Detroit Pistons 2021 Free Agency Preview & Predictions

Here I am, once again, singing Troy Weaver’s praises.

Not too long ago, the Pistons were hampered by massive contracts that simply did not raise their ceiling in the Eastern Conference. Pistons fans were talking themselves into getting excited about the possibility of earning a 6-8 seed – and maybe a playoff win – because that’s the only option they had. It seemed like the franchise’s refusal to retool would continue throughout the rest of Blake Griffin’s massive contract, leaving the team to build with scraps for years to come.

Instead, the Pistons are in, undoubtedly, their best position since the mid-2000’s – a pretty mind-blowing thing to type less than two years after trading the franchise’s former cornerstone in Andre Drummond for… basically nothing – and it’s all thanks to Weaver. Griffin’s buyout in March, which saved the Pistons over $13 million between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, gave the Pistons both financial flexibility and flexibility on the court, as his absence opened up opportunities for younger players and truly kickstarted the youth movement.

Troy Weaver has already stated that he doesn’t anticipate much roster movement this off-season and emphasized the importance of having the right guys around for the “restoring” of the Pistons, and for good reason. With nearly $32 million in dead cap space between Griffin and Dewayne Dedmon next season, alongside a weak free agent class this summer, the spending party likely won’t begin for the Pistons until 2022. Instead, the contracts handed out by Weaver will end up in predictable hands as the team tries to build on what they had last season while also adding the best prospect in this year’s draft, Cade Cunningham.

Detroit has 11 players under contract for 2021-22, and the majority of them are near-locks to be on the team for opening night. However, there’s always under-the-radar ways to position a franchise for future success, no matter how minor the moves are. Let’s jump in.

Who’s Out?

Much of Detroit’s roster in 2021-22 will look similar to last season’s. But with even more incoming talent and youth this summer, not everyone can stick around.

Dennis Smith Jr. is the most obvious casualty from the team this off-season. It’s unfortunate, as many had high hopes for the 23-year-old former lottery pick after he was acquired for Derrick Rose, but Smith struggled with injuries and only made it through 20 games with the Pistons. Plus, with the likely addition of Cunningham and the unexpected emergence of Saben Lee, there just won’t be any minutes left for Smith in the rotation. I expect a lottery-bound team to take a low-risk flier on him this summer.

Delon Wright was more than serviceable in his lone 36 games as Detroit’s starting point guard, as he proved to be a steadying presence on the court and helped keep the Pistons in games consistently. Especially following Killian Hayes’ injury, Wright was one of the only players on the roster that could create for others, emphasizing his importance even more. In one of the more lateral trades I’ve ever seen, Wright was moved for Cory Joseph, who was everything that Wright was for the Pistons, except even better… somehow. Joseph made a positive impact in just about every one of his 19 appearances for the Pistons, posting 12 points per game on close to 50/40/90 splits(!!). Joseph’s consistency was a true anomaly considering he sat nearly every other game during his tenure as the young guards received more opportunities late in the season. Joseph earned $12.6 million between Sacramento and Detroit last season and is due to make the same amount next season, which he isn’t worth to a young team, even after an excellent showcase. The catch is that the 29-year-old is only guaranteed $2.4 million if he’s waived before August 2, meaning it’s almost a certainty that he will be either waived or traded before that deadline. Fear not, as the two second-rounders were the true prize of that trade, anyway. Joseph will likely sign a slightly more modest deal with a playoff team as a high-end backup if the Pistons decide to move on.

Rodney McGruder‘s $5 million salary for 2021-22 is non-guaranteed if he’s waived before August 15, putting him in a similar position to Joseph, except the decision to part ways should be even easier to make. Jahlil Okafor could be moved as well, likely as a throw-in to make salaries work in a larger deal. Neither of these veterans have proven much to secure their spot in the NBA recently, and neither played much of a role with the Pistons last season. McGruder had a stretch of decent performances in the middle of the season, but only appeared in 16 games, not showing much to warrant keeping him around. Okafor, meanwhile, saw his role deteriorate quickly due to Isaiah Stewart’s quick emergence, making him nothing more than injury insurance. Instead, he was the one that suffered the injury, undergoing meniscus surgery before returning for a few more middling performances late in the season. I would be surprised to see much of either on an NBA court next season, for the Pistons or any other team.

Who’s In?

