Monday, Oct. 31 was the deadline for extensions for first-round picks beginning their fourth seasons. Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo, Gorgui Dieng, and Rudy Gobert got extensions from their teams at the eleventh hour. But many deals did not get done, so most of the players from the 2013 Draft are still looking at entering restricted free agency come next summer.
The notable Pistons player who was eligible for an extension was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, their 23-year-old shooting guard out of Georgia who they took eighth overall. Caldwell-Pope has played in 241 out of 249 possible games for the Pistons during his three-plus years in Detroit, starting 199 of them (and every game since his rookie year). He's also averaged 34 minutes per game during those last two years. This combination of youth, experience and durability is rare, and especially valuable to a team with a young core and a lack of other viable options at the position.
As he's one of the most oft-discussed Pistons, KCP's flaws are well-known to Piston fans at this point, so we'll start there. He is an average-to-below average shooter, ranking 48th out of 76 qualified 2-guards in 2016 with a .521 true shooting percentage, and saw his percentage from three-point range drop from 34% in his sophomore year to 30%, often gumming up the Pistons' offense despite his impressive volume of three-point attempts.
Here's how his shooting matched up against the other starting 2-guards in the Eastern Conference (true shooting percentage is shooting percentage adjusted for volume and efficiency on 3-point attempts, as well as drawing fouls).
Of course, these statistics don't tell the full story, but it's also worth nothing that the three players ranked behind KCP are all far better shot creators and distributors than him (something not measured by TS% at all). A further problem for the Pistons throughout the season was KCP's below-average dribbling and passing for an NBA guard. His assist rate was a dismal 10.6% in 2016 and his usage rate came in at 17.5%, again significantly below the league average. For a team often unable to manufacture good offensive possessions, that was a problem. His bad statistical offensive game combined with his poor rebounding rates added up to a 12.41 PER, a number typical associated with a seventh or eighth man.
KCP's provided little hope these numbers will improve through three games in the 2016-2017, although it is just three games.
The delight is in the details
Then again, one of PER's biggest recognized flaws is undervaluing players who excel on defense but don't post huge block or steal rates, and that's KCP in a nutshell. If he does indeed play excellent defense, the numbers haven't quite caught up with how to quantify that. He doesn't post big defensive box score numbers, the Pistons haven't ever been a standout defense so far in his career, and his on/off numbers are a muddled mess because of the poor quality of the Pistons' 2016 bench, their screwy three-big lineups from earlier in his career, and his high minute totals. There just isn't anything on his resume where you would think there's anything all that special about his defense.
But from watching alone, KCP is one of the most impressive young perimeter defenders in the league. He's long, nimble, fast, doesn't foul and reels off some highlight chase-down blocks. He cross-matches against the best guard in the opposing backcourt, something very few players are asked to do. And he's posted great performances, especially in 2016, against some of the league's top scorers like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Particularly against the Warriors, KCP had national media members remarking that he guarded Curry as well as anyone. This is impressive for a young player who will still get stronger and more accustomed to NBA scheme defending.
The fact that PER doesn't really have a way to measure his greatest contribution and he was still able to post a PER in line with Allen Crabbe and JR Smith (who have gotten or are likely to get contracts in the $15-20 million a year range) says a lot about where KCP's contract negotiations will end up, as well.
Regardless, it's hard to build a quantitative case that KCP deserves to be paid like a frontline, solid starter at the current moment. Instead, you must bet on his durability, age, defense, and potential to (yes, we are still waiting on this) improve his three-point shooting. If he was able to bump his percentage up from 32 to 38 percent or so, he'd certainly be worth a max contract in this cap environment.
Even though I'd categorize it as unlikely (at least unlikely that it happens within a year or two), betting on that improvement isn't the worst idea in the world, especially since KCP is still around the same age as many of the draft prospects fans pencil in for gigantic improvements. After all, he's younger than the Pistons' own second-round pick from the 2016 Draft. He has also significantly improved his TS% every year he's been in the league, from .483 to .501 to .521. There's no compelling reason to think he will become a worse basketball player.
But the real reason the Pistons should have been negotiating with KCP as much as possible doesn't have all that much to do with him as a player. They've simply put themselves in a position where they don't have any other option but to pay him.
The Pistons improved their roster in the 2016 offseason, spending up to the salary cap by adding Jon Leuer, Boban Marjanovic and Ish Smith before giving Andre Drummond his max. Since Drummond's raise exceeds the value of the cap spike plus the minimal money the team has coming off the books after the 2016-17 season, the Pistons will be over the cap in the 2017 offseason unless they trade a player with a significant cap hit like Tobias Harris or Reggie Jackson and don't receive much salary in return. Even if Aron Baynes opts out, KCP's cap hold puts them at $106.5 million, above the projected cap number of $102 million.
So the options are:
-Moving forward with Reggie Bullock, Darrun Hilliard and Michael Gbinijie
-Finding a new starter with the $5.4 million mid-level exception
It's extremely unlikely the Pistons will be able to find a reliable starter with just the MLE (or the $1.4 million bi-annual exception), and I suspect we'll see based on KCP's minutes this season that Stan Van Gundy sees him as a much better player than the Pistons' backups. Unless someone takes a big step forward, those guys aren't ready to be heavy-minute players on a team that wants to be among the top Eastern Conference contenders.
The reasons the Pistons had to pursue an extension before Oct. 31st are twofold - the potential for a discount if KCP valued the security of locking in his raise, and the ability to keep their starter from reaching restricted free agency. There's no question a max offer sheet from a desperate team would put the Pistons in a tough situation, but it's a game the Pistons appear ready to play.
The team never had a ton of leverage if KCP wasn't intrigued by locking in his payday early, and if KCP was only interested in a max extension, there's not much point in signing off that early for a guy who isn't a full-fledged All-Star contender like C.J. McCollum or Giannis Antetokounmpo, other notable names that got early near-max extensions. The Pistons just think they can do better, and the worst that can happen is that they have to pay him the max (his max starts at $24.5 million), which I'd guess they are prepared to do.
An offer you can't refuse
So now that we've hit this impasse, what will the number end up being? It's hard to say before knowing how he plays this season, obviously, but even when the team can't get an extension done, we've seen restricted free agents lock in discounts early while teams chase the unrestricted guys. Evan Fournier signing for $5/85 when he was expected to get max offers is a notable recent example.
I predict the Pistons' offer will settle in around where Victor Oladipo's extension settled -- 4 years, $84 million. I think it will be hard for KCP to make the case he should get paid significantly more than Oladipo. KCP has his advantages over the Indiana alum, but Oladipo was picked higher, has better offensive numbers and also carries significant defensive upside. I don't know if the Pistons already offered him a number around there in their extension talks, but even if they did there isn't much upside to increasing their offer.
It wouldn't be the end of the world if the Pistons did end up having to match a max offer for KCP from another team, as well. The team's young core is already locked in with limited flexibility for several years to come, so there's only so much a KCP extension can even hurt them. The long-term cap space outlook of the team doesn't really change if they bring KCP back, but it goes down a dark and scary path if they end up losing him for nothing. The team has already chosen, so it seems silly not to take the final step down that path and lock in their starter.