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The Detroit Pistons off-season, in seven steps

It’s about to be a quiet offseason in Detroit - but that doesn’t mean you won’t read 2000 words on just HOW quiet.

Toronto Raptors v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s almost July 1, the first day of NBA Christmas, but the Pistons opened up their presents in February so it looks like all they’re getting are socks and Pez dispensers. That’s cool - we’re adults now and we hate buying socks, so having them gifted to us is kind of nice, in a sad sort of way.

Let’s open up the sock drawer.

Detroit Offseason Haves:

  • Players who can make open shots
  • Good team defense
  • The best rebounder in the NBA

Last year, the Pistons were fifth in the NBA in three-point percentage - they had guys who could make open perimeter shots, provided they got them. The Pistons were No. 11 in team Defensive Rating - they played excellent team defense on the whole. And, of course, Andre Drummond led the league in rebounds per game and offensive rebounds - never the sexiest of advantages, but one Detroit has always leveraged.

The roster has little potential to change meaningfully during the offseason, so these should still be strengths of the Pistons next season. To shore up these strengths, the Pistons have already drafted two defensive-minded guards who hit open shots in college in Bruce Brown and Khyri Thomas, and hired a coach known for his defensive acumen in Dwane Casey.

Detroit Offseason Wants:

  • Small forwards who can shoot threes and defend on-ball
  • Shot creators who can shoot off-the-dribble threes and play 75 games
  • Better insurance against injuries to high-priced, injury-prone players

The only “true” small forward currently on the Pistons roster is Stanley Johnson. Reggie Bullock has the ability to moonlight there, and I think Detroit thinks Bruce Brown can do the same, but the Pistons are woefully shallow at what is rapidly becoming the most important position in basketball. Given what he has shown three years into his NBA career, I think it is fair to say that Stanley Johnson should not be starting, so the Pistons need a starting-level small forward - even a low-tier one will do.

Reggie Jackson’s midseason injury killing the Pistons’ playoff chances is something Pistons fans should be familiar with - as should Stan Van Gundy’s failed attempts to insulate the team against that possibility. This new regime needs to find a player or multiple players who can shoulder the shot creation load of Reggie Jackson, so that Detroit is not as reliant on his health.

Those injury concerns also extend to new addition Blake Griffin, who has suffered from a host of various maladies in his NBA career - the last time he approached 70 games in a season was 2014-15, almost four years ago. The Pistons have to become flexible enough to absorb an injury to Reggie OR Blake (if both get hurt at the same time for more than 20 games, that’s probably the season, sadly).

So, what can the Pistons do to inexpensively solidify the present level of talent on the roster and address some of their wants? First, let’s set up some artificial conditions - Detroit should not do the following this offseason:

  • Go into the luxury tax
  • Trade Andre Drummond, Blake Griffin, or Reggie Jackson
  • Trade any (more) future draft picks - second rounders included

Second, let’s take a look at the Pistons’ (ugly, but you already knew that) salary cap situation:

Already pressing up against the luxury tax? That’s alright, we can do this.

Step 1: Exercise Reggie Bullock’s team option

This is a virtual certainty. Bullock was, what, the Pistons’ fourth-best player last year? Lock Reggie Bullock in at that contract, and ask very nicely what kind of deal he’d be willing to take next year.

Step 2: Renounce the cap holds of Jameer Nelson and James Ennis III

Jameer Neelson had approximately nothing left in the tank the moment he landed in Detroit - his cap hold renouncement is a formality. James Ennis III, on the other hand, was an adequate player at small forward for the Pistons - and we’ve already established that small forward is an area of want for Detroit. Don’t freak out, we’re gonna replace Ennis in a little bit, and his cap hold is limiting our ability to utilize the mid-level exception without hard-capping ourselves.

Step 3: Release Dwight Buycks before his cap hit becomes guaranteed on September 1

This is rough for Dwight, who is likable and was a nice find for SVG, but we can find a better, more consistent third point guard on a minimum deal. This frees up even more of the MLE, and keeps Bruce Brown and Langston Galloway on as break-glass-in-case-of-emergency point guards.

Well, Langston, actually... not so much.

Step 4: Trade Langston Galloway straight-up for a wing (who makes roughly the same as he does but is also not very good)

This is our Ennis III replacement. Financially, this benefits the Pistons because it supplies a player at a position of need at Langston’s salary, instead of Langston’s salary plus. Langston was not great last year, but he was not so bad that he cannot be traded, and the guys I am looking at trading him for were not so good that they cannot be traded for:

  • Lance Thomas
  • Wesley Johnson
  • Thabo Sefolosha

None of these guys are so good or so invaluable to their teams that I think a trade like this is unrealistic in a way that trading for, say, Jae Crowder or Jonathan Simmons (both guys who can play the wing and make about what Langston does) is.

