Last season was a growing season for the Detroit Pistons. They took a major step as a franchise, making the playoffs for the first time in six seasons. While that playoff return was cut short by a dominate Cleveland Cavaliers team, Detroit took a major step in their mission to become a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Detroit entered the offseason with basic needs. They needed to upgrade their bench. They desperately needed a backup point guard to replace Steve Blake, who had run his course as the 2nd string point guard. Stan Van Gundy quickly replaced Blake, added Ish Smith to the roster within the first twelve hours of free agency. Then came his next move, and maybe, his most important.
The Pistons had agreed to terms with Phoenix Suns’ power forward Jon Leuer. Stan Van Gundy locked Leuer up for four years, on a $42 million deal. Quite frankly, it was a necessary deal. THe Pistons drafted Ellenson, but he is not a contributor to a team looking to be a challenger in the East. Leuer is a developed Ellenson, that is able to be a major factor off the bench. Leuer enjoyed a successful year with the Suns, as he posted career highs in multiple statistical categories. He averaged career highs in points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game. He averaged 8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game last season. He shot an effective and encouraging 38.2% from the three-point line last year as well. I say it is encouraging because it seems that every power forward in Stan Van Gundy’s system endures a rise in their three-point shooting when playing for him. For example, Tobias Harris shot 31.1% from behind the arc in 49 games with the Magic last year. After being traded to Detroit his percentage jumped to 37.5%. While it is unlikely that Leuer sees a six percent rise in his three-point shooting, it is very plausible it rises to some extent. The stats are favorable with Leuer, but what made Stan Van Gundy throw $42M at a 27-year-old backup power forward was his versatility on the court.
At 6’10, Jon Leuer can play multiple positions. He played both power forward and center for the Phoenix Suns last year, spending 58% of his minutes at power forward, and the other 32% at center. His ability to play both big men positions, unlike Tolliver makes him so much more valuable. Detroit can use a multitude of lineups with the addition of Leuer, that makes them much more threatening.
Leuer can play, for example, with an all bench unit at power forward with Ish Smith, Reggie Bullock, Stanley Johnson, and Aron Baynes. He can also play center with that lineup if Detroit wanted to go small and move Baynes out of the group, as Leuer can slide to the center spot.
Stan Van Gundy has gushed over wanting to be able to use bigger lineups, much like the Oklahoma City Thunder did last year with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams. Detroit can now do that, and it should be a correct fit, unlike the Aron Baynes and Andre Drummond duo that Van Gundy trotted out a few times in the season that had no business happening. Leuer can play alongside Drummond because of multiple reasons. Leuer is much more mobile compared to Baynes. He can move out to the wing on defense and not get blown by, as Baynes would. Leuer also has the three-point shot, which Baynes did not and still doesn’t have. With those abilities that Leuer has makes a two bigmen lineup make much more sense.
This lineup possibility is where Leuer’s versatility comes into play the most. He can play at center with the projected starting lineup that Detroit will send out next season that consists of Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris, and Tobias Harris. As we saw in the playoffs last year, the Cavs shredded the Pistons defense like a cheese grater in the first round of the NBA Playoffs when they went small and played Kevin Love at center. This also does not mean that Drummond would have to be the sacrificial lamb and be kicked out of the lineup. For example, if Detroit was playing Cleveland and a player such as Iman Shumpert was on the floor, a career 33.4% three-point shooter, Drummond could play off him and stay close to the paint as a rim protector. As long as Leuer is on the court, Detroit would have the ability to counter Kevin Love, as Leuer is quick enough to guard Love on the outside, but also has the height and strength to hold down Love in the paint. If Detroit had a played like Leuer last year, Detroit may have been able to win a game or two in that playoff series.
One question that jumps out when looking at all these factors is, why did the Sun’s not re-sign him? I asked that exact question to Scott Howard of SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun, their blog dedicated to covering the Phoenix Suns.
“What’s bizarre with Leuer is that Earl Watson didn’t seem to like him that much – playing time went down after Hornacek and that was even after Markieff was gone . He’d play Len and Chandler – an admittedly awful mix – together in lieu of Leuer. I’d say it’s probably a mix of the price being a little high, then signing Dudley (who is a fan favorite), and the team drafting Bender/Chriss. Most of us fans liked him a lot. Personally I think he’ll thrive in Detroit and is a wonderful fit with SVG.”
The Suns drafted two power forwards in the NBA Draft this offseason, already making playing time for Leuer seem minimal due to the Sun’s being in a rebuilding situation. Then they added Dudley, as Howard mentions, who is a fan favorite and can spread the floor for Phoenix. Dudley can also play small forward, which makes him more valuable to Phoenix as they already have two capable centers in Tyson Chandler and Alex Len, along with Alan Williams who hopes to make the roster. He is a combo bigman. They are weaker at small forward with PJ Tucker and a rehabbing TJ Warren as the two small forwards on their roster next year. For them, allowing Leuer to walk likely made more sense as the opportunity for him to play was not going to be present.
Phoenix letting Leuer walk was a major get for the Pistons. He is going to be a good fit in Stan Van Gundy’s system. His ability to shoot the ball and his versatility on defense makes him the perfect veteran fit for a Detroit team on the rise.
Featured image via: Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports