What key free agent(s) might most improve the Pistons?

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

There is not as much money this summer to spend on flashy upgrades as there was in 2013, but the franchise certainly needs to post some ‘Help Wanted’ ads.

With Detroit losing its first round pick to Charlotte, and new coach Stan Van Gundy indicating that he prefers to assess his present roster in training camp before he considers any trades, free agency is the best hope for any immediate upgrades to a team that went 29-53 for the second year in a row. So who might the Pistons target in July?

 

Before we look at some prospects, let’s first look at the 12 players who are presently under contract for 2014-15:

 

CURRENT PISTONS ROSTER:
PLAYER POSITION SALARY
Chauncey Billups PG $2.5 million
Will Bynum PG $2.9 million
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope SG $2.8 million
Luigi Datome SF $1.75 million
Andre Drummond C $2.6 million
Josh Harrellson C $950 thousand
Brandon Jennings PG $8.0 million
Jonas Jerebko PF/SF $4.5 million
Tony Mitchell PF $800 thousand
Kyle Singler SF/SG $1.1 million
Peyton Siva PG $800 thousand
Josh Smith PF/SF $13.5 million
TOTAL $42.2 million

It should be noted that there is a team option on Billups’ contract. If Detroit decides to let him go, that will free up an additional roster spot and a modest amount of money. Jerebko has a player option, but apparently he’s decided to stay put. That was probably a wise choice for him, because it’s questionable that he would find a better offer on the open market.

Three players who were on the 2013-14 squad will be free agents:

 

PISTONS FREE AGENTS:
PLAYER POSITION CAP HOLD
Greg Monroe PF/C $10.2 million
Rodney Stuckey SG $12.75 million
Charlie Villanueva PF $12.9 million
TOTAL $35.85 million

The projected salary cap for 2014-15 is $63.2 million, which is an increase of about $4.5 million over this past season. (The luxury tax threshold is projected to be $77 million.) Since the total of the team’s salary commitments for next season plus their cap holds is over $78 million, the only way to create cap space for signing free agents is by renouncing some or all of their three.

No one expects Villanueva to be retained, so it seems like a foregone conclusion that he will be renounced, freeing up his cap hold of nearly $13 million. Since Monroe is a restricted free agent, and almost certainly will get an offer exceeding his cap hold, it’s almost a certainty that the Pistons will not renounce him. Detroit will be able to match whatever offer he may receive from another team.

Less predictable is what the future holds for Stuckey. Playing largely a sixth man role, he was the team’s fourth leading scorer with 13.9 points per game last season. Per 36, he was Detroit’s top scorer (18.7 ppg). He was also their best player at drawing fouls, and led the team in free throw shooting at .836 percent. While he can be frustratingly inconsistent, it’s hard to imagine the team improving next year if he leaves and no productive replacement is found.

Assuming no other changes are made to the roster regarding the 12 players currently under contract for next season, and that the plan is to retain Monroe, there will be two open spots. Presumably one of these will be allocated to the team’s second round pick in the 2014 draft.

If so, that would leave only one slot open for a free agent pickup. According to Keith Langlois, the Pistons are likely to have up to $13 million free to spend. (Losing their first round pick to Charlotte did have the upside of making more money available, since each team must factor the salaries for their draft picks into their available cap space.)

One strategy would be to split this money between two free agents. This would require the organization to either not sign its second round pick (perhaps encouraging him to play a year in Europe ala Singler), let Billups go, or make a trade that creates an extra vacancy.

Another option would be for Detroit to focus all its attention on signing one impact player. If this is the route chosen, what position should the team look to fill?

Drummond, Monroe and Smith (potentially) give the team a solid frontcourt rotation, and there are also several other reserve big men, so we can be confident that Van Gundy will look at wings or point guards among the available free agents. Since the Pistons were 29th in three-point shooting percentage (.321), the need to address that glaring deficiency may further narrow the search. So if they are looking for a starting caliber point guard or a wing, who might they target?

