After trading Andre Drummond, the Detroit Pistons have dedicated themselves to a re-build. Looking at the recent past shows us what to expect.
Ever since trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in 2008, the Detroit Pistons have found themselves in NBA purgatory. They have been too good to get a great draft pick and too bad to win a single playoff game. Now having traded Andre Drummond, the Pistons finally have a logical path forward.
It’s entirely true that the Pistons received nothing of tangible value from the Cleveland Cavaliers for Drummond, who was their 2012 lottery pick. But, the trade clearly wasn’t about improving the roster or its assets. The transaction was rooted almost entirely in the flexibility it provides the franchise.
Drummond holds a $28 million player option this summer, one which he will reportedly exercise to stay in Cleveland:
For the University of Connecticut product, it makes sense. There are few teams with significant cap space this summer. Those who do have the type of money Drummond will want already have good long-term options at center. The Detroit Pistons front office almost surely knew that and acted accordingly.
By taking back $24 million in guaranteed expiring contracts in the form of Brandon Knight and John Henson, the Pistons assured themselves real cap space they haven’t enjoyed since the disastrous Josh Smith signing in 2013.
With Smith’s contract finally coming off the books this summer, the Pistons could have around $40 million in cap space according to ShamSports’ Capulator. That number assumes they renounce their free agent cap holds except Christian Wood, Tony Snell exercises his player option, and Markieff Morris declines his, all of which seem likely.
Then the real work begins.
Sure Detroit will have money, but should that evoke confidence? This summer’s free agent pool is limited in big names and the previous times the Pistons entered the offseason with big money to spend, they wasted it on Josh Smith, Ben Gordon, and Charlie Villanueva.
If words and actions matter, this time should be different.
On Friday, Detroit’s de facto general manager Ed Stefanski emphasized the importance of taking a cautious approach:
Of course, saying that you’re going to be smart with money and actually practicing it are two entirely different things. It’s natural for that quote to fall flat with Pistons fans, who have seen their front offices fail time and again with cash to spend. But the specifics of the quote bring some optimism.
If you’re going to trade Drummond for virtually nothing, you do it to use the cap space immediately.
The obvious and legitimate criticism of the transaction is that the Pistons could have moved Drummond in the same deal after he exercised his option and the certainty of his contract would then potentially increase his trade value.
Making the deal now shows that Stefanski has a clear plan that does not involve the longtime Detroit big man. That’s not to say the merits of that plan can’t be argued, but simply having a clearly defined plan is something the Pistons haven’t had in quite some time.
In addition to having an apparent way forward, the recent past brings optimism.
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At last year’s deadline, Detroit traded red-hot Reggie Bullock for Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and a future second-round pick. Mykhailiuk, taken 43rd in 2018, has shown promise in his sophomore season and looks like he could be a piece of the puzzle moving forward. But he wasn’t ready last season, so Stefanski signed Wayne Ellington following the trade deadline, a deal that helped propel the Pistons into the playoffs.
When the team is cap-strapped, it needs to win small victories that build assets. And that’s what Detroit did in the Bullock trade.
Maker has not worked out in the Motor City, but he had an extra year on his rookie deal and Detroit wasn’t going to re-sign Johnson. Obtaining that additional cheaper season allowed them to not spend more money elsewhere to fill a roster spot.
Those marginal but positive victories and Stefanski’s words show what we can expect to see in the near future.
Having cap space is not all about signing players. Extra funds are often better used in trades to obtain assets and/or take on bad contracts. It’s a plan that Sam Hinkie and Sean Marks executed well, and teams are inevitably replicating it.
With a limited talent pool this summer, teams are likely to focus their acquisitions via trade. The Pistons will have the ability to absorb money as a third party in exchange for positive assets. And they’ll have a clear timeline to inform their decision-making.
Blake Griffin‘s contract will come to an end in 2022, so the Detroit Pistons have a three-year window to take on money without needing to worry about future implications. Once Griffin’s deal comes off the books, they’ll want the flexibility to spend money more liberally.
And they can do this while still being able to re-signing Christian Wood this summer. Wood has been an impressive offensive performer who should still be plenty affordable considering his journeyman past and the teams with available cap space not needing a starting big.
How this all plays out will only be learned in time. But a clear path forward should bring some hope to some Pistons fans who have been demanding one for years.