Troy Weaver didn’t trade for Hamidou Diallo just to let him walk in restricted free agency this summer. Knowing their ties from their time together in Oklahoma City, this move was obviously made with the future in mind. Weaver knows what the Pistons have in the lengthy and uber-athletic 22-year-old, and the contract that Diallo walks away with this summer will reflect the front office’s confidence in him. Diallo was an exciting acquisition who quickly showed his value on both sides of the floor and immediately gave the Pistons a burst of athleticism that they had been lacking. There were certainly some hiccups in terms of his consistency, but considering his asking price was only Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick, it would be pessimistic to view the Diallo trade as anything but a positive. I see a multi-year, eight-figure annual salary contract for Diallo this summer as he hopefully settles in as Detroit’s sixth man.

It’s rare to see a second-round point guard make an impact in his rookie season, but that’s exactly what the high-flying Saben Lee did for the Pistons last season. Not expected to play any immediate role after being drafted 38th overall out of Vanderbilt, Lee turned heads throughout his 48 appearances this season as he displayed his solid playmaking, finishing and athleticism that competes with that of Diallo. He shot over 47 percent from the field on 4.4 attempts per game, which is very impressive efficiency for a rookie point guard. I imagine Lee will quickly be re-signed to a modest, short-term deal as he should compete for the backup point guard spot next season. Also, did I mention he was on a two-way contract? It’s always a huge win to get production from a two-way player, especially when they’re good enough to bring back on a real contract. 22-year-old Lee was exactly that.

What’s the only thing better than having one productive two-way player? Having two of them. Frank Jackson came to Detroit after two decent seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans, where he showed flashes of being a true NBA talent. Unfortunately for the Pelicans, they took Jackson’s listed position of “point guard” a little too seriously, as he was forced into distributing roles despite not being a playmaker. Jackson’s niche was truly unlocked when the Pistons realized he was perfectly suited to fill Svi Mykhailiuk’s former role as an off-ball shooter. Jackson posted career-highs across the board with Detroit this season, notably increasing his three-point percentage from 32% to 40% while also boosting his attempts per game from 2.4 to 3.8. Both of those are too great of improvements to be a fluke, and Detroit knows it. I’d like to see Jackson return on a Josh Jackson-esque 2 year/$10 million deal, but wouldn’t be surprised to see him get more. Either way, Frank Jackson should return as Detroit’s backup shooting guard.

Wayne Ellington returned to Detroit in 2020-21 after joining the Pistons late in the 2018-19 season. In both stints, Ellington was excellent as a three-point shooter and provided a solid veteran presence in the locker room. Similar to the legendary Anthony Tolliver, that’s all the Pistons ever needed from the 33-year-old journeyman. Ellington earned the veteran’s minimum this season, and I would take him back in a heartbeat on a similar deal. He won’t be playing a large role on the court for any team at this point in his career, but what Ellington provides is very valuable to a team like the Pistons. Plus, you can never have too much shooting in the NBA.

Low-Risk, High-Reward Additions

Like I’ve already said, the Pistons aren’t going to be making many drastic moves this off-season with over $30 million in dead cap space – the big moves will start next year. With Cade Cunningham likely getting the max rookie salary of over $10 million and up to three second-round picks to pay, much of Detroit’s free cap room will be spent on incoming rookies. However, unloading the likes of Joseph and McGruder could help the Pistons cobble together around $10M more to spend on a free agent.

With the position they are in now, there’s no reason for Detroit to hand out a long-term deal to anyone. Instead, a simple one-year deal to a veteran that can not only help the Pistons win, but also elevate the games of Detroit’s young core would be the wisest move. The Pistons finished bottom-10 in both three-point percentage and three-pointers made in 2020-21, which means bringing in shooting should be a priority. Doug McDermott just had the best season of his career with the injury-riddled Indiana Pacers, averaging 13.6 points on nearly 39 percent from deep as the team’s sixth man. At 6-foot-7 with a career 40 percent three-point average, the 29-year-old bucket-getter would be a perfect fit behind Saddiq Bey and Jerami Grant. McDermott may be too expensive or command a longer contract, but if not, he would be a great short-term addition to this young team.

Lastly, even if Killian Hayes and Saben Lee prove that they’re capable of holding down the point guard slot, the Pistons will still need some veteran insurance there, especially if Joseph leaves. There are a few low-cost veterans that would fill the role nicely, with my hope being a reunion with the lightning-quick Ish Smith, who spent three seasons with Detroit from 2016-19. Other options include Brad Wanamaker and Raul Neto.

Detroit’s free agency will likely be headlined by familiar faces and a couple savvy signings, but you never know what Troy Weaver might have up his sleeve as he begins to build a true contender.

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