Pistons fans collectively retched when I brought this up a few days ago:

I can’t say I blame them, but turning one bad deal for a useful player into a bad deal for a useful player who plays a position of need is too worth it. In the projections later, you’ll see Langston was swapped for Wesley Johnson.

Step 5: Sign Anthony Tolliver to a two-year, $9 million dollar contract using the mini-MLE

This is $4.5 million of the $5.4 mini-midlevel for a 33-year-old who doesn’t play on the wing, but Tolliver is a guy familiar with Detroit, beloved in the locker room, and had a great season here last year - and this is not a long-term deal. I put his return under “Blake Griffin insurance” - a guy who knows and plays his role as well as Tolliver is able to start in case of a minor Blake Griffin injury.

Also, all the space we cleared out means we’re still under the luxury tax - maintaining one of our given conditions. We even have enough space to do another signing!

Step 6: Sign Shelvin Mack to a one-year minimum contract

Mack is not a sexy name, but he IS:

  • Perfectly serviceable as a shooter and shot creator - he made an impression in a larger-than expected role last season in Orlando.
  • 28 years old, so he’s less likely to fall off a cliff than, say, 35-year-old Devin Harris or 33-year-old Raymond Felton, who are just slightly too Jameer Nelson-esque for me to target.
  • An unrestricted free agent who will take the league minimum.

The number of unrestricted free agent point guards who fit those three criteria are lower than you think: Elfrid Payton will get more than the minimum (I feel pretty confident about that). Shabazz Napier is a restricted free agent, and Portland would match an offer at the minimum, no matter how cash-strapped they are. Fred VanVleet was a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate - not only is he not taking the minimum, he might get someone’s full MLE. Raul Neto is a restricted free agent who I think Utah would like to hang on to.

The list of free agent point guards who fit the Venn Diagram of “Decent, Not Old, and Cheap” is basically Mack, Mario Chalmers, and Shane Larkin. However, if you like Chalmers or Larkin better than Mack, go for it - I’m not wedded to Mack.

That leaves the Pistons with a cap sheet that looks something like this:

Under the luxury tax? Check. Shored up shot creation, wing depth, and injury insurance? Check. Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson still present on the roster? Check.

That’s a job well done.

Oh wait, I promised seven steps. Uhhhhh.....

Step 7: Blood sacrifice to your deity of choice to preserve the life force of Blake Griffin

I hear most deities like goats?

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can the Pistons get (insert unrestricted free agent here)?

Maybe. Is that free agent:

  • A: Worth missing out on Tolliver for?
  • B: Willing to take no more than Mini-mid-level exception?
  • C: A good roster fit (read: not a center)?

If the answer to all of those is “Yes,” then sure, the Pistons could get that player.

Can we sign-and-trade for (insert restricted free agent here)?

I’m just going to call this the Shabazz Napier question, and the answer is it is improbable but not impossible. There are a number of stipulations surrounding sign-and-trade, the most relevant of which are:

  • The player being traded can’t have signed an offer sheet with another team
  • The player being traded can’t be signed using the MLE, the mini-MLE, or any exception that cannot be used to offer a three-year contract
  • The team receiving the player can’t exceed the tax apron with the sign-and-trade
  • The team can’t receive any player in a sign-and-trade if they have already used the mini-MLE that season

All that is to say, the Pistons are close enough to the tax and (and the apron) that Portland using their restricted bird rights to re-sign Napier to an above-minimum deal and then trade him to the Pistons could result in the Pistons being hard capped and unable to access their mini-MLE. If Napier secures an above-minimum offer from a team in need of a point guard, that functionally closes the door on that.

You forgot about our trade exception!

That’s not a question, but, sure.

The Pistons have (functionally) three trade exceptions - one for $7 million, one for $1.4 million, and one for $1.3 million. I wrote a whole piece on the big trade exception earlier this offseason - go read that to refresh your memory of the cans and cannots of trade exceptions.

You don’t want to? Fine. TL;DR: the big trade exception is not very useful. Detroit is so close to the luxury tax and the luxury tax apron that they can’t absorb a $7 million dollar player, which is functionally what a trade exception lets you do. The Pistons need to be able to send salary OUT in a trade, and the trade exceptions don’t really help you do that.

Why can’t the Pistons go into the luxury tax? It’s just money.

You’re preaching to the choir on this one. If the Pistons go into the luxury tax during this offseason, it’s not coming out of your or my paycheck, it’s coming out of Tom Gores’ California bank account. And Gores has said in the past he is willing to pay the tax - for the right roster.

However, this roster, as bullish as even I am on the Pistons, ain’t it. Signing a guy to the full midlevel ($8.8 million) likely would both hard-cap Detroit and make them a luxury tax payer, and there’s no free agent on the market that is looking for the full mid-level that balances that equation.