With the NBA playoffs behind us, the 2017 off–season is here and many teams must make massive decisions.CBA expert Danny Lerouxbreaks down the major challenges and opportunities for theDetroit Pistons in The Crossover's NBA Summer Preview series.
The Pistons are in an unenviable position to start the summer. While they have a talented roster, they are a rare non-playoff team with very little flexibility. Spending up to the salary cap line and then giving Andre Drummond a big raise last off-season was a reasonable use of resources since that cap space was going away as soon as Drummond re-signed but it functionally locked in their team for another few years. That decision by coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy did not bear out in the 2016-17 season, as Detroit fell short of the playoffs with a 37-45 record. Now their salary situation gets even more challenging as shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will receive his raise with the team’s other principals already under contract.
Here are three key storylines to watch for the Pistons this off-season:
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: The 24-year old restricted free agent will likely get a serious contract offer due to his ability to defend, hit open threes (35% this season) and play a scarce position. Van Gundy can either analyze the decision on Caldwell-Pope’s offer sheet in isolation or in the greater context of the Pistons’ substantial salary obligations. Additionally, the two sides could attempt to come to an agreement on a deal outside of the restricted free agency process, as the Magic did with Evan Fournier last season.
#12 pick: One silver lining to Detroit’s disappointing season is that they have the chance to draft a talented prospect who could also provide some cost-controlled value on an expensive team. There has been reporting that Van Gundy could move this choice for a veteran and while there are certainly some who would provide a meaningful upgrade, those decisions often hurt teams down the road. Furthermore, while some feel the 12th pick may be just after a potential drop-off point in this draft class, it would only take one or two reaches to change that dynamic and open up a great opportunity.
Luxury tax avoidance: If Caldwell-Pope ends up close to his maximum salary (about $25 million for 2017-18), the Pistons will be over the luxury tax line even before using their Mid-Level exception. Aron Baynes will likely factor into the resolution of that because he can decline his player option worth $6.5 million or he can pick it up and Detroit can trade him to a team more interested in a backup center on a one-year contract than the free agents on the market. If free agents Reggie Bullock and Beno Udrih are headed elsewhere, the Pistons will still need to clear about $4 million more to get under the tax, not including any new salary signed during the off-season. Fortunately, the front office has more time to get it done because teams only need to get below the line by the end of the regular season, making the trade deadline another opportunity to shed salary.
Potential Free Agents: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Restricted), Aron Baynes ($6.5m Player Option), Reggie Bullock (Restricted), Darrun Hilliard (Non-Guaranteed), Beno Udrih (Unrestricted) and Michael Gbinije (Partial Guarantee)
Likely Summer of 2017 Cap Space: None
Realistic Maximum Summer of 2017 Cap Space (using $101M estimate): None
2017 Draft Assets: Own first round pick (12th overall). Traded second rounder to Utah as a part of the three-team deal that brought them Reggie Jackson.
Potential Targets: As discussed above, Detroit may not have much financial flexibility to bring in new talent. On the upside, they already have a deep team so there are not as many pressing needs as most teams that miss the playoffs. Depending on what they do with their draft pick, their most pressing need appears to be on the wing. Adding someone dynamic off the bounce would boost their 25th-ranked offense and at least one shooter would make a major difference as well. The Pistons will likely be bargain shopping, so Tyreke Evans and CJ Miles are likely out of their price range. Former Piston Rodney Stuckey could be a low-cost fit and they could take a flyer on Brandon Rush or Anthony Morrow as well.
Pressure Scale: 6. Almost all of their pressure comes from the luxury tax. After all, Detroit has the ability to retain their most important free agent with a deep team already under contract. The front office’s biggest challenge will be in trying to upgrade their talent. That motivation is likely behind the rumor that they want to use the 12th pick to add a veteran, since that player will presumably be more ready to contribute than a rookie. Detroit also has a bevy of contracts they can use for matching salary though none of them will expire in 2018, making it less enticing for some potential trade partners. If ownership green lights starting or even finishing the season as a tax payer, Van Gundy will be able to add a rotation player with the Mid-Level exception which would meaningfully help their chances of making the playoffs.
State of the Franchise: Maintaining as much as palatable. While they have not received nearly as much attention for it as the Trail Blazers, the Pistons are another example of how reckless spending in 2016 will hamstring franchises for years. They are paying Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic a combined $17 million per season through 2019 without expecting either to start.
Those contracts combined with Ish Smith’s remaining two years and $12 million makes it very hard for Detroit to get better as they move into a new arena. Their front office faces an all too familiar problem around the league: their best contracts are players essential to their success and their worst contracts are unpalatable without attaching assets.
Arguably the most intriguing part of Detroit’s off-season is whether they move any key rotation players. Everyone in their best starting five (Drummond, Jackson, Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris) would generate interest and 2015 first round pick Stanley Johnson still has serious potential after two years in the NBA. Van Gundy’s dual role affects this too, as he knows those individuals extremely well and whether they can or should be a part of the team moving forward. It will be fascinating to see how the coach/president manages those responsibilities with limited options this off-season.