With the first few days of free agency now in the books, for a team with the stability that the Pistons have this time around, the roster is largely taking shape. Andre Drummond, as expected, re-signed. Ish Smith and Jon Leuer have been poached away from free agency, while Anthony Tolliver has gotten some well-deserved money out in Sacramento. That leaves only a few roster spots left to be fought for, and there are several ways that the Pistons and Stan Van Gundy and his henchmen can go about filling them.
Let's have a look.
(assuming nothing changes before July 7)
These 10 guys will all have guaranteed deals and will most probably be on the opening night squad to start the season barring any trades. (Note: Smith, Leuer and Drummond cannot be traded for 3 months after signing as free agents. I should also note that Ellenson can be traded before he signs his rookie contract, but once he signs, like free agents, three months must pass before he can be traded.)
On the Bubble
That leaves three guys who are on the bubble of making the roster for various reasons. Michael Gbinije is a second round draft pick and as such doesn't have the security of Ellenson. Plus, Gbinije, unlike first round draft picks, does not have a cap hold and therefore does not count on the salary cap at all until he's signed, so it's easier to waive him than Ellenson. Still, I see no reason why Gbinije doesn't make the final 15.
Darrun Hilliard, Cameron Bairstow, Joel Anthony and Lorenzo Brown all have unguaranteed contracts. Darrun Hilliard has $500K of his $874K salary guaranteed, and he has a guarantee date of July 15, when his contract becomes fully guaranteed. Hilliard showed ability as a shooter and ball handler last season, and offers too much promise to be cut this offseason. He'll most likely be around. That leaves Anthony, Brown and Bairstow.
Ok, to examine the three guys in danger, let's start with The Warden himself, Joel Anthony. Anthony has a fully unguaranteed deal amounting to $2.5M, and can be waived at a moment's notice with no financial burden on the team. Now for each of these last three players, I'm going to examine an avenue to them holding onto their roster spot, as well as why they might be waived.
WHY JOEL KEEPS HIS SPOT
Joel Anthony will never be confused for even an average offensive player, but he provides two things that Stan Van Gundy values very highly in his organization, tangible and intangible. On the court, he is an exceptional positional defender and, despite his undersized nature for a center at 6'9", is perhaps the best shot blocker on the team (8 blocks vs. Cleveland anyone?). Off the court, Joel's professionalism is something that is both unmatched in the organisation and something that all of his teammates take notice of. Here are some examples of how Joel's professionalism has not gone unnoticed by his colleagues.
First, here's former Pistons shooting guard Jodie Meeks, after a big win in Orlando shortly after the bad Smith got waived (the game where Jodie scored 34 and hit 9 threes):
He always stays ready, lifts every day, works hard. So we appreciate his professionalism. He comes in and helps us when his number's called.
And here's coach Stan Van Gundy just after Joel Anthony was recalled due to the Donatas Motiejunas trade being rescinded:
Joel was a really, really hard guy for us to let go and to say goodbye to, more so probably than most fans would think for a guy who hasn’t played a lot.I’ve been privileged to coach a lot of great people, high-character guys, and I don’t think I’ve ever coached a better professional than Joel Anthony.
With such a young squad, and the ever-present possibility of injuries to Andre Drummond and Aron Baynes, Joel Anthony probably still has value as a third center for professionalism, veteran leadership and shot blocking/defense.
WHY JOEL IS WAIVED
Joel Anthony, if kept on board next season, is owed $2.5M, far more than both Lorenzo Brown ($1M) and Cameron Bairstow ($980K). If the Pistons were looking to mitigate as much financial impact as possible from the Andre Drummond max extension, then Joel is the most logical candidate to be waived. By saving the extra $1.5M or so by releasing Joel, it not only allows extra cap space, but if Van Gundy so desired, it may even allow the team to bring in a different third center (this would probably mean the end of Bairstow as well but we'll get to that).
Stan Van Gundy has often said with any veteran that he brings on board (Joel, Caron Butler, Tayshaun Prince, Anthony Tolliver, Steve Blake) that not only are they a high-character guy, but he wouldn't bring them in if he didn't think that they could consistently contribute to team success on the court. At what point does Van Gundy decide to hand over the keys of the No. 3 center to a younger player, or even rely on combo guys like Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson to soak up center minutes in small ball lineups.
The last reason that Joel may be waived is the diminishing value of his veteran leadership. During the 5-23 stretch of 2014-15, as well as the sudden drop in form around the All-Star break last season, Anthony provided solidarity, stability and calmness. He was also one of a few players on the roster with meaningful playoff experience. Now that the team, and especially the core guys, have tasted the playoffs, how much value is there in keeping Joel around? Andre Drummond knows what to expect now, and Van Gundy may view that roster spot as being better served for another younger contributor rather than the with-all-due-respect mascot that Joel was often relegated to last season.
Cameron Bairstow, for those who may have missed it, was acquired in exchange for Spencer Dinwiddie just before the draft. He's a 25 year old power forward who can conceivably play small ball center, and hails from Brisbane, Australia. His style of play is hustle and rebounding with a reliable, if not lethal, mid range jump shot. He is also already firmly entrenched in DBB folklore forever.
Bairstow has a $980K contract which is fully unguaranteed until July 25. Let's break it down.
WHY CAMERON KEEPS HIS SPOT
The biggest thing in favor of Bairstow is the fact that he is the cheapest of the three guys I've labeled as on the bubble, and if Stan Van Gundy and co. were looking at perhaps another free agent and needed to clear some room (unlikely given the rotation already) then Bairstow is the most likely candidate to stay if someone is kept.
