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Pistons new GM Troy Weaver says he wants to be “aggressive” in free agency — but what might that look like?

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Troy Weaver characterised the draft as ‘aggressive’, but will free agency follow suit?

NBA: Utah Jazz at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

In case you missed it yesterday, and if you did, I honestly don’t know what you were doing with your life. Anyway, the Detroit Pistons used the NBA Draft to kinda sorta, well, totally flip their roster. Proven young(ish) contributors in Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown are out of town, and coming in is a horde of new young faces, and a couple of slightly older, weathered faces (Trevor Ariza is still taking the Houston tags off his luggage).

The Pistons pivoted entirely, going from a patchwork assortment of uninspiring veterans to a team loaded with young, unproven stock. Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee have now been brought in by new GM Troy Weaver in his first draft as Pistons head honcho.

Weaver spoke with the media following the draft, and characterized the team’s approach as “aggressive.”

And while the team’s draft strategy was certainly aggressive, you have to imagine Detroit’s approach to free agency will be equally so.

Before we get into what an “aggressive” free agency might look like, a recap for clarity of what happened in the last few days.

Pistons get: Killian Hayes (7th), Isaiah Stewart (16th), Saddiq Bey (19th), Saben Lee (38th), Trevor Ariza (trade), Rodney McGruder (trade), Tony Bradley (trade), Dzanan Musa (trade)

Pistons lose: Luke Kennard (trade), Bruce Brown (trade), LAL 2021 second round pick (trade), future first round pick (heavily protected - trade)

Ok I think that covers it, let’s get into free agency.

Here’s a look at the Pistons salary cap table heading into free agency:

*cap figures from Spotrac

**rookie scale figures for 2020/21 rookie class from RealGM

Right now, the Pistons have a shade under $13 million to wiggle around with as a raw amount, before we talk about additional moves and exceptions. The biggest thing to note on this table is Trevor Ariza and his largely non-guaranteed deal for this season. Ariza is only guaranteed $1.8 million of his deal for 2020/21, potentially providing Detroit a few options when it comes to dealing with his salary. They might be able to cut bait entirely, waiving him and eating the $1.8M of dead cap, or they can seek a trade partner like a cap-locked playoff team looking to gain a bit of flexibility. There is some thinking I have seen that to facilitate the trade his whole salary might be guaranteed but that has not been definitively confirmed. Of course, they could keep him but that seems unlikely given his contract status and the nature of this new look Pistons nursery.

What does a Trevor Ariza trade look like?

On the chance that the Pistons can secure Ariza and either release him for cap savings or reroute him to another team looking for cap savings, let’s explore the options. If you’re Troy Weaver with this roster, the cap space available and a couple of expiring veterans not making huge money, the ideal strategy is to follow the approach of the Brooklyn Nets of a few years ago. If you recall, the Nets were hamstrung immensely by bad contracts, but new GM Sean Marks came in and used what cap space they had to trade for bad contracts with assets attached. Examples of this included trading away Brook Lopez (and a first-round pick but you gotta make some sacrifices) to the Los Angeles Lakers, netting D’Angelo Russell in return, the prize for also taking back the laughably horrendous contract of Timofey Mozgov. Obviously, trading away first-round picks for these Pistons should be avoided as much as possible, but this is the type of deal I would think Weaver would pursue. Another example is the Nets trading for DeMarre Carroll and his four-year, $60M contract from Toronto, resulting in them also getting a first and second round pick, all for the low price of one Justin Hamilton. Let’s see who fits the criteria.

ORLANDO MAGIC

The Orlando Magic are quietly on the verge of salary cap hell. A playoff team last season, they have a ton of, if not bad contracts then significant sums invested in this team. Look at the financial commitment the Magic have over the next few years:

  • $72M over 3 years to Nikola Vucevic
  • $37M over 3 years to Terrence Ross
  • $34M over 2 years to Aaron Gordon
  • $20M over 2 years to Al-Farouq Aminu

That’s some significant cash in these guys, and it looks worse when you consider the Magic have the restricted free agencies of Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac to consider next summer. Sure, they might decide to not pay them, and Isaac is coming off a torn ACL in the bubble, but the Magic were a playoff team last year with no salary cap space to improve. Let’s throw them a bone.

