The Detroit Pistons have some decisions to make through the second half of the 2018-19 season. There are plenty of question marks with this team, arguably more than any other franchise has at the moment. Detroit must find answers for the immediate future of the team.
After the highest expectations had been set for the team in over a decade, the Pistons have continued to disappoint, falling below even the most pessimistic predictions. Detroit’s dynamic big man duo and Reggie Jackson (formerly known as the ‘big three’) have all stayed surprisingly healthy throughout the season. If you had told me prior to the season that Blake Griffin had played in nearly every contest, barring rest on back-to-backs, while Reggie Jackson has played and started in every game, I would’ve expected the Pistons to be competing for home-court advantage in this season’s playoffs. If you added that Blake Griffin was having arguably the best season of his career, towering above even his most electric Lob City days, I would’ve raised my hopes even higher. Instead, the Pistons are currently closer to a bottom-six record in the league than the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference (as of January 23) and can’t decide whether they want to be a slightly above-average team or a bad team.
To reiterate, Blake Griffin is fantastic, arguably the team’s best individual talent since Grant Hill, but the Pistons are still as embarrassingly average as they were a decade ago. Detroit can’t make another game-changing transaction this season as they did nearly a year ago; they can’t afford to part with any more future assets. Even if they tried to make another splash approaching the deadline, it’s another lost season, no question. However, if the front office makes a couple of competent moves while shying away from any win-now decisions, it would benefit the Pistons greatly in a couple years.
I’ll look into a few possible scenarios for the rest of the season and give my two cents on whether it would benefit the team’s future or lock our beloved basketball team into more years of dreaded mediocrity:
Do: Gauge the Trade Value of Stanley Johnson
Everyone in and around the Pistons organization knows that Stanley Johnson has been a disappointment during his tenure in Detroit. Not necessarily a colossal bust, as he’s shown his fair share of promising moments with the Pistons, but he has not lived up to the projection once had for him. However, nearly every other possible prospect that proceeded Johnson in the 2015 NBA Draft – including Justise Winslow, who has been fantastic as the Miami Heat’s de-facto point guard this season – have outperformed him through four years.
Johnson has failed to make any noticeable strides from his rookie season, back when it looked like he could be a future leader after confidently going at LeBron James (he tried his hardest!) in the opening round of the 2016 NBA playoffs. He’s always been a presence on the defensive end and has shown potential as a transition threat, but his offense has seemingly stagnated since his first year even though he has not been put in the best situation to succeed on that side of the floor. He’s never been able to produce as a starter, and any time he throws up a 3-pointer, you have to close your eyes and hope for the best.
Getting to the point, Johnson won’t be returning to the Pistons next season. Detroit is currently in cap-hell, and will more than likely have no intentions of throwing a lucrative, long-term contract at a player who hasn’t proven he can even be an average-level starter. He’ll be in another uniform regardless, and probably experience the best years of his career if he finds his way to a team that is apt at developing talent. There’s no doubt in my mind that Johnson can still be a good player, but Detroit isn’t going to be the team that unlocks him.
With the Pistons on the cusp in the Eastern Conference, they need to take a look at the trade value of Johnson, who will have his share of suitors who think they can get more out of the 22-year-old. He’s a restricted free agent, which means the Pistons could match any offer he receives, and that could be another incentive for a team to make a move for Johnson, as he would be under his new franchise’s control in free agency.
The San Antonio Spurs could be a match made in heaven, as the league’s model franchise has always been great at developing talent and seem interested in Johnson, according to Jabari Young of The Athletic:
According to league sources, behind the scenes, the concern with Johnson is his focus. The work ethic is there, but some feel Johnson is working on the wrong things with the coaches who aren’t employed by Pistons in the offseason.
“The tools are there,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “But whatever he wants to do doesn’t fit in with what they want him to do.”
But Johnson is an eighth overall pick who some around the league feel is a talent who can be saved if he lands with the right team.
“Can (the Spurs) fix everything that’s wrong with him?” another NBA scout asked, pointing to Johnson’s shooting as a concern. “Maybe (the Spurs) are the culture for him to turn him around.”
