In the next few parts, we’re going to - with varying degrees of explosiveness - blow that theory apart. We’ll start with a couple Reggie Jackson trades, then discuss some possibilities the Pistons fanbase might find less enjoyable.
I’m not going to hold you in suspense - the first trade is Reggie Jackson to the Sacramento Kings for Arron Afflalo:
Reggie Jackson for Arron Afflalo, straight up, is the cleanest possible deal I can find for the Pistons. Afflalo has a large salary... but is only guaranteed $1.5 million for the 2017-18 season if he’s waived before June 22, 2017 (the day of the NBA Draft). Pull off the trade, waive Afflalo before the draft, and you’ve cleared up roughly $14.5 million in cap space for this season and beyond.
If you really think the Detroit Pistons would be better long-term without Reggie Jackson, regardless of the potential he has when fully healthy, this trade definitely accomplishes that. In this scenario, it’s easy to imagine Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Tobias Harris taking full control of the offense, and the defense being better without Reggie’s lax effort up top.
KCP and Tobias taking the reins offensively is a full can of worms. On one hand, can you run an efficient offense through a guard who doesn’t create looks at the rim and an ostensible stretch big who, for his entire career, hasn’t shoot threes that well? Neither of these guys have great ballhandling skills relative to their position (Tobias, in particular, gets stripped a LOT). Neither of these guys draw enough fouls to help them carry an offense through lulls (to be fair, nobody on the Pistons shots enough free throws last season). Neither of these guys are plus passers. Would an offense based around these two players be just as predictable (and thus, easily defended) than last year’s?
On the other hand, neither of those guys commit a lot of turnovers, and both have remained relatively efficient while increasing their usage (especially KCP, who’s gotten more and more efficient offensively every year he’s been in the league). If their efficiency continued to hold with increased usage, that’s a recipe for an offense Stan Van Gundy can work with. It’s easy to imagine a decent halfcourt defense with elite rebounding, alongisde exceptional transition defense amplified by a low turnover rate, propping up an efficient, but not very explosive offense in Detroit. That’s basically what the goal was this past season, but the offense was neither explosive nor efficient.
Defensively, Reggie has always been a turnstile. Ish Smith doesn’t have the physical profile of a great defender, but competes on the perimeter to compensate. Would consistent defensive effort from both guard positions make the team a better halfcourt defensive team? My main critique of Andre’s defense has always been that he reacts half-a-beat behind what’s in front of him - would Ish or KCP fighting a guard every inch along the perimeter give Andre a free half-second to react?
In this scenario, selecting a PG (Frank Ntilikina?) at No. 12 in the draft makes a bit more sense for Detroit, to secure a long-term answer at point guard. Ish has proven a decent stopgap option at point guard, even if starting blunts his effectiveness as a change-of-pace guard. However, you’d ideally like to sign another cheap PG to a short-term deal when - not if - the rookie pg isn’t ready right away. Running Beno Udrih back wouldn’t be a bad idea - he did the job you’d want from a third-string guard at a low price.
You could also sign a backup point guard with a little more upside and shot creation for a higher price - that weakness of the Pistons would be accentuated with the loss of Reggie Jackson and the elevation of Ish Smith to the starting lineup. Perhaps the bench could revolve offensively around Boban postups, lessening the need for shot creators off the bench... but what happens when Boban gets pulled because he can’t defend? I shudder to think of how the Pistons would score consistently with a bench lineup of (as an example) Aaron Brooks, Ian Clark, Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, and Jon Leuer.
Last year, this Pistons team was close to the playoffs before imploding down the stretch. Would the additions of a backup-level shooting guard and another backup-level point guard be enough to get them over that hump? Alternatively, would entering training camp knowing one side of the floor won’t be dictated by one individual empower the rest of team to take ownership of the offense?
Saving $14.5 million sounds like a lot of money, and don’t get me wrong, it is. But if we’re still operating under the postulations made in Part I, this team is still over the salary cap. That means they’re almost completely out of the free agency game this offseason, limited to additions using extensions, trades, draft picks, and exceptions. Remember, you can only use the space between the cap and the tax to re-sign your own players. You can’t sign free agents using that space.
However, being over the cap but under the luxury tax offers certain advantages - Detroit would get the full mid-level exception, and they don’t have to worry about falling into luxury tax repeater territory in future years.
What this trade does is open up a lot of flexibility in 2019-20. If the cap remains the same (it won’t, but I can’t predict what the cap will be three years in the future, so go with me here), the Pistons would have a little under $14 million in cap room in 2019-20. That’s not max money, and I wouldn’t expect $14 million to make them movers and shakers in free agency, but it’s more than they have right now. The knowledge of incoming cap space would enable them to make trades for future salary, which is the one thing Stan and Jeff Bower have shown they are quite good at doing.
In the nearer-term, removing Reggie’s salary from the cap also makes KCP’s post-rookie max extension a LOT more palatable. I don’t want to litigate the merits of KCP’s incoming extension: He is going to get paid, and as a fan of the Pistons, you should hope it is Tom Gores signing the check. However, I will say it’s easier for any team to have a $30 million dollar backcourt with no All-Stars, rather than a $41 million dollar back court with no All-Stars.
The question of backup shooting guard still remains, but at least with this trade, you can utilize the full mid-level exception to attract a higher-quality replacement for Reggie Bullock. Ian Clark (UFA), Jodie Meeks (UFA), and Anthony Morrow (UFA) are all shooters that could be had for that amount or less. The full MLE, under the increasing salary cap, might even be enough to pry away an underperforming restricted free agent - Ben McLemore comes to mind. The team could also just keep Reggie Bullock around, and hope THIS is the season he plays 50+ games and maintains his 38 percent three-point shooting from last year - and he probably would come cheaper than the full MLE.
Not having to worry as much about the luxury tax enables Stan Van Gundy to pick up some cheap veteran leadership. Losing Aron Baynes and Beno Udrih (if Udrih doesn’t return) makes this team younger than it already is - and leadership was a quality lacking in this year’s locker room. Guys like Jason Terry ($1.5 million this season) and Mike Miller ($3.5 million) outperformed their salary by bringing the knowledge of what it takes to win a championship to young teams chasing the playoffs. Maybe the Pistons could look at Chris Andersen or Anderson Varejao to bring similar championship-level experience at a low price. Joel Anthony could make his way back to Detroit to fulfill that role as well.
This roster construction also shows how the ghost of Josh Smith continues to weigh this team down - his $5.3 million of dead space could instead be salary they could add in trade for another bench guard or small forward. Pistons fans universally agree that the team is better without Josh on the roster, and NBA general managers appear to agree since Josh hasn’t found an NBA home, but it definitely limits any aforementioned future flexibility. Of course, Smith’s dead money is much easier to digest when it’s not the difference between being in the luxury tax and not being in the luxury tax.
Ultimately, a move like this does what’s it’s supposed to do - get rid of Reggie Jackson for pennies on the dollar in the pursuit of two things: A more team-orientated Detroit Pistons, and future financial flexibility for talent acquisition. Whether or not such a much would make the team anything more than less expensive would be up to Reggie’s knee, Stan Van Gundy’s brain, and KCP and Tobias’ ability to replace his production.