One of the best parts of the excellent Dunc’d On Basketball Podcast by Nate Duncan is when they bring on NBA beat writers for specific teams and ask them to grade their team’s front office. There are really interesting answers hearing local beat writers evaluate the decision-making of the Thunder, Blazers, Celtics, Rockets and many more.
Listening to these podcasts, I of course wondered what my grade would be for Jeff Bower and Stan Van Gundy and I couldn’t go halfway with this. So I evaluated every single major move they’ve made since taking over on May 14, 2014.
A quick clarifier that you can feel free to skip if you want: distinguishing process from results and evaluating risk versus reward is really important for me when doing this. Not just with the Pistons or basketball or sports, but with evaluating any kind of decision-making. There are no guaranteed successful moves in the NBA and it’s not the job of a GM to simply avoid mistakes. Nobody has absolutely correct information about any transaction before it happens, so it comes down to a balancing act.
If the reward is high enough and you don’t sacrifice much of anything, a move that has a 5 percent chance of working out and fails is still a good move. Conversely, if a move worked out but was low-ceiling and ultimately didn’t make much of a difference for the franchise, it doesn’t deserve a straight A. The writeup is more important than the arbitrary letter grade anyway, but the grades get the clicks. I try not to inflate grades. A B- is not a bad grade. If these were all in a three-grade range it wouldn’t be a very worthwhile exercise.
So let's get started!
6/26/14 – Drafted Spencer Dinwiddie
The first real move of the new regime! Dinwiddie was a good gamble with the 38th pick - a big combo guard who could handle and shoot threes and would’ve been a mid-first round pick if not for an ACL injury the previous season. He hasn’t amounted to much in the league, but based on what we knew pre-draft he seems like a superior pick to the other SVG/Bower second-rounders Darrun Hilliard and Michael Gbinije. At the very least he had more potential.
7/14/14 – Signed Jodie Meeks (3 years/$19.5 million)
Injuries limited Meeks to just 63 games in two seasons with the Pistons and he was eventually traded for essentially nothing. The thought process on this was not necessarily bad, though. The Pistons desperately needed shooters around their three-big lineup and Meeks was just 27, had shot 40 percent from deep on high volume and played okay defense for the Lakers the previous year.
He had also been relatively durable, so I’m not sure they could’ve seen the injuries coming. $6 million a year for aNBA player was a lot more back in 2014 than it is now, but I still don’t think this was ever disastrous. It just didn’t work out.
7/15/14 – Signed DJ Augustin (2 years/$6 million)
Teams really didn’t trust Augustin after his career revival with the Bulls the previous year, and the Pistons did well to take a flier on him. Like pre-Achilles Jennings, Augustin had a statistical explosion after they ousted Josh Smith and he ended up being a piece in the Reggie Jackson trade. He still did nothing on defense, but who cares about that?
7/15/14 – Signed Caron Butler (2 years/$9 million)
The Pistons needed some shooters on the wing if they were going to be a competitive team. The problem was Butler wasn’t any good anymore and almost anyone should’ve known that. And even if he was, the Pistons weren’t good enough to have any use for a 34-year-old player who didn’t fit their timeline except as a deadline piece for a second-round pick or something. This was a low-reward signing without even much chance of working out.
12/22/14 – Waived and stretched Josh Smith
This is still fascinating. It was certainly a good move to get rid of Smith, one that single-handedly changed the franchise. He was put in an impossible situation being signed to play small forward next to Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, but his play fell off a cliff as well. Getting rid of Smith was really the kick-starter to this becoming a Stan Van Gundy team, and since the 5-23 start with Smith in tow they have been above .500. Many front offices would not have had the cojones to simply waive the team’s highest-paid player, and owner Tom Gores deserves a lot of credit too. Most owners would be way too cheap to sign off on that.
As important as dumping Smith was, the Pistons probably could’ve gone about it better. They could’ve still waived Smith up until the trade deadline more than two months later, and they could’ve sent him home and kept him off the court and locker room during that time and continued to try and negotiate a trade. Nobody was interested in simply taking Smith into cap space, but there were teams willing to take him in exchange for other bad contracts that were easier (read: possible at all) to get off the books than Smith’s stretched salary.
