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Basketball and Balance Sheets Part I: Staying the course?

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Without changes, the Pistons are going to be capped out - but could it be worse?

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

This offseason is going to be a big inflection point in the tenure of Stan Van Gundy both as President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach for the Detroit Pistons. Was this year a bump in the road for a young team still finding its way? Or is it a sign that the Pistons’ core isn’t good enough offensively or defensively to compete for the playoffs going forward?

I don’t have the answer for those questions - and I’d hate to be SVG and have to try to figure it out in the coming months.

Among people who are fans of the Pistons, but are not the president of basketball ops, there’s two prominent schools of thought about how the offseason should go: Trade ineffective (and expensive) starting point guard Reggie Jackson, or keep him and hope he and his knee return to full health and effectiveness. There’s a couple other scattered classes (“Trade Andre Drummond!” “Don’t bring back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, he’s not worth $20+ million!” “MOAR BOBAN!”), but the question of Reggie Jackson is at the forefront of concerns for the summer.

Owner Tom Gores, and the expanding-not-as-rapidly-as-we-once-thought NBA salary cap, might have a large say in how that question in answered.

Let’s take a look at what the Pistons’ salary cap situation would look like if the “Run it Back” crowd has it’s way:

Detroit Pistons 2017-18 Salary Cap (Projected)

This is assuming a few things:

  • KCP comes back at a flat post-rookie max, non-Rose Rule edition (25 percent of salary cap, no increases - think Victor Oladipo’s post-rookie extension)
  • Aron Baynes and his $6.5 million player option are gone (a reasonable assumption that SVG has openly admitted to preparing for)
  • Reggie Bullock is not offered a contract in restricted free agency (sorry, Reggie)
  • Michael Gbinije’s $1.3 million non-guaranteed contract is gone (sorry, Michael)
  • Darrun Hilliard’s $1.4 million non-guaranteed contract (if released before July 1) is gone (sorry not sorry, Darrun)
  • The Pistons use the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5,192,000) to sign a backup shooting guard worth letting go of Gbinije and Hilliard
  • The Pistons select No. 12 overall, and sign that player to a normal rookie-scale deal under the new CBA (you can offer a rookie 120 percent of the figures outlined here - but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll go with these numbers)

Basketball

On the court, this is a roster that would be heavily reliant on a return to form from Reggie Jackson, progression on both ends of the floor from their young players (Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson), and a reprieve from this year’s nightmare shooting season for guys like Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer (and, to a less extent, Tobias Harris). Additionally, this version of the team would lean heavily on the potential bench contributions of Stanley Johnson and Boban Marjanovic - two guys who I’m not sure are ready for the roles they’d have to shoulder.

Without knowing exactly who that backup shooting guard is, it’s impossible to say if that player is a playmaker. We saw the creativity Ish Smith consistently displayed in transition for the bench last year, but we also saw how badly the Pistons needed another perimeter shot creator off the bench. Stanley would have to create more offense off the bench for the Pistons - not just quality looks for himself, he’d have to become a more decisive and aggressive passer.

Boban, on the other hand, has zero issues creating quality looks for himself - it’s the other end of the floor, where being forced into defending pick-and-rolls in space repeatedly that worries me. Even if it’s not a large concern for you, I assure you that Stan is worried about it, and Boban’s defensive performance is what will determine his playing time. I’d be interested to see a Leuer - Boban platoon at backup center based upon defensive matchups - Boban can cover the Al Jeffersons and Greg Monroe’s of the NBA, but I wouldn’t even ask him to run with Channing Frye or Kelly Olynyk. In those bad defensive matchups, Ellenson could play backup PF minutes next to Leuer. Jon would keep his role as backup four when Boban plays, of course.