Offensively, Bairstow is also a better player than Joel ever was. He has a somewhat reliable, if not ugly, jumpshot that is effective from midrange and corner threes, and flashed some decent potential in the post. He is also a tremendous hustle player on either end, and like most international players, relies on fundamentals rather than athleticism to grab rebounds.
Bairstow can also be a cheaper option as the third center, allowing Stan Van Gundy to pursue another type of player in free agency, like maybe an additional ball handler on the wings. Bairstow has decent size at 6'10" and 250lbs, so he isn't exactly light in frame and easily pushed around down low, plus his jumpshot allows him to play some power forward as well, allowing himself to be a versatile end-of-the-bench combo big man allowing Van Gundy to shore up other rotation spots.
WHY CAMERON IS WAIVED
The most likely reason that Bairstow will be waived is his age and lack of actual NBA production thus far in his career. He will turn 26 in December and this will only be his third year in the league. For someone who has played a grand total of 36 games in the NBA, amassing a colossal 165 total minutes, Van Gundy may not be comfortable spending a roster spot on someone without NBA history who possibly doesn't have a whole lot of upside left.
Bairstow also doesn't have the advantage of familiarity in the system that both Brown and Anthony have. Both have been involved with the Pistons (or in Brown's case the Grand Rapids Drive) over the last two seasons and therefore know what Stan Van Gundy runs and how to play in the system, whereas Bairstow will have a period of acclimatization. He also doesn't bring the value of experience and leadership that someone like Joel Anthony brings, and it may be unwise for Van Gundy to go for the youth of Bairstow over the known quantity and professionalism of Anthony.
One last, potentially damaging factor for Bairstow's chances is the fact that Stan Van Gundy and his front office will probably have had no chance to meet Bairstow and see him practice at all before his guarantee date. He surely would've been on the Summer League roster were it not for his Olympic commitments with the Australian national team (a situation slightly different to Gbinije). Perhaps this points to Van Gundy already deciding to waive him, knowing he wouldn't have a chance to see Bairstow in action. We can't really tell, and won't know until the 25th.
Lorenzo Brown is someone who has been around the Pistons setup for the last couple of years without actually playing a game. He was in preseason each of the last two seasons and has been on last year's Summer League squad as well as this year's edition. He's spent the majority of the last two years up in Grand Rapids playing in Stan Van Gundy's system for the Drive and Otis Smith, apart from a small stint with the Phoenix Suns. His contract of just over $1M is fully unguaranteed.
WHY LORENZO KEEPS HIS SPOT
Brown is insurance as a ball handler with enough size to play off the ball at the shooting guard position. At 6'5" and 190lbs, however, he is probably best suited to play point guard due to his wiry frame, length and ball handling abilities. He is also, as we saw in the first Summer League game against New York, very capable at getting inside and finishing strongly, whilst being a respectable enough shooter that defenses cannot sag off him completely.
Many felt that the drafting of Michael Gbinije pointed to the end of Brown's chances at a roster spot, but upon further review, this may work in his favor. Gbinije, at 6'7", has the size and shooting ability to not only play point guard, but also shooting guard and perhaps even a bit of small forward, meaning that he can effectively fill depth at three positions. This could leave a gap in the roster for Brown to come in and claim a spot as one of the guards as he is more of a point guard, and Gbinije can be used off the ball. Also, the coaching staff may not feel Gbinije's ball handling or confidence in running an offense is up to standard yet, and so may choose to keep Brown around as some insurance behind Ish Smith and Reggie Jackson for injuries so a second round rookie is not heavily relied upon.
Brown has also played the most basketball out of the three candidates in the last couple of years. As one of the stars of the Drive, he got regular minutes and touches, and was able to build up enough game footage in a Stan Van Gundy system for SVG to know how effectively Brown can play if extrapolated to the NBA with the Pistons. In contrast, both Joel Anthony and Cameron Bairstow were largely buried on the bench for the last two years, Bairstow in Chicago and Anthony here with the Pistons.
WHY LORENZO IS WAIVED
The main obstacle to a roster spot for Lorenzo Brown is the glut of guards currently on the roster. Looking at point guard, Reggie Jackson, Ish Smith and Michael Gbinije can all play there, whilst you have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Darrun Hilliard, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson who have all logged time at shooting guard at some point. That's already seven guards (even though Johnson is obviously a small forward who can play guard), all with more meaningful NBA experience (bar Gbinije) than Brown, and Van Gundy may not be willing to hand a roster spot to an inexperienced, soon-to-be 26 year old with no real NBA track record.
Also in favor of Brown's case is Van Gundy's offseason comments that the team would likely be looking at one point guard and two big men in free agency. The point guard criterion has already been filled with Ish Smith, while Jon Leuer has snapped up one of the big spots. Now we don't know how Van Gundy plans to acquire that other big, but it may simply be internal, which would immediately put Bairstow and Anthony above Brown in the order of importance.
All of this is hypothetical, obviously, and assumes that the Pistons will fill the remaining roster spots from internal development rather than free agency. The reality is that all of these guys could be waived to make room for another free agent signing. There are still some notable free agents out there at both guard and big man, with the likes of Brandon Jennings, Seth Curry, Shane Larkin, Norris Cole, Aaron Brooks, Isaiah Canaan and Jarrett Jack at PG, as well as interesting big men options like Meyers Leonard (unlikely), Tyler Zeller, Festus Ezeli, Donatas Motiejunas (lol) and Dewayne Dedmon.
What path do you think this roster building will take?
Have your say below.