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Basketball and Balance Sheets Part IV: The (other) $100 Million-Dollar Man

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Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s restricted free agency looms over Detroit’s offseason plans.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

All the way back in Part I of this series, we set down the hard assumption that Stan Van Gundy, being of sound mind and sound body, would match any team’s post-rookie maximum offer sheet for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. That, of course, would make him the team’s second nine-figure player and, most likely, the highest-paid player on the Pistons next season. Stan has alluded (HEAVILY alluded) that KCP is untouchable and irreplaceable in Detroit’s plans going forward.

Fans... fans hold a marginally different view (even some at DBB), to my constant consternation. So what does this team look like if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope joins The Process in Philadelphia or Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (the Brown to Mike Budenholzer’s Cornell and Greg Popovich’s Harvard - yes, it’s still an Ivy, but it’s not the same, and you shouldn’t lie and tell yourself it is)? The outlook - both on the court and in the books - is not a rosy one for the Pistons.

Balance Sheet:

We’re going to start this final part of the series with the balance sheet instead of the basketball team, because I think it’s more illustrative as to what KCP means to this team.

Detroit Pistons 2017-18 Salary Cap (Projected)

Yup, that’s right, getting rid of KCP and Aron Baynes isn’t enough to put this team under the salary cap. To slide under the cap, you’d also have to not extend a qualifying offer to Reggie Bullock, making the two “shooting guards” on your roster Stanley Johnson (who is neither a shooter nor a guard) and Darrun Hilliard (who is a guard, but is not a shooter).

(Yes, Josh Smith is the difference between being under the cap and over the cap. I noticed that too. Let’s not re-litigate that.)

Sure, the Pistons are under the salary cap in 2018-19, but look at the team. They’re A: BARELY under the cap and B: Only under because they have no real shooting guards on the roster (and haven’t signed any one-year veteran backup deals). Additionally, NBA teams can only go over the cap to sign their own players. Meaning, in 2018-19, you can’t sign a free agent to a deal that takes you over the cap. Meaning, you only have maybe $3 million in cap space for free agents.

Who’s going to turn this team around for $3 million in free agency a year from now? No one, that’s who.

Being over the cap but under the tax still offers the full mid-level exception. That’s good for acquiring talent, but as long as you’re not in the luxury tax, you have the full MLE. There’s no benefit to being “closer” to the cap as long as you’re over it, the MLE doesn’t scale based upon how much salary you have have on your books up to the luxury tax . You’re essentially wasting the money between the salary cap and the luxury tax - $19 million - that could be used on your own players.

Additionally, now you have to split the MLE between two players - another bench shooting guard (because your alternative is a heavy dose of Darrun Hilliard) and a possible stretch four who can play if Jon Leuer doesn’t bounce back from his terrible second-half swoon and Henry Ellenson isn’t ready for backup minutes. Alternatively, that No. 12 pick better be ready to patch one of those holes by the end of training camp - which is highly unlikely. Zach Collins and Justin Jackson, the two names I am seeing the most in mocks at 12, could fill those roster spots... in 2-3 years.

So, in short, the team is marginally less expensive, and much less talented.

Basketball

Stanley Johnson’s defensive ability more than likely earns him first crack at the starting shooting guard minutes under SVG, despite his atrocious 35/29/68 slashline. That slashline, though, renders the Pistons’ starting lineup even more reliant on the play of Reggie Jackson offensively. There’s now only two guys in a starting lineup of Reggie-Stanley-Tobias-Jon-Andre (Reggie and Tobias) that can create a decent look for themselves, and you can’t throw it to Tobias on a 1-3 switch EVERY play.

The bench lineup of Ish-Bullock-Marcus-Ellenson-Boban is also limited offensively. Marcus Morris can create shots for himself, but his lack of efficiency shooting those shots as well as where those shots are likely coming from (the midrange) is part of the reason he’s on this bench unit. Boban’s offensive talent in the halfcourt is something the bench would have to lean on as well... but that takes away from where Ish is at his best: in transition. There are just a lot of mismatched parts here.

The one constant, of course, is you can’t rely on consistent perimeter shooting from either the starters or the bench. Without KCP, only one starter (Reggie Jackson) will have shot higher than 35 percent from three-point range last year. Only two PLAYERS (the Reggies) on the roster in this scenario will have shot higher than 35 percent from three last year. Obviously, you hope for a bounce-back from Marcus Morris and Jon Leuer from the perimeter, but you have to be concerned with a roster that is set up to play 1-in-4-out with very few perimeter threats defenses care about.

Defensively, there is now one above-average defender (Stanley Johnson) on the roster.

Not “in the starting lineup.” “On the roster.” I can see how you’d make that mistake.

Anyway, the Pistons got a lot of defensive mileage out of limiting transition opportunities and not turning the ball over, and they’d have to get a couple more pints of blood out of that stone without KCP. Once you stop teams from getting easy points in transition, though, the lack of dribble containment around the perimeter probably makes Andre Drummond an even worse defender than he already is. It could also lead to some truly ugly moments in PNR coverage with Boban.

The ideal future configuration for Detroit was always KCP covering the most dangerous guard and Stanley covering the most dangerous wing, and that’s gone in this scenario. KCP covered a lot of tough point guard matchups for Reggie Jackson that Stanley doesn’t have the footspeed for - I shudder to think what the Pistons would look like defensively if they had to put Reggie on Kyle Lowry instead of DeMarre Carroll, or on Kemba Walker instead of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Ultimately, the amount of money you save by not matching a max offer for KCP pales in comparison to the domino effect of not having him on the roster. KCP being able to be extended without any real change to the Pistons’ luxury tax scenario (not their cap scenario - because they’re over the cap basically no matter what) also means that the Pistons wouldn’t really be “saving” money, just not utilizing all the money and options available to them when filling out a roster.