No matter who’s selected at No. 12, I wouldn’t expect that player to come in and make an impact right away. MAYBE a more experienced player like a Justin Jackson could contribute immediately, but a higher-upside pick like a Zach Collins or a Frank Ntilikina probably shouldn’t be expected to do so. I would caution fans against getting hyped about the draft pick, no matter who it is - one of my biggest critiques of Stan Van Gundy is how poorly he handles younger players. I’m doing just as much DraftExpress scouting as any other fan, but I would tell fans to look at the way Stan handled Henry Ellenson as a blueprint for the impact you could expect from this year’s rookie.

You know what WOULD make an immediate impact on this roster? Andre Drummond devoting this offseason to becoming an impact player defensively. That, unsurprisingly, solves a lot of this team’s on-the-court issues. The Pistons were already an above-average defensive team last year nearly solely because they made teams execute in the half-court a lot (by getting back in transition and rarely turning the ball over). What kind of team could the Pistons be if teams had more difficulty executing because Andre displayed a better understanding of pick-and-roll coverage, paired with an increased effort level on that end of the floor?

Balance Sheet

On the balance sheet, this is a $130 million-dollar team that no one would project to win 50 games in the next two years.

...Yeah, that hurt me to type just as much as it hurt you to read. Let’s move on.

It’d be fine if the Pistons were an $80 million-dollar team with that outlook, because you can make acquisitions in free agency. However, being over the luxury tax means the only way to make changes to the roster are draft picks, trades (and, believe me, we’re gonna make some fake trades later) and the taxpayer mid-level exception. Trades are the hallmark of the Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower era, but in the short-term I have to imagine it’s harder to be flexible with contracts you didn’t create.

There’s also a lack of flexibility in the long-term. This roster would probably be hovering near the luxury tax apron for 2 straight years, with “relief” in 2019-20 coming in the form of losing both your starting forwards, your backup point guard, and your backup center. Oh, that’s also the year you have to match whatever offers your 22-year-old No. 8 draft pick receives in restricted free agency - and the alternative is losing all the small forwards on your roster.

Crazily, there’s no singular bad deal that’s weighing down the cap, no Timofey Mozgov or Joakim Noah contract drowning this team. Reggie was worth $14-17 million in 2015. KCP is worth $25 million in 2017. Tobias’ declining year-to-year deal still gets better by the day. Say what you want about Andre, but someone would’ve paid him $25 million if we hadn’t. The Marcus Morris contract is the glue that holds the rest of the roster together. Honestly, the “worst” deal on the roster might be Jon Leuer’s $10 million per year deal, and that’s only if he continues to be the player he was the second half of the season.

Unfortunately, no singular pain point means no magic tonic. Trading Reggie helps, but it doesn’t stop Josh Smith making more than Marcus Morris until 2018, or change what it’ll cost to retain Stanley Johnson if he improves. To get back to a point of true “flexibility,” you’d have to trade Reggie and Andre, or Reggie and Tobias, or trade Reggie and not re-sign KCP. And the guys you’d have to trade any of those players FOR would have to either be large expiring contracts, large contracts with buyout options, or rookie-scale guys who need to be paid soonish, otherwise you’re right back at your inflexible start.

All that is to say the following: Staying the course gets a bad rap, but it ultimately could be the best of a terrible batch of long-term choices. With no magic wand to wave, it’s up to Stan to have this team ready to compete for 82 games in 2017-18. Relying on all the work you’ve put into scouting at the professional level, your training staff, and your player development coaches to build your team back up is not the worst plan Stan Van Gundy could follow.

The WORST plan Stan Van Gundy could follow would be a series of panicked trades of players at their lowest value to clear cap space for free agents that presumably would only use Detroit as leverage. Or, a complete teardown, trading players for the large contracts teams don’t want (with future draft picks to grease the wheels), and building around the (presumably relatively cheap) Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson - utilizing his position as President of Basketball Operations to shelter him from the deluge of criticism such a strategy would bring.

So... as long as that doesn’t happen this offseason, we should be pretty good.

All that said, in Part II, we’ll do DBB’s favorite thing: Ship Reggie Jackson out of Detroit.