Pistons: What to make of puzzling Mason Plumlee trade on NBA draft night

The Detroit Pistons had big plans on NBA draft night, and they didn’t only involve Cade Cunningham. Just hours before the Pistons were on the clock, they made an unexpected trade with the Charlotte Hornets, sending Mason Plumlee and their 37th pick to the Charlotte Hornets for the 57th pick.

It was no surprise that the Pistons made a trade involving that pick and a player, but my own guess was that they would try and trade back into the first round. What I did not expect was that they would use that pick and a player for salary dumping purposes.

The Detroit Pistons went off-script before Thursday’s NBA draft, trading Mason Plumlee to the Charlotte Hornets in an effective salary dump. So, why?

The Pistons now have a projected $17.5 million in space with which to operate once free agency begins on August 2nd (or sooner, if they start swinging trades). That’s not an insignificant number, especially considering how prevalent sign-and-trades were this past offseason. Even with no cap space and little flexibility, general manager Troy Weaver turned over nearly the entire roster before the season began, so $17.5 million is an absolute fortune in relative terms.

This move suggests something bigger might be on the horizon once pens start hitting paper on August 2nd. It’s one thing if Plumlee’s supposed overpay contract was a clear mistake and one that the Pistons decided they had to be rid of, but it wasn’t. If anything, Plumlee played to the level of his contract and was everything that the Pistons had hoped he’d be and more.

Plumlee averaged 10.4 points and a team-leading 9.3 rebounds per game and was one of the best playmakers their woebegone roster had. He even had perhaps the most hilarious streak in NBA history last season, fouling out of four straight games and five out of seven.

Trading Plumlee doesn’t seem like a corrective move, something built around paying for the sins of past mistakes. Rather, it seems like the groundwork for a bigger, multi-team deal once players can begin signing contracts. After all, this deal has not been made official yet, which means there’s potential for more deals to spiral off of this one.

We can look at recent history for precedence from the Pistons. They opened the last offseason with a preposterous-seeming trade, sending Bruce Brown to the Brooklyn Nets for Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. But before all was said and done that deal was tied in with several others, including the one that sent Luke Kennard to the LA Clippers and saw the Pistons get the 19th overall pick, which they used to draft Saddiq Bey.

The Pistons also accumulated just about every available center in the trade and free agency markets in the first hour or two of free agency, but they were quickly stretched or traded as needed. In spite of all the jokes about the Pistons having too many centers (and some of them were really funny, to be fair), by the time the season rolled around, they had just about the normal number of centers.

Some NBA general managers will make their moves in a fairly linear fashion, but based on last offseason, it seems like Weaver prefers to make his moves in a multi-layered, 3-dimensional format. He doesn’t have as much flotsam to clear from this team as he did last year, but if a big move via sign-and-trade is coming once free agency begins, a trade like this Plumlee deal is exactly how I would expect it to be presaged.