 

Point Guards

Kyle Lowry (6-0, 205, age 28): He had the best season of his eight-year career for Toronto, averaging 17.9 ppg, 7.4 assists per game, and making .380 percent of his threes (6.3 attempts per game). An unrestricted free agent, he is due a substantial raise from the $6.2 million he made in 2013-14. The Pistons could afford to offer him a three year/$36 million contract. Of course, other organizations may also set their sights on him. But the Raptors have sufficient cap space to top that deal if they want to keep Lowry. And unless they want to take a step back from their third place finish in the East, they will probably do what it takes to retain him.

Eric Bledsoe (6-1, 195, age 24): While he missed almost half the year due to knee surgery, he easily had his most productive season ever with 17.7 ppg and 5.5 apg. While he struggles with turnovers (3.3 topg) and is just an average three-point shooter (.357 percent), he does get to the foul line (5.5 attempts per game). Phoenix has an abundance of cap space, however, so it’s unlikely they wouldn’t match any offer Detroit made for Bledsoe.

Darren Collison (6-0, 175, age 26): He recently decided to opt out of the second year of his deal with the Clippers, after a productive season as Chris Paul’s backup (though he also started 35 games). As a starter he averaged 14.8 ppg, 5.3 apg, and hit .417 percent of his threes. It’s hard to gauge how much he will demand, but a three-year/$21 million offer might move him to Motown. With this or any of the above signings, it would be clear that Jennings’ days in Detroit are numbered.

Greivis Vasquez (6-6, 211, age 27): After moving from Sacramento to Toronto early last season, he played primarily as Lowry’s backup. Per 36, he averaged 15.9 ppg and 6.2 apg, and he connected on .389 percent of his threes. He only made $2.15 million last season and his qualifying offer is $3.2 million. One intriguing aspect about Vasquez is that he has the size of a wing, so he could be used interchangeably in a three-guard rotation or even see some minutes at small forward. While the Raptors might like to keep him, it may be difficult for them to hold on to both Lowry and Vasquez. A three-year/$12 million deal would probably induce him to pack.

Patty Mills (6-0, 185, age 25): When Tony Parker missed the Spurs fifth playoff game against Portland, Mills stepped up with an 18-point outing. He averaged 10.2 ppg (19.5 ppg Per 36) in a reserve role this season, making .425 percent of his threes. More of a scorer than a playmaker, he’s certainly due for a raise from his $1.1 million salary. The question is how much San Antonio will pay to hold on to Mills. A three-year/$12 million contract could lure him to play at the Palace.

 

Wings

Lance Stephenson (6-5, 230, age 23): In his second year as a starter, Stephenson blossomed into a very productive pro, averaging 13.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg, and 4.6 apg. He hit his threes at a .352 percent clip. While there are questions about his maturity, there’s no doubt that he’s due for a big raise this summer. With their other four starters owed $48.6 million next season, the Pacers could be hard pressed to match any contract for north of $10 million per year. Don’t be surprised if he’s presented with a four-year deal, either, because he will be the best young wing on the open market. While the Pistons could make him a $50 million offer, their cap situation would become very precarious in a couple of years when it’s time to extend Drummond.

Gordon Hayward (6-8, 220, age 24): His efficiency plummeted with increased usage in 2013-14, but he was still a productive player (16.2 ppg, 5.1 rbg, 5.2 apg) for Utah. He’d probably be more effective on a team where he wasn’t expected to carry the offensive load. While his three-point shooting was poor last season, for his career he’s made .365 percent. He’d be a good candidate for a three-year/$36 million offer from Detroit, but the Jazz would almost surely match it.

Trevor Ariza (6-8, 220, age 28): He had his best outing ever for the Wizards, averaging 14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and knocking down .407 percent of his threes. He made $7.7 million last season, so expect him to be looking for a three to four year deal for $9-10 million per year. He would present Detroit with an immediate upgrade at small forward, but most likely his best offer will come from a better team.

