February 15, 2019

After trading two proven—if mediocre—veterans for a chance to figure out if Tobias Harris is really as good as his tools suggest he should be, there are few teams as intriguing as the Detroit Pistons.

The risky move netted the Pistons another under 23-year-old up-and-comer to their core of  Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Stanley Johnson, Andre Drummond, and the 25-year-old Reggie Jackson.

The challenge now is to make this new group work. In the four games since the trade, the Pistons have gone 2-2. In the losses against the Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans, Harris came off the bench, cracking the starting lineup against the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers after Anthony Tolliver went down with a knee sprain.

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Moving forward, it appears the Pistons will go with the combo forward duo of Harris and Marcus Morris, which presents all kinds of interesting opportunities with their versatility.

With Morris handling most of the power forward duties, Harris can act as a secondary ball handler, using screens to gather speed going to the rim, a setting in which he’s hard to stop due to his size, strength and athleticism. The secondary defender can’t cut him off because he has to worry about the possibility of a lob to Drummond.

Harris can also be used close to the basket when he has a smaller defender on him. If a big man guards him instead of a wing, he can take him off the dribble.

The interesting thing is that Morris is essentially a lesser version of Harris. He was the one asked to attack slower forwards off the dribble and take smaller opponents on the block before the trade. He’s not as good at any of those things on offense as the former Magic player is, but he can do them all in a pinch. That means there will almost always be a matchup problem for the opponent when they share the court, as very few teams have two defenders who are able to contain two versatile 6-foot-9 forwards.

Having another half court option to avoid over-relying on the Jackson-Drummond pick and roll is obviously a great thing. Harris should also anchor some second units that lack shot creation when the Pistons’ two best players rest, something Morris has been tasked to do in the past, with mixed results. That extra shot creation comes at a price, however. The Pistons now lack enough outside shooting to create pristine spacing.

Detroit traded Ersan Ilyasova, a 36 percent shooter who wasn’t afraid to pull the trigger, in the hopes that Harris will regain the touch from outside he showed last season. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. He’s been left alone beyond the arc plenty of times as his defender helps on pick and rolls, and hasn’t really hit enough shots to change that anytime soon. Since Morris and Caldwell-Pope aren’t elite marksmen either, things can get cramped at times, and their deadly pick and roll attack can be contained.

The other big problem the trade has caused comes on the other end. Ilyasova wasn’t a stopper by any means, but he was a natural power forward used to guarding bigger players with offensive skill. Harris and Morris try but they give up size, and Anthony Tolliver shouldn’t be getting big minutes for a playoff team. The Pistons now lack a second big man who can guard big forwards, a weakness that was patently obvious when Anthony Davis and Kevin Love destroyed them.

There was a reason Stan Van Gundy tried to trade for Donatas Motiejunas, a player that would have filled that role perfectly. Finding someone to throw at scoring big men remains the biggest priority for the Pistons going forward, something they will have to address in free agency. It’s more important than signing a quality point guard and getting more shooting, as Jodie Meeks will be back next season and Stanley Johnson should continue to progress as a threat from beyond the arc.

Johnson’s progression, coincidentally, might put an end to the quirky experimentation going on in Detroit. If he becomes the three-and-D player many projected him to be when he was drafted, Van Gundy could decide to go with him at small forward and Harris at power forward in the starting lineup, relegating Morris to the bench. It could give the Pistons more balance in terms of skillset, as there’s some overlap in what Harris and Morris do well, but it would make them much more predictable as a team.

For now, the Pistons remain delightfully weird. They continue to run a relatively simple spread pick and roll attack after most squads have gone away from the setup, and they do it at a high level without having the type of shooters that offense typically requires. They start two combo forwards who are finding ways to use the fact that they have similar skillsets to their advantage and play an aggressive brand of defense that fuels their transition attack.

This configuration might not be the one Van Gundy chooses next year, or even when everyone on the roster is healthy again, but it’s done well enough to warrant a longer look. Hopefully for fans of unorthodoxy everywhere, we get to see more of the Pistons’ fun experiment.

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