The trade deadline is an angst-ridden time for most Pistons fans, and if we have learned anything over the past couple months following the team, the fans are not alone. Nearly every significant Piston has been in trade talks, and the uncertainty about the future of the roster has hovered over nearly every press conference and practice.
Despite this, the Pistons chose to make no moves at the trade deadline, opting to ride out the rest of the season with the same roster they have carried all year. While this is not the most exciting path, it's the right one for this team for a few reasons:
No urgency on the cost concerns
I normally don't sympathize with a multi-billionaire like Pistons owner Tom Gores, especially with regards to a basketball team that is basically a side project for him - a team he could sell at any point for a price tens of millions of dollars higher than what he initially paid to become the majority owner.
That said, I think Gores is right to balk at paying the luxury tax for this current roster after Kentavious Caldwell Pope’s deserved extension. After last season, there was hope this core could contend for a conference finals in a few years. While that hope is not gone, it is diminished significantly by disappointing seasons from ostensible cornerstones Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond. Combine that with the tax becoming more and more of a reality as time goes by, and it makes sense that the Pistons explored unloading salary.
But that also does not mean the Pistons had to make a cost-cutting move if there was not one that made sense for them. Even if they are over the tax at the beginning of next season, they would have until next year’s trade deadline to get back under it. If other teams strike out in free agency and the Pistons feel uncomfortable with their payroll, that would be a chance to unload salary if it ended up being a priority. The Pistons can feel good about how low the price has been to unload salary for teams like the Bucks with Miles Plumlee and the Rockets with Corey Brewer.
They run some risk that 2018 free agency will be another bonanza, and teams won't have the cap space to take one of their players, but if things trend in that direction, Detroit can just make a push to offload salary after a few major dominoes fall the first week of free agency.
As far as the most likely candidates to be dumped, one of Boban Marjanovic, Jon Leuer or Tobias Harris would seem to be the most logical. Marjanovic will almost certainly be shipped away if the Pistons decide to bring back Aron Baynes, although if the team is paying Baynes’ new contract the effect on the overall cap situation will likely be negligible. Leuer and Harris are good players that the team undoubtedly wants to keep on board, but they are not absolutely essential to the Pistons’ long-term outlook, they could fetch assets in return unlike other salary-dump possibilities, and the Pistons theoretically have younger, cheaper players in-house to replace them in Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson.
Essentially, the Pistons have every right to be worried about the tax, but it should not have forced them to sell low on any of their players when time is still on their side.
The straw that stirs the drink
Most Pistons fans would rather just dump Reggie Jackson than those other names I mentioned, and I definitely understand why someone would feel that way. Previously the most important player on the team, Jackson now has sunk down to the worst net rating on the team, and just has not looked like the player who keyed Detroit's playoff run last year. The team has struggled since his return, and Stan Van Gundy even directly admitted as much in a high-profile piece by ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
My issue with moving on from Jackson is this: As bad as Jackson has been, the Pistons are not going anywhere without him unless they can get some kind of answer at point guard in return (or in a different deal). It is possible the Pistons would be a slightly better team this year if they moved on from Jackson, but unless an actually good point guard (also know as "not D.J. Augustin") is attached the Pistons will either have to go shopping for a new one with the mid-level exception or hand the starting job to Ish Smith.
Neither of those options sound promising in the long-term. Nothing sounds any more appealing than just seeing if Jackson can get healthy and get back to the player he was last season in 2017-18. Chasing a few more wins this year is just not worth emptying yourself of all potential at point guard for a team that will be operating over the cap.
Secondarily, Jackson’s trade value itself is at an all-time low. The reason Pistons fans want to trade him is the same reason most other teams have little interest in acquiring him. Trading away your players at low points in their value is not the way to build a winning team. The Pistons correctly identified that the offers out there for Jackson just were not enough, and I doubt their asking price was even that ridiculous.
Start with the man in the middle
Andre Drummond, the Pistons' other big name in trade talks, is arguably the more interesting case. We cannot forget that Drummond is just 23; He'd be a rookie if he had played four years in college. It's silly to act like he can't get any better, but at the same time I do wonder what room there really is for a significant breakthrough to All-NBA team levels. Drummond just does not have anywhere near the touch needed to be a good post-up player or shoot from outside three feet, and what potential he has as a post-up player is limited even further by his tendency to shy from contact, thanks to his awful free-throw shooting.
That leaves the pick-and-roll game for Drummond to flourish offensively, and I do think there is a lot of hope on that front. This has been something of a lost season for him as a roll man thanks to Jackson’s poor play, and rejuvenation from his PNR partner would help not only his efficiency, but his offensive rebounding, which has slipped this season.
Defensively, Drummond has also been a disappointment, as he has rated worse than backup Aron Baynes, who has far inferior physical gifts. He is big and explosive with a lot of lateral mobility and can be disruptive at points, but it is difficult to point out areas where Drummond has made significant strides since his first season on defense. He struggles with rotation concepts and quick decision-making, and his effort waxes and wanes. Again, it is silly to act like Drummond cannot improve defensively at his age with his ability, but it is optimistic to project him as even a good defender until signs of improvement are clearer.
Now making an average of around $27 million a season for at least the next three seasons, Drummond’s contract is not bad but no longer provides much, if any, surplus value. It will be difficult for the Pistons to get an awesome return in a Drummond trade, as there are few center-needy teams in the league and Boston (a win-now team looking to upgrade at center) doesn't look to be surrendering either of their Brooklyn picks - their best assets.
I am still not sure what the long game is with Drummond for Detroit, but the Pistons should not be in any hurry to move on from him. They bump up against a similar problem with Andre as they do with Reggie Jackson – it just does not make sense to move on at this point in time with Drummond’s value at a relative nadir.
Even if they decide internally that they want to cut bait, it makes much more sense to first see if he can ramp up his pick-and-roll offense with either a healthy Jackson or an addition at point guard. A player of Drummond’s age, track record and tools is not going to see his trade value significantly drop in the next season or two, especially since it is difficult to envision the trade market for centers being any worse than it is now.
The Van Bower difference
The bottom line is, Pistons fans have every right to be anxious about their core and explore options to change it, but this was just the wrong time to do so. The front office seemed willing to shake things up - as they have since they took over - so the lack of player movement is a likely indication that the offers were not very good.
Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower built this team to compete over the long term, and while this season has been bumpy and has cast doubt on the team's ability to be a conference finals contender down the road, it does not appear there were any trade deadline moves that changed that outlook. My bet is the team will be glad they did not make a rash decision. After all, a big reason they ever had a promising roster to begin with was capitalizing on other teams' angst. The Pistons are not stable right now, but with the available options the best move is to give this core at least until next trade deadline before a major shake-up.