coach. Boston is just a bit further along on its journey. It was also a finalist in the Kevin Durant sweepstakes.

The Pistons are probably a ways from luring an elite talent like Durant. Yet Horford is a four-time All-Star in his prime who gave Detroit a listen. That’s progress.

So what did Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower do when they couldn’t land Horford? They took the kind of studied and savvy approach you will notice next February.

The Pistons will be fighting the mid-season doldrums of a long NBA schedule, and they’ll be on the road somewhere, and Jon Leuer will come off the bench in the second half, hit a couple threes, box out properly to snag a few defensive rebounds, and give the starters a lift that helps the team steal a game.

Leuer’s agency announced the power forward had agreed to a four-year deal with the Pistons. The Freep’s Vince Ellis reported that deal was worth $41 million. Leuer, who is 27 and something of a journeyman, is not Horford.

Pistons free agents Ish Smith, Jon Leuer could give a boost to bench.

Yet he can help the team get better. In fact, he and soon-to-be backup point guard Ish Smith should give the second unit a serious boost next winter. Leuer also gives Van Gundy insurance for the team’s first-round draft pick, Henry Ellenson.

Ellenson played just one year of college ball. At 19, he will need seasoning. Still, he has terrific offensive skill for a 6-11 big man and showed us a glimpse of that during his first summer ball outing Saturday. He is smooth and balanced when he rises to shoot. Those qualities give Van Gundy and his staff plenty of raw ability to hone.

Defensively, he has much to work on. But, at 19, he has time to learn.

Getting Ellenson in the draft may turn out to be the best move this off-season. Many projected him as a lottery pick, and he has the tools to be a solid player.

Van Gundy and Bower have established themselves as adroit team builders in their time here. Every move has purpose. Every move fits their vision. Whether the moves ultimately work is obviously how we will judge.

Sure, Horford would’ve made the Pistons the second-best team in the Eastern Conference. He will make the Celtics that much more formidable.

Not getting him, however, didn’t lead Van Gundy to spend cap money on a “name” player just because he had it. He knows the foundation of this team can improve on its own, simply by experience. Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tobias Harris, Marcus Morris and Stanley Johnson can all get better — perhaps a lot better.

When you know the team you manage will improve in this way, it makes it easier to be selective in free agency and in the draft.

Ellenson was chosen because he has a high ceiling for someone selected at the No. 18 spot. He may not reach his potential, but it’s easy to see how he fits.

Leuer and Smith bring specific attributes to strengthen the bench and give the team balance.

Last season, the Pistons showed they could compete with the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs until the end of all but one game. At that point, Lebron James and Kyrie Irving made the plays Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson couldn’t.

Drafting Ellenson and signing Leuer and Smith won’t close the gap in late-game playmaking. But the Pistons lost plenty of times because the bench wasn’t talented enough.

A deeper bench makes it easier to win a few more games in the regular season. Do that and the Pistons aren’t playing the Cavs in the first round.

http://www.freep.com/story/sports/nba/pistons/2016/07/04/detroit-pistons-nba-free-agency/86665316/