Since taking over as the Detroit Pistons’ president of basketball operations last May, Stan Van Gundy has made some eyebrow-raising decisions. The lowlight came in December, when he used the stretch provision to waive Josh Smith, guaranteeing the team will pay him $5.4 million per year not to play for them through the 2019-20 season. (BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Seth Partnow appropriately raked SVG over the coals for that one.)
On Thursday, however, Van Gundy pulled off a move that should restore faith in his ability to juggle his front office and head coaching duties. The Pistons flipped the non-guaranteed contracts of Caron Butler and Shawne Williams to the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova, who’s a perfect fit for the type of offensive system SVG prefers to run.
“Ersan Ilyasova is a player we have coveted since we got to Detroit,” said Van Gundy in a statement on the team website. “Not only is he a proficient three-point shooter that can stretch the floor, he is a high-energy, hard-playing guy who fits extremely well with how we want to play. We are excited about what he can add to our team.”
Though Ilyasova has never been a prolific scorer — he’s averaged just 10.7 points per game over his career — his ability to space the floor is what will help him thrive in Detroit. The seven-year NBA veteran is a career 37% shooter from three-point range, with much of that production having come over the past four seasons. Since 2011-12, Ilyasova has drilled 257 of his 647 three-point attempts (39.7%), and 34.1% of his overall field-goal attempts in 2014-15 were from downtown.
In other words, he’s the polar opposite of Greg Monroe, who has attempted a grand total of seven triples in five NBA seasons and hit exactly none of them. With Monroe set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer — and even more unlikely to return to Detroit following this trade – Ilyasova projects to slide right into the starting lineup alongside Andre Drummond as a complementary stretch four.
If this past season is any indication, pairing Ilyasova with Drummond in the frontcourt will help the UConn product continue his emergence as one of the league’s top young centers. With Monroe on the bench and Anthony Tolliver playing the role of stretch four next to Drummond, the Pistons erupted for 116.1 points per 100 possessions in 621 minutes this past season, per NBAwowy.com. During the 1,055 minutes in which Monroe and Drummond shared the court, meanwhile, the Pistons scored just 106.4 points per 100 possessions. Detroit’s effective field-goal percentage likewise dropped from 53.2% with the Drummond-Tolliver duo down to 48.9% with Monroe and Drummond.
It’s not difficult to see why the Pistons struggled offensively with both Monroe and Drummond on the court. Even with guys like Brandon Jennings, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Jodie Meeks spotting up on the perimeter, the lack of frontcourt floor spacing allowed opponents to clog the paint, stifling the Pistons’ ability to run effective half-court sets.
Take this possession from Detroit’s February 24th contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance:
As Jackson advances the ball in transition, three Cavaliers — LeBron James, Kevin Love and Timofey Mozgov — immediately flood the paint, with Mozgov fronting Drummond and Love playing behind him. Mozgov, Monroe’s primary defender, knows he has to pay the big man no respect on the perimeter, and thus only cheats away from the paint as Monroe comes out to lay a screen on Kyrie Irving. Monroe ultimately attempts a lefty floater over Love’s outstretched arm, and though Drummond recovers the offensive rebound, both Mozgov and Love are positioned between him and the basket to prevent an easy second shot.
Later in the game, the Pistons’ lack of frontcourt spacing once again allowed the Cavs to pack the paint with bigs:
Once more, Mozgov and Love run to the paint immediately and camp out there, knowing neither Monroe nor Drummond are a threat to catch and shoot on the perimeter. When Jackson dishes to Drummond on the right block, LeBron abandons Tayshaun Prince in the left corner to add another body down low. Drummond ultimately attempts an awkward left hook shot over the Cavs’ 7-footer (which badly misses), and Monroe gets called for a loose ball foul on the rebound, ending the possession.
Soon after that Cavs game, Monroe went down with a right knee strain, which caused Van Gundy to slide Tolliver into the starting lineup. With Monroe sidelined, the Pistons’ offense took on a radically different look, which was on full display early in their 105-95 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on March 31:
The Hawks knew they had to respect Tolliver, a 36% shooter from deep this season in Detroit, on the perimeter. Instead of cheating inside when Tolliver passed the ball to Jackson and set a screen on Jeff Teague, Millsap had to stay glued to him, allowing Jackson to pound the ball to Drummond down low. By the time Millsap recovered to help Al Horford down low, Drummond was already well into his move.
With Ilyasova poised to replace Monroe in the starting lineup permanently, Drummond should have more space to operate down low this coming season. As BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Matthew Way noted last month, the five-man lineup featuring Reggie Jackson, KCP, Caron Butler, Tolliver and Drummond put up 126.5 points per 100 possessions and had a net rating of plus-14.3, according to NBA.com. Though it’s tough to draw definitive conclusions from the 173-minute sample size, surrounding a brute force of a center with a four-out look has been Van Gundy’s style as far back as his Orlando Magic days with Dwight Howard.
Although Ilyasova isn’t exactly elite defensively — opponents shot 1.6 percentage points above their average when facing off against him as their primary defender, per NBA.com—that was never Monroe’s strong suit, either. In fact, Monroe allowed opponents to score 1.09 points per 100 possessions when facing off against him in isolation this past season, according to Synergy Sports, which placed him in the league’s 10th percentile. Comparatively, opponents scored just 0.71 points per possessions in isolation against Ilyasova, per Synergy. Regardless, Drummond should be able to compensate for the Turkish big man’s shortcomings both on defense and on the glass, where he averaged just 7.6 boards per 36 minutes this past season.
The Pistons aren’t done improving this offseason, either. Armed with the eighth pick in the upcoming draft, they can target someone like Mario Hezonja, Justise Winslow or Stanley Johnson to fill the void left by Butler’s departure. Even after factoring in the cap hold for their first-rounder and Jackson, a restricted free agent, the Pistons should enter free agency with copious cap space. Assuming they renounce their rights to Monroe, Prince and Joel Anthony, they’ll have only $48.5 million of cap space accounted for, leaving nearly enough room to offer someone a max contract if so desired. After inking such a player — or dividing that cap space among a few cheaper free agents — the Pistons can then turn their attention to signing Jackson to an extension via his Bird rights.
The addition of Ilyasova alone won’t make the Pistons a guaranteed playoff team, much less a legitimate title contender in the East. However, assuming Van Gundy doesn’t completely botch the draft and free agency, Detroit could be a force with which to be reckoned as early as this coming season. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
EDIT: Dakota Schmidt weighs in with the Bucks’s perspective on the deal.
From the Bucks perspective, you can easily see why Hammond and company decided to separate themselves from the team’s longest-tenured player, Ersan Ilyasova. Despite his well-deserved reputation as one of the best stretch fours in the game, Ilyasova has also been a constant defensive liability, which isn’t exactly the best fit for how the team is setting themselves up. As well, the veteran forward possess a big contract that will see him get paid 16 million for the next two seasons.
So while Ilyasova is probably too good of a player to be dealt in a salary dump, it’s a necessary deal to acquire a high level shooter or rim protector. With the likelihood that the team waive both Caron Butler and Shawne Williams, the team will be 22 million under the cap when you factor in the 17th overall pick and Middleton’s cap hold. Since Middleton possess bird rights, the team would be able to use that cap space before they have to worry about Middleton.
Losing a player like Ilyasova, who has been such a valuable player for the team for the last five years, is a tough move for the team. However, with the team looking to progress as a young, defensive-minded team, it was a necessary move for the team moving forward.