The Pistons aren’t going to bring back a haul for the one-dimensional wing, but with Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV set to be the Spurs’ backcourt tandem of the future, could Detroit snag Derrick White(we could dream) or Bryn Forbes? Regardless of where he goes, the Pistons need to get something out of Johnson before he leaves for nothing this summer.
Don’t: Move Any Future First-Round Picks
Kemba Walker. John Wall. Bradley Beal. Mike Conley. The list goes on. Pistons fans would love to see any one of these players playing their home games at Little Caesar’s Arena, but it’s simply not that easy.
All of these players would make any team substantially more competitive, but the likelihood that any of them are moved is slim to none, nevermind to a team like the Pistons, who don’t have much to offer.
The Pistons made their big move at this time last year when they traded their 2018 first-rounder, among other pieces, for Blake Griffin, and are now thin when it comes to coveted assets. Detroit can’t move back-to-back first-round picks regardless, but even sending out a pick multiple years down the line to make the Pistons somewhat more competitive for the next two years. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be worth prolonging what will eventually have to be a true rebuild when Blake Griffin’s contract ends. The Pistons have some moves to make, but there’s no incentive in trying to improve immediately while sacrificing the future when teams like Golden State, Boston, and Toronto are around.
On the other hand, the Pistons could be in the same position if they decide to sell, which doesn’t seem likely, but you never know. Detroit’s roster is filled with expensive contracts that no team would want to take on without extra compensation. Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer, and Langston Galloway will all be Pistons until the end of their respective, ill-advised contracts – unless a drastic decision is made. There shouldn’t be any rush to get those contracts off the books anyway, despite all of the big name free agents dying to come to Detroit. For once, it would be in the team’s best interest to wait out their mistakes and have a fresh start in a couple of years.
There’s no way of telling where the Pistons will end up picking in this summer’s draft – there’s a possibility they make the playoffs and have their selection in the mid-teens or they continue to slide and have a chance to bring in a more premier talent. Regardless, Detroit needs to start compiling more young talent for the future rather than trying to improve right now or attempting to erase front office missteps from years past.
Do: Make a Push for Dennis Smith Jr.
Dennis Smith Jr. was the main source of excitement for a pitiful Dallas Mavericks team last season. His highlight-worthy dunks and the constant burst of athleticism he displayed whenever he was on the court were traits the team adored in an otherwise lost season.
Somehow, the team was able to bring in an even more promising talent through the draft this season in Luka Doncic, who has exceeded nearly everyone’s most optimistic expectations as a rookie. Doncic’s rise to stardom hasn’t boded well for Smith Jr, however, as his production has dipped across the board in a decreased role. Dallas has since been looking at potential trade options for the young guard, who has just returned to the court after missing multiple games with an illness.
The Pistons don’t have the assets to make another big move, but attempting to add a young guard who has fallen out of favor with his current team is not out of the question. Detroit has reportedly shown interest in the former NC State standout, and for good reason. Already a more talented point guard than anyone the Pistons have rostered at just 21-years-old, his potential and the fact that he is still under team control for the next two seasons is a huge bonus. With a lead role in Detroit’s backcourt, his up-tempo style of play would fit in seamlessly with rim-runners like Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond.
Depending on what Detroit would give up in a hypothetical deal, the team would also be taking in one of the Mavericks’ larger, unwanted contracts such as Wesley Matthews or Harrison Barnes. The latter is essentially a poor man’s Tobias Harris making over $24 million a year; not exactly a player I’d want for that much money, especially when he has a $25 million player option he will certainly exercise next year. Matthews, meanwhile, has been an excellent shooter throughout his career and could immediately step into a Reggie Bullock-like role until his $18 million contract expires at season’s end.
Trading for Smith Jr. would be a low-risk, high-reward that I would be all in on if it doesn’t involve a future first, which I don’t think it would take. It may be a necessity for Detroit to make Luke Kennard the centerpiece from their side of the deal, but I’d personally be willing to make that sacrifice if it brings in a talent like Smith and gives the Pistons a bit of cap relief heading into the offseason.
Blake Griffin is the face of the franchise and will be until either age catches up to him or his contract expires; hopefully, it’s the latter. For the Pistons to be anywhere near competitive during the rest of his tenure, their personnel moves must be centered around the All-Star big man.
It’s never too late to start making the right decisions.
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