Pistons receive: Terrence Ross, future 1st-round pick

Magic receive: Trevor Ariza

The Magic aren’t doing this because Ariza is the piece that puts them over the top. The Magic are doing this to get rid of a long term contract for a bench guy, while receiving cap relief in return in the form of Ariza’s partially guaranteed contract, which they would then waive. Ariza is as useless to Orlando’s cause as he is to Detroit’s from a playing perspective, but Orlando’s muddy cap sheet means they need to think creatively to clear some room, either to add guys this year or to avoid the luxury tax next year to pay Isaac and/or Fultz (and Mo Bamba the year after).

Obviously, Terrence Ross doesn’t fit the Pistons timeline at all, but you take on his deal (which admittedly isn’t horrible) to get the first round pick as thanks from Orlando. Ross might accidentally win this Pistons team a couple of games with his bench contributions, but they’re still bad. At least Ross is fun to watch.

INDIANA PACERS

The Pacers are another Eastern playoff team from last season with a hellscape for a salary cap sheet. Big contracts to Victor Oladipo (who is admittedly an expiring), Malcolm Brodgon, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner will do that. The Pacers also have a couple of mid-range contracts that they might be interested in moving if they’d like to gain some cap relief via an Ariza trade-and-waive.

Pistons receive: Edmond Sumner/Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb

Pacers receive: Trevor Ariza

You could try and tack on a first here from Indiana but unlike Orlando, Indiana isn’t really scheduled to have any major RFAs coming onto the market (TJ Leaf aside). Yes, Oladipo is expiring but they’ll have his bird rights, and I doubt they’re fussed about the futures of Doug McDermott and TJ McConnell, so I’ve gone with a younger prospect here rather than a first round pick.

Jeremy Lamb makes $10.5M each of the next two seasons and is a similar mould of trade as Terrence Ross. To make up the salary, Detroit would receive a young prospect like the defensive-minded Sumner or the promising floor general and youngest Holiday brother. This is really a matter of personal preference.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

The Grizzlies smashed the draft this year after smashing it last year and the year before. Jarren Jackson Jr. in 2018, Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke in 2019 and in 2020 they grabbed nice complementary pieces in Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman. However, they are projected to be slightly over the cap so could look to get out of a contract or two. Justise Winslow and Dillon Brooks are the two guys I’d ideally target in a deal with Memphis, but they’re both young key rotation members of a fringe Western playoff squad so Memphis will play harball with those two. Where they might be a little more flexible is at center.

Pistons receive: Jonas Valanciunas, future 1st round pick

Grizzlies receive: Trevor Ariza, Khyri Thomas

I don’t know if this trade is legal money-wise but this is the basic framework of it. Insert the standard cut Ariza line here, but Khyri Thomas is in here just to bump salaries up. You could also swap Khyri for Dzanan Musa but I have a feeling Weaver might want to see what he has there.

The reason Memphis would entertain this is Valanciunas is owed roughly $30 million over the next two seasons. This might be a tougher sell though considering he is the starting center and I doubt they’d throw Tillman to the wolves straight away. Which brings us to trade number two:

Pistons receive: Gorgui Dieng, future 1st round pick

Grizzlies receive: Trevor Ariza, Rodney McGruder

Dieng is an expiring this year but is still owed over $17 million (wyd Minnesota). Getting rid of his commitment for this year allows Memphis to get more aggressive in the free agent market. Again, they’d obviously waive Ariza here, while McGruder provides wing depth this season before becoming another unguaranteed asset in 2021.

As with all these trades, these are from a Detroit perspective. Fans of the other team might hate these, but if I’m Troy Weaver this is the type of trade I’m pursuing. You can in theory do it with Tony Snell as well but because he’s guaranteed it becomes a bit harder. He’s a trade-to-buyout candidate, although I’m sure there are still takers for him. Same with Derrick Rose as playoff team help.