There’s also the fact they stretched his salary at all. I understand the logic behind it with the cap rising, but I would much rather have had all that money freed up in the upcoming 2017 offseason when the team is on the rise rather than in the 2015 and 2016 offseasons when they had little to no chance of luring anyone who could be a good starter. The money was just way more valuable later than in the immediate future. This is all pretty nit-picky, though. The Pistons made the right move and just messed up on some of the timing and footnotes.
2/19/15 – Traded DJ Augustin, Kyle Singler, and two second-round picks for Reggie Jackson
This move displayed and predicted a lot of the new front office’s greatest strengths going forward – identifying talented players on other teams that were available for pieces without much trade value. Jackson was openly at war with his teammates in Oklahoma City and wanted to be a starter, but at the time the point guard position was totally stacked around the league. That combined with the toxicity of the situation made it likely the Thunder weren’t receiving great offers for him. Like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris later, the Pistons swooped in on a good player who had fallen out of favor with his own organization and was available on a discount.
Singler and Augustin weren’t bad players at the time - Singler especially has mysteriously fallen off and become almost useless since his trade to OKC. But even if they were still playing pretty well, the Pistons won this trade handily by any approximation you can make.
2/19/15 – Traded Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome for Tayshaun Prince
The Pistons needed someone to play small forward after dealing Singler and opted to bring Prince back to Detroit. Obviously, he was completely washed up. If they just brought him in for nothing, fine, but Jerebko was a legitimately valuable piece as a stretch four and upcoming restricted free agent. He has shot over 40 percent during his time in Boston and played adequate defense on a super cheap, tradable contract.
He wouldn’t be propelling the Pistons into the conference finals, but he definitely could’ve helped them and it makes no sense to dump a valuable piece with match rights just to have Tayshaun Prince play 23 crappy games for you. It makes even less sense when Jerebko can also play some three himself in a pinch.
6/11/15 – Traded Caron Butler and Shawne Williams for Ersan Ilyasova
Ilyasova has become a total journeyman, having played for three teams since leaving the Pistons. But it was still a good move to acquire him for nothing of value. He was a rotation player for much of the 2015-16 season that was the Pistons’ first playoff appearance since 2009 and was a piece in the Tobias Harris heist.
6/25/15 – Drafted Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard
The 2015 Draft class has been fantastic thus far, and the Pistons would probably look better with Devin Booker or Myles Turner instead of Stanley. But at the time, the only real options by the standard consensus were Stanley and Justise Winslow, and I don’t know if I can knock the Pistons too much for passing on any player except Winslow. Picking Booker or Turner at 8 would’ve been a pretty out-of-nowhere pick, and even if they had taken one of those guys they would’ve been criticized for the same reason – not taking Winslow. I’d say Winslow has been a bit better than Stanley, but the Heat sophomore’s offensive deficiencies make it questionable that he really has the superstar upside to make the Pistons go to bed regretting this pick.
Johnson has offensive deficiencies of his own, of course, but he looks a lot closer to becoming a passable three-point shooter than Winslow, and if he can do that he’ll be a starter on the wing in the league for 10 years. Despite his disappointing start to the season he still appears to be a good NBA prospect, and he’s only 20 so he’s looking like a fine selection at number 8. Hilliard is a normal second rounder; he maybe has a chance to stick in the league. It doesn’t look great to have Josh Richardson and Norman Powell taken shortly after him, though.
7/2/15 – Signed Aron Baynes (3 years/$20 million)
Baynes was signed to be a decent backup center. At the time I doubted he could even be that, but he has proved me wrong to some degree by living up to his contract. He’s overrated by both Pistons fans and Pistons management, as he’s a horrible finisher for a center and doesn’t have any skills that are above average for his position aside from his free throw shooting. He’s lived up to his contract, but in order to be a great free agent signing and move the needle you need to do more than that.
7/9/15 – Traded a 2020 second-round pick for Marcus Morris, Reggie Bullock and Danny Granger
The Suns had signed Tyson Chandler and were trying to lure LaMarcus Aldridge, so they were frantically clearing salary space, and it was a great move by the Pistons to step in and oblige. Morris has been one of the cheapest non-rookie contract starters in the league and has in large part been perfectly adequate, and Bullock has given some decent minutes as a shooter off the bench making pennies as well.
