It's been months since Joe Dumars first made it known that he wasn't going to part with Amir Johnson. Back in January he let the rest of the league know that Johnson wasn't available in a trade, prompting Detroit's director of scouting George David to remark, "Amir might be the only untouchable in the league who's on the inactive roster."
Speaking with Chad Ford in an ESPN podcast last month, Dumars said, "There is no way we are going to allow that kid to get away from us. We want him here for years to come. He has tremendous upside."
So why is the local media now planting seeds of doubt that Johnson might not come back? From Chris McCosky in Saturday's Detroit News:
There is a chance the Pistons could lose Amir Johnson this summer. Signing Billups and Hill, the Pistons will be flirting dangerously with the luxury-tax threshold. Johnson is a restricted free agent, which means the Pistons can match any offer he receives.
However, if a team decides to use its mid-level exception to sign him, the Pistons might be hard-pressed to match that. It would be a tough sell to owner Bill Davidson to pay a luxury tax on a 20-year-old.
Houston, a team in need of frontcourt help, has expressed at least some casual interest in Johnson. The Pistons would have seven days to match any offer made to Johnson.
How much will another team offer Johnson? Dumars isn't sure. He has taken calls from teams interested in a young big man with oodles of athleticism and potential. On the other hand, Johnson has hardly been on the court.
"People haven't seen Amir, except for small snippets here and there when he played at the end of the season," Dumars said. "... It leaves it open for speculation."
But if a team out there does come at him with a big offer, the Pistons could be in trouble. Nothing has changed with owner Bill Davidson's mandate to avoid going over the salary cap and paying a luxury tax. It's not out of the question that he would make an exception, although the Pistons don't think it will come to that. They are not letting Johnson go, simple as that.
From A. Sherrod Blakely on MLive on Monday:
Johnson's agent, Bill Duffy, said Sunday morning that six teams had already contacted him to express interest in signing the restricted free agent. The Pistons will have seven days to match any offer Johnson receives. However, re-signing Billups will push Detroit's salary total close to the league's luxury tax threshold. That might deter the Pistons from matching another team's offer for Johnson.
It's no surprise that Johnson is drawing interest around the league -- I know fans in Toronto want the Raptors to sign him, at least one reporter in Houston thinks the Rockets should get him, and I've exchanged emails with Tom Ziller from Sactown Royalty, who hopes the Kings might have a chance.
But what I'm confused about is why people are suddenly concerned about the luxury tax. For what it's worth, McCosky points out today that there is no official mandate to avoid paying the tax, but I can see why the Pistons would want to avoid it.
Teams that go over the tax pay a dollar-for-dollar penalty, which in turn gets distributed to all of the other teams who didn't go over. So in essence, being over the tax threshold by $1 million doesn't just mean that a team must pay an extra $1 million, it also means they lose the right to collect millions from other teams. So yeah, it's kind of a big deal to a team's bottom line, and from a business perspective I can completely understand if Davidson actually does have a mandate in place.
However, I'm not completely convinced the Pistons necessarily have to top the tax threshold to re-sign Chauncey, re-sign Amir and bring in a free agent swingman like Grant Hill or Morris Peterson. The Pistons cleared up $1.8 million in salary by dumping Carlos Delfino for a pair of second-round draft picks. They can clear almost $1.9 million if they give away Flip Murray in a similar deal (and considering they just used their two first-round picks on guards, I'm guessing this was the plan all along).
Totaled, that's $3.7 million, which might just be enough to re-sign Amir. Then they can use the MLE on Hill/Peterson/whomever and then slightly backload Chauncey's contract so that he receives more of his money after 2008-09, which is the year Rasheed Wallace's $13 million contract expires.
Now, I'm definitely not an expert on the salary cap, but that looks like it's close enough to work. If the Pistons need a bit more wiggle room, perhaps they'll lean on Lindsey Hunter to retire, which would take his $2.2 million off the books. We've known for a while that Hunter has a long-term future in the front office, so he'll have a chance to legitimately make up at least some of that money in the coming years.
But my point is this: there have been absolutely no surprises since Dumars confidently proclaimed his intentions to keep Johnson. If anything, the fact he unloaded Delfino's contract and has seen the competition for Chauncey dry up works in his favor. So let's hold off the pessimism for the time being and take his word that Johnson stays put.