Ok, now we’ve exhausted the trade scene, let’s discuss what potential free agents Weaver might target.

Pistons Free Agents

Behold, a list of the Pistons free agents and their cap holds.

A cap hold is a placeholder figure calculated based on the value of the player’s previous contract. Renouncing it doesn’t create extra cap room (guys we’ve been doing the RMMMD all wrong). A cap hold allows teams to go over the cap to sign players if they hold bird rights, or to match restricted free agents offer sheets. Renouncing the cap hold just waives the ability to do either of these things, meaning that if you renounce a cap hold you then have to re-sign the player with cap space or an exception if you wish to keep them (which is unlikely if you’re renouncing).

Looking at this list, I doubt most of them will even be brought up in strategy meetings by Weaver. Whilst the Brandon Knight reunion tour was fun (it wasn’t), he ain’t coming back. John Henson was here to collect his final paychecks from that big payday Milwaukee gave him. Jordan McRae is already gone, and based on reports recently I doubt Jordan Bone is coming back either. Langston Galloway, as much as I love the guy and his sneaker collection, has absolutely no place on this roster given the team’s competitiveness or lack thereof. He’s a bench piece on a contender now — go get your ring, Langston.

Moving on to the other guys, I’d be hugely surprised if Thon Maker is back. It was a rollercoaster 18 months but with the additions of Tony Bradley and Isaiah Stewart there really isn’t a place on this roster for him anymore. If Bradley didn’t arrive in a trade, I could see them bringing him back using an exception or low deal but this kinda ends that thought. We’ll always have the debut block Thon.

Justin Patton was signed in late June and I’m actually a little confused about his situation. I guess it’s being reported as the league year of July-June which is why he’s a free agent now. I can see him being on the roster as a minimum guy or two-way signee. He may even join the Grand Rapids Drive for its final season connected to the Pistons.

I’d like to see Louis King return. He showed some stuff (albeit in limited minutes) as a long shooter and defender on the wing. He’s just turned 21, so he’s exceptionally young and has spent a year in the system already. I wouldn’t be surprised if King is back, he seems like a Weaver type as well.

Free Agent Pool

Following the theme of aggression, the Pistons should be looking at young guys who can grow with this current roster, and the best place to find these guys is on the restricted free agent market. Obviously, you’re not going to get any of the top guys, but Weaver can appropriate another Nets strategy of aggressively pursuing restricted free agents resulting in a dilution of teams available in the market as teams are forced to match offers. And if they don’t match then hey, you got a new player.

Before I get into players, a quick rundown on what exemptions the Pistons have available:

Cap Space (based on sheet above): $12.8M (with no further trades)

Trade Exception: $1.72M (per Spotrac, from Drummond trade)

Any trades of veterans like Snell, Rose and Griffin could hypothetically open up more room, of course. But not many teams are interested in taking in more money than they send out.

Unfortunately for the Pistons, the restricted free agency pool this year is exceptionally weak. You’re not getting Brandon Ingram or Bogdan Bogdanovic, and the options fall away after that very quickly. The perfect option is Malik Beasley, who is unfortunately facing some fairly serious legal accusations in Minnesota and thus is unlikely to garner interest from many if any NBA teams right now while that legal process runs its course.

The two main guys I’d look at are Damyean Dotson and De’Anthony Melton. Both are similar players to Khyri Thomas, but with the exception that they’ve actually shown they can do stuff in the NBA. Of the two, Melton is my preferred choice due to his age, and he fits into this roster as a young guy with a game in there somewhere that needs work. Perfect for the rebuild. Melton played 60 games for Memphis last season, averaging just under 20 minutes a contest. 7.6 points and 2.9 assists are workable for the young 22 year old guard, but his real value is on defense. He’s a work in progress as a shooter but I think there could be a solid bench guard in there somewhere if the Pistons wanted to take a shot on him.

The theme of the free agency signee section will be taking shots, because the Pistons won’t be attracting any of the top free agents (and nor should they even try to). However, there’s a horde of unrestricted young free agents on the scrapheap that the Pistons should be very interested.