Morris wasn’t super highly regarded and had some issues with his character and being away from his brother, so it wasn’t a totally risk-free deal, and that only makes it a better evaluation by SVG and Bower. Almost any team in the league could use Morris at $5 million a year through 2019, and many other teams should’ve made this trade.
7/15/15 – Traded Quincy Miller for Steve Blake
Poor Steve Blake. He was the whipping boy of the 2015-16 season. I sometimes think he wasn't quite as awful as he was made out to be and suffered from being a funny-looking old dude. But I look at how much better Beno Udrih has been in 2016-17 having also been picked up for nothing and can't really defend the Pistons choosing Blake of all people.
7/20/15 – Signed Reggie Jackson (5 years/$80 million)
It’s interesting to look at how panned this deal was at the time. Even though he’s suffering from a knee issue this season, the cap spike and Jackson’s career year last season have made this into a completely reasonable, even below-market deal. Jackson isn’t perfect, but he is in the conversation for All-Star consideration and is getting paid like a middling starter. A few more point guards are going to hit free agency this offseason and Jackson’s deal is only going to look better and better.
The only question is who, if anyone, the Pistons were bidding against. Jackson clearly wanted to be in Detroit or somewhere else where he could be the focal point of the offense. This was signed late in free agency, he was never really linked to any other teams and there were never any reports of him coming anywhere near an offer sheet, so you wonder if the Pistons hadn’t budged on like 5/65 or 5/70 if they could’ve gotten him for less.
But there’s something to be said for taking care of a guy coming out of a situation where he didn’t feel wanted, and he’s lived up to the contract anyway. This looks like an opportunity to save a bit of cash for 2016 free agency that they missed on, but it’s not really something to criticize per se because the contract has worked out so well.
2/17/16 – Traded Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova for Tobias Harris
Ilyasova and Jennings were both rotation players, but both were in the final years of their deals and were fairly easily replaceable in the long term. Harris was always a worthy gamble for the Pistons given his age, skill set and favorable contract with multiple years still remaining on it, and the fact they got him without having to really sacrifice anything all that valuable for the future is still head-scratching.
He’s by no means a perfect player and will probably never make an All-Star team, but he’s going to be a starter and one of the leading scorers on a multiple-time playoff team, and is definitely part of the Pistons’ young core. Kudos to the front office for capitalizing on Orlando’s irrational desire to sell low on Harris, this is never a deal I would’ve expected the Magic to take.
2/22/16 – Traded a top-15 protected first-round pick for Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton
(trade was voided due to a lack of medical clearance)
This should still be included, I think. Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson definitely have more combined value than the still-unsigned Motiejunas, so the Pistons got pretty lucky this was voided. I was never a fan of this to begin with, though. They were essentially giving up a first-round pick for the right to retain Motiejunas no matter the price in the 2016 offseason, so you were never really getting much bang for your buck out of this.
Once the Pistons traded for Motiejunas, they tied their hands into having to re-sign him by giving up a valuable asset. They couldn’t possibly defend trading a first-round pick for a third of a season of a guy coming off injury, so he was going to stay. He was either going to (A) not be very good, (B) get injured or (C) play well, get an offer you have to match and be a borderline max guy with significant back problems. Even a healthy Motiejunas never had enough value so that it was worth giving up a cost-controlled asset just for the right to keep him no matter the price. This is the one real blemish on Van Gundy/Bower’s working of the trade market except for the mostly-forgotten Prince trade, and it's not even a real blemish since the trade was voided anyway.
6/23/16 – Drafted Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije
Neither of these guys has shown much thus far, although you couldn’t have expected them to. This is more concerning for Gbinije, who is four years older than Stanley Johnson and a year older than KCP and Drummond, so I’m assuming they hoped there was a small chance he could compete for backup two-guard minutes immediately.
Ellenson is the real haul here – he has a really impressive skill set for his size but isn’t close to being an efficient offensive player yet and doesn’t have a position defensively. His road to playing time appears to be blocked for quite some time, but if he eventually turns into the lethal offensive weapon he has the potential to be that will become irrelevant. I don’t love this draft class but it’s hard to get too upset about it.
