In the NBA, makeovers don't happen overnight or with one swift move. Sometimes, they take time and patience and feature lots of little tweaks instead. Perhaps a trade for another team's backup point guard, or taking a couple of skilled, but unspectacular players in the draft.
All these transactions add up, though, especially when you pile one smart move on top of another. Pair that backup point guard with a a stud center who's a beast when rolling to the hoop, and suddenly that former reserve morphs into one of the league's top creators. Surround that deadly pick-and-roll with a pair of athletic young wing players, and suddenly the starting five becomes potent.
Tobias Harris, whom the Detroit Pistons acquired on Tuesday from the Orlando Magic by sending Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova to Orlando, is by no means a star. But he is a talented player loaded with potential despite this being his fifth year in league. Acquiring him is the latest in a series of small steps taken by Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy.
But given how Harris fits with Detroit's style of play, this step could be transformative.
"I think it's going to be great," Harris told SB Nation Tuesday following the trade. "I'm really excited."
Harris is a 6'9 forward with the size to bang with power forwards in the post and the quickness to slide around the perimeter. His technique isn't always there, but he's an eager learner who's shown flashes in the past.
It's a similar story on offense. Harris can create off the dribble, hit pull-up jumpers and get to the rim. He's struggled from the outside this season, but did connect on 44 percent of his corner three-pointers last year after making a slight adjustment to his shooting form. The summer before, Harris' father showed him that he was bringing his hands down too far to his waist before rising up to shoot.
Harris may be a veteran, but he's still just 23. Also, he's played for three coaches, none of whom have Van Gundy's reputation for player development.
With Harris now in the fold, the Pistons have a potential starting lineup featuring five players 25 or younger.
Three of those players are locked into long-term deals. Point guard Reggie Jackson signed a five-year max contract with Detroit in the offseason. Harris inked a four-year, $64 million deal with Orlando during the offseason, too. Two of the other starters -- rookie small forward Stanley Johnson and third-year shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- are on their rookie contracts, meaning they're under team control at a discount rate through at least 2018.
And then there's Andre Drummond, the man who'll be responsible for carrying the Pistons into the future and out of the East's jumbled middle pack. Drummond will be a restricted free agent this summer, and locking him up will obviously be Van Gundy's top priority. While selling players on Detroit as a city is always tough, selling Drummond on the prospect of leading this rising Pistons core should be pretty easy, especially with Harris now completing the picture.
It's not that Harris is necessarily a game-changer in himself. It's more about what he represents
On offense, the hope is that he can complete his development and fully morph into a prototypical new-age combination forward that can knock down shots from the perimeter to help with spacing, but also post up smaller defenders and drive past slower ones.
The post-up game is already part of his repertoire.
He wasn't seeing the ball frequently in the post with the Magic, whom often relegated him to the corners to make room for other scorers. But when they let him go to work, it usually paid off. Harris is shooting 63 percent on shots off post touches and 64 percent on shots from the paint this season, per NBA.com.
He's also upped his assist rate and is passing more frequently off drives than ever before. Plus, he's cut down on his inefficient pull-up jumpers.
The key for Harris will be rediscovering his three-point stroke. He's shooting just 31 percent from deep this season after nailing a solid 36 percent last year. Why he's regressed in that area is unclear, but many scouts, members of Pistons management and those in Harris' circle expect him to turn it around.
"We feel that [his prior performances] showed us a variety of skills that can help a team in numerous ways," Pistons general manager Jeff Bower said to the media on Tuesday, via the Detroit Free Press. "We also think that his play and the projection of his performance over the next five years is on a steady incline based on what we're seeing and think that he has a lot of room to grow as a player and we really like that this is a move that can be looked at as a long-term move that will fit with our core group of players and we'll be able to keep them together with contract certainty."
This is why the deal is such a winner for Detroit.
Harris makes the Pistons more complete and gives them a starting lineup that can grow together.
In Jackson, Detroit has a relentless point guard who's among the league leaders in drives per game. Drummond is the NBA's top offensive rebounder and his mere presence rolling to the hoop has a gravitational effect on the rest of the defense. Caldwell-Pope is just 22 and already averaging 14.5 points per game, and the 19-year-oldalready looks like he could soon become one of the league's top defenders.
What Harris delivers Detroit offensively is fairly obvious. It's easy to envision a future where he thrives playing off of the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll, knocking down shots from the corner and driving past weak close outs.
There will also be lanes for him to cut to the basket, a strength of his.
On defense, though, Harris unlocks all sorts of possibilities for Van Gundy. Harris is not known for his aptitude on that end. His posture is occasionally off when guarding man-to-man and it's taken him some time to learn the nuances of team defense. Still, he's made improvements since entering the league and is willing to work to get even better.
"Guarding guys was always something he committed to," James Borrego, who served as the Magic's interim head coach last year and is now an assistant in San Antonio, told SLAM Magazine over the summer. "But I think it took him a bit to learn that being attached to your own man all the time, and trying to always keep him from scoring, can actually hurt."
All the tools to become a good defender are there. Carmelo Anthony hits this shot, but Harris was right in his face the whole possession.
If Harris improves, the Pistons will posses the sort of defensive unit coaches dream about. They'll be quick, long-armed and flexible, with a monster protecting the rim down low. Players like Harris, Johnson and Caldwell-Pope could all switch on pick-and-rolls, similar to how the Golden State Warriors do. Drummond, while not yet the elite rim protector most expect him to become, is still a deterrent at the basket, and his magnetic rebounding limits opponents to just one shot. Jackson is big for a point guard and has all the physical capabilities to stay in front of even the fastest ball-handlers.
The trade's not quite a home run for the Pistons.
Harris still has to prove that he can fulfill all his potential and if he continues to struggle from the outside this year, the Pistons will miss the spacing Ilyasova provided. Also, anytime a team gives up on a promising young player just months after signing him to a long-term deal, you have to wonder what was going on behind the scenes. Harris' personality might not have perfectly gelled in the Magic locker room. Still, it's hard to find anyone who has anything bad to say about him as a person or his work ethic.
Whether the trade pushes the Pistons, currently 27-27 and a half-game behind the Charlotte Hornets for the Eastern Conference's eighth and final playoff spot, into the postseason is anyone's guess. But it's certainly possible that in three years, we look back at the Harris trade as the move that transformed the Pistons into a long-term threat in the East.
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