JOSH JACKSON - Ok hear me out. I know he’s had issues in Phoenix and Memphis but he was the fourth overall pick for a reason. Not only is he a hometown kid, but Detroit is in a position to take a cheap swing on a once-elite prospect. If it works out you’re laughing, and if it doesn’t, he’s a drop in the ocean on your cap sheet.

HARRY GILES - I have no idea why Sacramento declined his option but whatever. Giles is a 6-foot-11 energy guy without much shooting range and injury history, but again, this is a cheap shot. He was thrust into starting action for the Kings due to injuries to Holmes and Bagley, and Dedmon being traded to Atlanta, and he performed well, consistently scoring in double figures. He could be a nice center bench option.

DERRICK JONES JR - I find it highly unlikely that Jones Jr will leave Miami if they offer him, but in case he does, Detroit would do well to have a look here. One thing Detroit have lacked in forever is raw athleticism, and Jones is arguably the best pure athlete in the league. His offensive game has improved in leaps and bounds under Spoelstra, and while still not a consistent threat on that end, him catching Killian lobs makes me salivate.

If Troy Weaver wants to get super “aggressive,” there’s one guy I’d target, especially if they let Christian Wood leave.

DAVIS BERTANS - There’s a 99.8% chance Davis Bertans is not a member of the Detroit Pistons this coming season, but he is the prototype modern stretch four. He just absolutely lets it fly every time he touches it, and hits well over 40% of his threes on incredible volume. Bertans is a signing using any space you have, so it isn’t one Weaver will be making, and Bertans has no reason to come to Detroit unless we’re paying significant overs, but this is the ultimate aggressive move.

Christian Wood

Oh you thought I forgot about Wood? No I’m just leaving him until last. The Pistons are in a tricky spot with Christian Wood given his production last season has likely priced him out of the “bargain” range. What works for Detroit, though, is league wide perception. Wood had several stops in the NBA before Detroit, lasting very little time at all of them. Sure, he was productive numerically, but for whatever reason he never stuck with a team. 2019/20 was his first full season of consistent NBA minutes and he produced impressively.

So here’s the issue. The Pistons have the aforementioned $12.8M in cap space currently, including all the rookie draft picks (bar Saben Lee’s two-way figure which I don’t know yet). What figure do you realistically want to pay Christian Wood?

The Pistons hold Wood’s early bird rights, which in this scenario means precisely nothing. Early bird rights allow a team to go over the cap to sign a player to either up to 175% of his previous contract, or the league average salary, whichever is greater. In Wood’s case it would be the latter but his projected figure far exceeds either anyway.

Much has been talked about a Wood sign and trade, and this may be Wood’s best chance to leave Detroit at a fair rate if he wants to go. The fact is not a lot of good teams that might want Wood’s services have the requisite cap space to make a compelling offer in the discussed $12-15M range. If Wood works a sign and trade, it can help both sides, as the Pistons get a sizeable return on their minimum investment in Wood, and Wood gets to go to a team more suited to compete.

Should Wood stay, he still fits the timeline of this team, at least in the short term. He isn’t going to consistently push this team over the line in many wins, but he’s young and can run, and should have fun playing with Hayes. The risk then becomes that Wood’s production last season was a mirage and he returns to the journeyman level of professionalism that saw him bounce around the league for years.

Considering the options available in free agency, I like the idea of Wood returning and aggressively pursuing someone like Jones Jr to plug into this team as well, especially if Weaver plans on trading Blake Griffin before long.

***

Obviously this Pistons team is building for 3-4 years down the road, and the moves they make this free agency will reflect that approach. While Weaver has characterized their approach as aggressive, I don’t think it means they’ll pursue the top free agents (Jerami Grant pipe dream aside). What I do think it means, is that Weaver will use the trade market as his free agency, aggressively pursuing asset-gathering deals from playoff teams for the Pistons suite of mismatched veterans.

I don’t think the Pistons will trade all their vets, and they shouldn’t, because a team of total youth is a developmental disaster, all of Tony Snell, Derrick Rose, Trevor Ariza, Blake Griffin and Rodney McGruder are on the table.