It’s been a long and disappointing season for the Pistons. After returning to the playoffs last season, there was a new buzz around this team and the direction they were heading. With added depth to the returning roster (namely Ish Smith and John Leuer), it seemed certain that Detroit would build on their success and return to the playoffs this year. Of course, that’s not what happened.
The Pistons have been one of the most inconsistent teams you’ll ever see. It seems all year that it has been one step forward, two steps back. From the collapse of Reggie Jackson to Detroit’s season-long struggles shooting the three, this team has underperformed in basically every way. Now we are all wondering what this team has to do to get back to the playoffs.
The first thing Stan Van Gundy will have to decide is what players are going to be part of the Pistons long term future. In my mind, there are pieces on the current roster that the team can build around. Those players are Marcus Morris, Tobias Harris, Stanley Johnson and Andre Drummond. These players are all under contract and bring something to the table that the Pistons can use to forge an identity.
Morris and Johnson are both strong perimeter defenders. I believe that becoming an elite defensive team is the Pistons best path back to the postseason. Drummond fits into that equation too as a good shot blocker and an elite rebounder. While Harris isn’t much of a defender he has been the team’s leading scorer this year and has thrived in a sixth man role. This gives the Pistons plus defenders at shooting guard, small forward and center with a great scorer coming off the bench to build around. Also, keep in mind that Kontavious Caldwell-Pope is a restricted free agent and could very well be back with the Pistons next year as well.
Caldwell-Pope is also an excellent defender and is absolutely someone the Pistons should want to build around. He consistently improved as a scorer over his first three years, with his scoring averages improving from 5.9 ppg to 12.7 ppg to 14.5 ppg last year. And although his scoring average has dropped a bit this year (14.1), his three-point shooting has improved to a career-high 36% while taking career-high attempts per game (5.7). This growth as a scorer combined with his impressive perimeter defense makes him a critical piece for the Pistons moving forward. The only reason I don’t see him as part of the Pistons core right now is due to financial reasons.
Detroit’s cap situation is NOT good. That’s because they have zero cap space to work with this off-season. The Pistons are expected to have Aron Baynes, Reggie Bullock, Beno Udrih, Michael Gbinije, Darrun Hilliard and Caldwell-Pope coming off their books in the off-season, but they’ll still be desperate for space to make any kind of free agent signing. I mentioned earlier that Van Gundy has to decide who is part of this team’s future moving forward, which in turn also means deciding who is not a part of the Pistons plans. Detroit has to remove anyone from the roster that doesn’t line up with their long term plans.
Three guys who are taking up a lot of cap space that isn’t guys I see as long term answers for the Pistons are Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer, and Boban Marjanovic. While these are good players who do have value, I’m not sure they’re worth the money they’re being paid. Jackson and Leuer are under contract for the next three year and currently, have salaries of 15 million and 11 million respectively. Marjanovic is under contract for the next two years and is currently making 7 million. These are three bench players who don’t really add much on the defensive end. This makes them expendable and players who don’t really fit with what should be the Pistons identity moving forward. These are contracts that Detroit has to move.
However, moving these contracts comes with two problems. The first is that the Pistons will not likely get value for these players. When moving bad contracts it usually means paying someone else to take them off your hands. This could mean giving up a draft position or packaging one of those contracts with a player the Pistons won’t want to part with. It will also leave a hole in the roster that the Pistons will have to fill.
Assuming the Pistons are able to move all of these guys, they will need a point guard, power forward and a center. It’s likely the Pistons will fill one of these needs with their first round pick this year. They also have last year’s first-round pick, power forward Henry Ellenson, playing in the developmental league. He is someone who could fill Leuer’s role next year as a big body power forward who can rebound and shoot threes. That’s two additions that can come in and fill a role next year on a team friendly contract. This means Detroit (if they’re able to move those three bad contracts) will be able to make one impact signing.
The ideal free agent fit for the Pistons is power forward Serge Ibaka. He is a good three-point shooter and rebounder who has been one of the better shot blockers in the game over the course of his career. He’s 27 years old, so he has plenty of gas left in the tank, and could play out the prime of his career in Detroit. Jeff Withey could be another free agent target as a depth center. He brings seven-foot size and he’s a good free-throw shooter (72% career) which makes him a good complement to Drummond. Patty Mills could be another target to work in a point guard tandem with Smith. Mills is a career 39% three-point shooter and has lots of postseason experience that could go a long way with this young Pistons team.
The off-season plan is clear. Evaluate the roster, cut the fat contracts that aren’t worth their money and build an identity around the young core. This process won’t be easy, moving bad contracts never is. It will require tough choices of possibly losing future assets or saying goodbye to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Unfortunately, that’s just part of the business when you make bad signings like the Pistons did last off-season. However, if the Pistons can open up some cap space and make one impact signing, as well as add to their depth through free agency and recent draft picks, this team can be back on their feet as soon as next year. One thing is clear, for better or for worse the foreseeable future of the Pistons will be determined this off-season. Van Gundy must make difficult moves to get this team back on the playoff track.
Featured image: Paul Sancya/Associated Press