Luol Deng (6-9, 220, age 29): He wasn’t as productive last year for Cleveland (14.3 ppg) as he was for Chicago (19.0 ppg), but Deng is still a solid all-around pro. While he made $14.3 million, it seems unlikely that he’ll garner that much in his next contract. If the Cavaliers draft a big man with the first pick, they might want to keep Deng. While he would surely help Detroit, his age and so-so three-point shot (career .329 percent) don’t make him an ideal fit. It would make more sense for him to go to a team like Dallas that has solid playoff aspirations.

Evan Turner (6-7, 220, age 25): He averaged 17.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 3.7 apg for Philadelphia, but didn’t make much of an impact in Indiana after the trade. While he’s versatile, Turner is not a very efficient scorer. It’s hard to imagine that he’ll sign a deal for as much as his $8.7 million qualifying offer. But he might be worth a two-year/$10 million contract. His lack of three-point range should disqualify him as a prospect for the Pistons.

Jodie Meeks (6-4, 208, age 26): He had a break-out season filling in for Kobe Bryant, averaging 15.7 ppg and making .401 percent from the three-point arc. Assuming he doesn’t want to play second fiddle for the Lakers in 2014-15, he could enjoy a larger role with a bigger payday elsewhere. While Detroit might not want to make him a starter, they could give him the sixth man role Stuckey filled. An offer of $3-4 million for two to three years might suffice.

Nick Young (6-7, 210, age 28): He has a player option, and it’s hard to imagine that no one would offer Young more than the $1.2 million he’s owed next season. He averaged 17.9 ppg and shot threes at a .386 rate. Scoring is about all that he does well, but he has the size to play small forward or shooting guard. Los Angeles has greater motivation to hold on to him, so it might take a three-year/$18 million deal to steal him away.

Anthony Morrow (6-5, 210, age 28): He also has a player option, reportedly will opt out, and after making .451 percent of his threes for the Pelicans he should find some suitors for his services. Used mostly as a reserve, his production generally increased the more he played. In 30.6 minutes per game in April, Morrow averaged 15.1 ppg. A three-year/$12 million offer seems fair.

Chris Douglas-Roberts (6-7, 210, age 27): He averaged over 10 ppg in Charlotte’s playoff series versus Miami, and was a valuable reserve after they signed him out of the D-League in December. For the year he gave them 6.9 ppg (12.0 ppg Per 36) and shot .386 percent from three. Three-years/$10 million might bring him home to Detroit.

 

Conclusions

While there are several more even cheaper options that will be available in free agency, the odds are that most of them will offer little in the way of improvement for a team that finished nine wins behind the eighth seed in the weak Eastern Conference. A competent new coach and continued improvement from their young core could make the Pistons more competitive. But at a minimum they will need to bolster their bench if they aim to win more games.

Ideally, a free agent who promises to be a clear upgrade over Stuckey can be signed. That player could be a point guard like Lowry, Bledsoe, or Collison. Or it might be a wing like Stephenson or Hayward. Given that competition for those players will be stiff, however, Detroit could easily strike out on whichever one they might target. The possibility of overpaying is also much greater with several of those potential signings, which could cripple the organization’s future financial flexibility.

With Josh Smith still owed over $40 million for three years, Van Gundy will have to be prudent this summer. In that case, it might be preferable to let Billups go (preferably by retirement), allowing the team to spend its money on two more affordable free agents. While one new hire might disappoint, with two newcomers the odds are better that one will come through.

For instance, adding either Vasquez or Mills, plus either Morrow or Meeks, could significantly enhance the Pistons depth, yet make virtually the same impact on their cap space as one major signing. Alternatively, if Collison could be signed for a reasonable rate, there might still be sufficient funds left to spend on an economically priced wing.

Vote for your preferred approach and share your thoughts in the comments.

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