The Detroit Pistons know what they are.
There are too many examples of teams that, in the midst of a rebuilding effort, make an ill-informed splashy free agent signing or trade their carefully accumulated youth and/or picks for a ‘win now’ veteran, only to push themselves to the heady heights of mid-table mediocrity. To use a well worn phrase, those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Detroit look to have studied the NBA’s history books.
Detroit appears to be maintaining their focus on the future, eschewing any quick fix. With a 23-59 record – just a solitary loss from the worst record in the East – the Pistons look a mile off being a competitive outfit. Yet, with a raft of talented youngsters, including last seasons 1st overall pick Cade Cunningham, and some very tradable assets, Detroit – assuming they can hold their nerve – are well on the way to building a potentially strong team that can develop together.
How they approach this offseason will prove instructive as to how much they want to accelerate the rebuild.
Heading into the 3rd year of their rebuild the Pistons are very clearly on the right track.
Their roster is dotted with high potential players, headlined by Cunningham. The 20 year old had a tepid start to his rookie campaign, missing time with injury before starting starting unnervingly slowly. Yet he warmed to NBA basketball, peaking with a March that had Pistons fans salivating: 22.9 points (on 48% shooting), seven assists, 5.9 boards and 1.4 steals. Make no mistake: in a loaded rookie class, Cunningham is a stud; a player with genuine superstar potential.
Surrounding Cunningham young talents in the sharp shooting Saddiq Bey, high ability reclamation projects in Marvin Bagley III, Hamadou Diallo and Josh Jackson, as well as the utterly fearless Isaiah Stewart, none over the age of 24.
The most encouraging of Detroit’s youthful supporting cast is Bey. The 23 year old Villanova product projects as the ideal support player for a good side. His calling card is undoubtedly his shooting, hitting a tick over 36% of his treys so far in his career. Bey was 4th in the NBA in made catch-and-shoot threes this season, with 158 makes. He’s also solid playmaker, has a sneaky level of bounce to his game and is a weapon in the post. Defensively, he has some way to go but has the size and agility to eventually be a solid defender.
Perhaps the biggest conundrum on the roster is 2020 7th overall pick Killian Hayes. The American born Frenchman was highly touted – including by this writer – coming into his draft, but has struggled mightily in his two NBA seasons. Though a crafty passer and manipulator of angles, he’s proven unable to create off the dribble, his first step and explosion far below what was expected. His shooting – not seen as a strength coming into the league – is abysmal. His 37/27/78 shooting splits somehow worse that what was anticipated. He’s solid defensively, with great instincts. But Hayes lacks the athleticism to develop into a genuine stopper. Cunningham has the potential to cure many ills, but missing this badly on the first juicy pick of the rebuild will be costly.
As for veterans, the Pistons employ a couple of men that many contenders would gladly take on in Jerami Grant and Kelly Olynyk. They’re steadying hands for a young team, though neither are expected to be long term parts of the Pistons plans.
The Pistons are set at point guard, small forward and depending on their motivation to keep Grant around, power forward. That said, Cunningham is the only unquestionably untouchable member of that trio.
Grant – one of the genuine success stories of Philadelphia’s Process – is still just 28 years old and is Detroit’s leading scorer, though Cunningham should take that mantle soon enough. His versatility as a defender and ability to be a secondary scorer make him a player the Pistons would likely look to keep around as they develop into a playoff team. His chemistry with Cunningham is developing nicely. Conversely, he’s just outside the timeline of the Pistons major rebuilding blocks and, being on an expiring deal, could be a prime trade candidate. Just about every contender, from genuine to quasi, would love to have Grant among its ranks.
Stewart is a solid, energetic big man. He’s limited as a finisher and isn’t the best rim protector. Perhaps his ultimate destiny is as a high energy big who can anchor 2nd units – a Montrezl Harrell type with more of a defensive slant. In the end it means that the Pistons should still be in the hunt for a centre.
The rest of the roster is in flux.
Bagley came over from Sacramento in desperate need of a fresh start and certainly impressed as a Piston, putting up 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. Bagley’s issues remain stark: he’s a non factor as a rim protector making him a less than ideal centre, whilst his shooting woes nullify his effectiveness as a power forward. However for the first time in his NBA life, he looked comfortable on the court.
The team also employ a pair of stretch bigs in Olynyk and Trey Lyles, who’s skill sets almost perfectly overlap. Olynyk is the better player but given his age (30 to Lyles 26) and more expensive deal, look for the veteran to be moved on.
The Cap Sheet
This past season the Pistons were paying out over $40 million in dead money to Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Dewayne Dedmon. Griffin’s $29 million deal is now off the books, greatly impacting the Pistons cap sheet.
If the Pistons pick up their team options and backup point guard Cory Joseph enacts his player option, the team will have $85 million committed to 12 players, with Bagley the only player of any consequence remaining unsigned.
Grant is the swing piece on the Pistons from a salary cap perspective. The last year of his deal will pay him a tick under $21 million, though he’s proven that he’s probably worth a little more than than that, especially given the Pistons have such a clean cap sheet. Whilst the trade market for Grant is an article in and of itself (if a trade is coming, expect it to happen before August 9th, after which date Grant’s Bird rights become lessened meaning his maximum extension drops sharply) should he be re-signed expect him to ink a deal worth somewhere around $25 million per season.
Although it’s more likely to occur next offseason, keep an eye on an extension for Bey. He’s only in his 3rd year, so the situation is far from desperate, but the Pistons will want to get their star wing inked to a long term deal.
The Pistons have prioritised the draft in their rebuild, three starters selected in the past two seasons with hopes – perhaps delusionally – remaining high for Hayes.
The Pistons hold their own picks in this draft – selections five and 44 – but don’t have any other teams picks in their possession.
What Detroit do with the 5th pick will prove instructive. If they take a big man it likely spells the end of Grant’s time in Motor City. Admittedly that’s only likely to happen should one of the big three – Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith Jr or Paolo Banchero – fall to them.
It’s far more likely that the Pistons look to draft a backcourt running mate for Cunningham. Ideally, the hyper athletic Jaden Ivey falls to them, though he’s more than likely off the board by pick five. In that scenario expect the team to pick between Shaeden Sharpe and Dyson Daniels.
Daniels has shot up just about every draft board in the last few weeks, the Australian combo-guard impressing with his combination of size, shooting, playmaking and defense.
Sharpe, on the other hand, is this drafts mystery man. Maybe the most athletic player of all those expected to be lottery picks, Sharpe is the definition of risk/reward. His insane athletic gifts – pace, power, length, spring – aligned with excellent instincts allow him to do things on a basketball court that boggle the mind. On the flip side, his work ethic and maturity have been repeatedly questioned.
If the Pistons want to take a player that can contribute right away, Daniels is their man. If they make the upside play then Sharpe is the clear choice.