The Detroit Pistons really need to worry about this free agent season. Not because you woke up and it’s 2016 again and they’re going to blow all their cap space all at once - It is 2019, and they have no cap space to blow. However, other teams, teams WITH cap space, could set market precedents that portend ill for the Pistons.
It was all good just a year ago.
The 2018 free agency period was cruel to upper-level starting big men, with Clint Capela signing for “only” $90 million over five years ($18 million Average Annual Value), Myles Turner taking $20 million AAV, and Jusuf Nurkic securing a mere $12 million AAV after putting his head down and trucking the Blazers into the playoffs. Sure, Nikola Jokic got paid (~$29.5 AAV), but he’s on another planet as an offensive engine than anyone else at his position.
With the emphasis on playing without a “traditional” (read: non-perimeter shooting) center on the rise across the league after the Warriors’ Death Lineup trampled everyone and everything on their way to a title, it seemed like the Pistons would be able to retain Andre Drummond long-term at a number that could be even lower than the ~$25 million AAV post-rookie max extension he signed in 2016. There are a lot of good centers in the league, and because teams felt like they only needed one starting-level center, a lot of centers got squeezed financially.
But that was then.
Now, Al Horford, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, is weighing a potential four-year, $112 million dollar contract ($28 million AAV) from the Dallas Mavericks. 2019 All-Star Nikola Vucevic could garner a contract in the $25 million AAV range. DeAndre Jordan’s friendship with Kevin Durant could prove lucrative for DJ coming off his one-year, $23 million dollar contract. Jonas Valancuinas has already opted out of $17.6 million in the hopes of securing a longer-term deal with a slightly (SLIGHTLY) lower AAV. The Bucks are preparing to bleach their books to re-sign Brook Lopez using cap space instead of his non-Bird rights. Zach Lowe’s free agency Lowe Post mentioned the concentrated interest in Dewayne Dedmon across the league, making it sound as if his market would climb above the Mid-Level Exception ($9.2 million per year). DeMarcus Cousins will be available, and I have no idea what his market looks like.
Centers will still get paid.
In the 2020 offseason, Andre will have the choice to exercise his $28,751,775 player option. I predict Andre Drummond and his representation are going to see the deals other big men get in this year’s free agency, and demand... more.
Those demands are not entirely without merit. Al Horford and his $28 milllion AAV? Already 33 years old, and could not contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2019 playoffs like he did in the 2018 playoffs. DeAndre Jordan is 31 (!) and lost a half-step defensively last season before being unceremoniously shipped to New York. Lopez is also 31 and was put in the literal best-case scenario for producing - what would he look like without Giannis drawing so much defensive attention away from him? Valancuinas, 27, was a looter in a riot for a Memphis team that didn’t care about winning, and he needed approximately a jillion post-up possessions (After he got traded to Memphis, he had a 31 percent usage rate!!!!!) to do any looting.
And we already know what Dre thinks of Vucevic, who will be 29 early in the season:
Do you really think Andre (who will be, magically, “only” 26 years old this time next year) is going to accept less that what Vuc gets this offseason? Do you really think Andre’s agent (Jeff Schwartz, who is also DeAndre Jordan’s agent) is going to ask for less?
The leverage Andre’s representation has increases when you look at the list of potential free agents in 2020:
That’s Anthony Davis (who, let’s be honest, isn’t going anywhere), the ghost of Kevin Durant (who, if he signs anything but a 1+1 this offseason, will not be on this list), 34-year-old NBA Champion Kyle Lowry, 30-year-old with playoff mileage Draymond Green, aaannnndd.... who? DeMar DeRozan? 35-year-old Marc Gasol?
Imagine if the big names in this year’s free agency go “to form” - Kawhi back in Toronto, KD and Kyrie Irving as a package deal in Brooklyn, Klay back in Golden State, Kemba back in Charlotte, Jimmy Butler to Houston, Tobias Harris back in Philadelphia. That leaves two teams - the Clippers and the Knicks - conspicuously devoid of any major acquisitions, each with two max slots available. Both teams could simply roll their cap space over another year in nominal pursuit on Anthony Davis, and when that fails... there’s Andre, just sitting there.
I know Andre’s value to the Pistons fluctuates depending on who you ask and when you ask it. His value remains a point of contention on DBB, where again, depending on who you ask and when you ask it, he’s loved eternally or trade fodder. I personally maintain that Andre is a max guy, and that paying your guys max money is not the issue when you construct a roster. I also maintain that Andre is a dependent talent, an “elite garbage man,” in DBB parlance; I just value the “elite” more than the “garbage man.” He’s gotten better about “bringing it” most nights, but when he doesn’t have “it,” boy, does he not have it.
A new deal, at around $25 million AAV for Drummond - roughly what he’s made for the last few years - feels fair to me, especially as the cap continues to (slowly) climb. $30 million AAV is pushing it. A full max - another 30 percent of the cap next season, in the neighborhood of $35 million AAV - is probably a bridge too far. However, if Drummond makes an All-Star team, or (gulp) an All-NBA team... I bet you can find a team willing to throw Andre the max in 2020.
This offseason, as Detroit looks to fill in the gaps at backup point guard and backup center (while maybe adding some veteran presence on the wing), just keep an eye on how much centers (Vucevic, in particular) get paid. If the market booms, the Pistons might be paying a heavy price in the upcoming future.