6/29/16 – Traded Jodie Meeks to the Orlando Magic for a top-55 protected second-round pick.
Meeks is supposedly nearing a return, but he has gotten to the point where nobody should believe that until they see it. It is looking unlikely he will live up to the $6 million he is owed this season. I have no problem dumping him for a second-rounder that is highly unlikely to ever convey.
7/1/16 – Signed Ish Smith (3 years/$18 million)
It seemed like there were better options for a backup point guard around that price point than Smith, a horrid shooter and defender who had hardly made it through a full season with any one team. To Smith’s credit, he hasn’t been put in the best situation to succeed yet and the team has at least stayed afloat without Reggie Jackson. But it’s hard to be positive on this signing when it was confusing at the time and he’s being outplayed by guys who signed for less, including scrap-heap pickup Beno Udrih on his own team. It’s a lot of investment in a guy you can’t even confidently say is a reliable backup point guard for you.
7/2/16 – Signed Jon Leuer (4 years/$42 million)
Leuer is a good player and a good fit with the roster who will help the team. He’s getting paid like an above-average sixth man, and there’s a chance he could live up to that over the course of these next four seasons. He doesn’t have any upside to really be more than that, and it’s hard to love signings that will only be value contracts within the upper range of outcomes. Even in the new cap environment it’s a bit of an uninspiring place to spend $42 million, but the Pistons had to use this cap space or lose it with Drummond’s impending raise. They could’ve done worse.
7/12/16 – Signed Boban Marjanovic (3 years/$21 million)
Boban’s freakish physical profile and stats in limited minutes made him a good flier at that price. At some point it becomes a little concerning that he’s barely played. Aron Baynes is one of the only places the Pistons can spend any money this coming offseason (they can still pay him around $11 million a year if the rules regarding Early Bird Rights stay the same), and if they do end up bringing Baynes back, Boban was a completely pointless signing.
I still expect and hope that Marjanovic gets more time and actually is the backup center of the future, but I feel much less confident about that now and don’t see him jumping Baynes in the rotation anytime soon. If they really would rather have Baynes than Boban, they're just misreading the market for Baynes (and centers in general) thinking he's going to get more money than they can pay him in 2017. And even if Boban is the guy of the future, the Pistons have another star center anyway so you wonder if there were better places to invest $21 million given the team’s needs.
7/15/16 – signed Andre Drummond (5 years/ $130 million)
Drummond agreed to wait and sign his contract until after the Pistons were done making other moves in exchange for a player option on the fifth year, allowing them to utilize his small cap hold. Even though I wasn’t the biggest fan of the 2016 offseason signings that’s a decent tradeoff for the Pistons.
Dre was always getting his max, and while this isn’t necessarily a value contract it’s definitely not a bad one either. A number of other teams would’ve offered him this contract (without the fifth year) if for some reason the Pistons didn’t want to pay him. No player has ever turned down a five-year max extension after their rookie contract, so it’s not the highest degree of difficulty, but it’s good the Pistons kept their young best player happy and willing to stay.
10/24/16 – Claimed Beno Udrih
Not much to say about this - the Pistons picked Udrih off the spare parts heap and he's been a perfectly decent backup point guard. Great move so far.
Overall Grade: B+
The way I see it, the Pistons have done well with nearly all the biggest moves on here. The acquisitions of Jackson, Morris, and Harris especially have given this roster a young, locked-in, playoff-worthy core and they did it without trading a single future first-round pick or player on a rookie deal aside from Kyle Singler.
This team doesn’t have a whole lot of upside to become a true championship contender unless they have massive internal improvement, but in some ways that cannot be held against Bower and SVG. They were never luring in big free agents, and in order to get some kind of massive superstar in the draft they would’ve had to sit through more losing seasons, and nobody outside of a couple insane fans wanted to do that.
They were brought in to take this team to the playoffs. They’ve done so quickly, and in a way that should be sustainable for several years to come. While it hasn’t been a perfect tenure and I clearly have issues with a couple of the team’s moves, the overall picture has definitely been quite positive for the Pistons’ front office bosses.