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NBA Free Agency: After a flurry of moves, the Pistons are right back where they started

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Pistons spent big money on the first night of free agency, and will be paying for it for years

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Detroit Pistons GM Troy Weaver promised an “aggressive” approach to free agency, but nobody could have expected the flurry of moves he made on the first night teams could sign players as he continued to remake the Pistons in his own image.

Unfortunately, Weaver and the Pistons brass were so anxious to fundamentally alter the course of the franchise that they made a series of short-sighted moves they will likely regret.

In the end, they are just going in circles. The Detroit Pistons are afraid to be bad, and they don’t know how to be good.

So here we sit, again. Staring at a team that has capped itself out, sacrificed significant financial resources for years to come, and under the best-case scenario they are ... what ... a fun, bad team?

It seemed like the Pistons had finally learned their lesson.

They traded quality young contributors in Bruce Brown and Luke Kennard to get younger and collect draft assets. There was talk about using its sizable $30 million in cap space to take on bad contracts in exchange for assets.

Finally, the Pistons seemed ready to rebuild. To focus on youth and compile assets and conserve resources and flexibility. On NBA Draft night it seemed like everything was going according to plan.

The team drafted point guard of the future Killian Hayes and traded twice into the first round to grab big man Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey.

Weaver was also busy disavowing itself of almost everything associated with the team prior to his arrival. Of the 22 players who suited up for the Pistons last season, just five remain on the roster — Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Svi Mykhailiuk, Sekou Doumbouya and Louis King.

It seems like a purge and full reset would continue with veterans Griffin and Rose in a holding pattern until the right deal came along. The Pistons were drafting, going young, potentially collecting more draft assets.

Then the clock struck 6 p.m. and the deals started flying in. The first was the most ominous — a three-year, $24 million deal for perfectly fine center Mason Plumlee. He’s a decent enough player, but he’s also 30. Not part of the future, but, hey, maybe it’s good to have a steadying presence while the rookies stumble around the floor learning as they go. But you can’t tell me if the Pistons had waited a couple days they couldn’t have gotten a player 80% as good as Plumlee for 20% of the cost. That’s what smart, prudent, rebuilding teams should do. But the Pistons are always looking for that difference-maker. That small tweak to their rotation that will make them truly competitive.

Then Detroit went for another veteran, Jahlil Okafor on a two-year minimum deal. Another center was confusing but it’s hard to complain about vet mins. Then the Pistons signed Josh Jackson — a young reclamation project. A sigh of relief. Now THIS is what a rebuilding team is supposed to do.

Then the other shoe dropped in a big way — Jerami Grant, Denver’s high-flying forward was in on a monster three-year, $60 million deal. And Christian Wood was out — going to the Houston Rockets on a three-year, $41 million pact.

Grant is a fine player, but his value is likely inflated by playing third banana to a bunch of stars. First, behind Russell Westbrook and Paul George in OKC and then alongside Jamal Murray and NIkola Jokic in Denver.

But he’s not being paid like a complementary player. He’s being paid like a star. And he apparently turned down the same offer from the Nuggets because he wanted to have a larger role in the offense and could get that in Detroit. The only problem is, there is little evidence can handle it. Grant excels on hustling and cutting and taking advantage of the space provided. He doesn’t create his own shot, and he doesn’t create for others.

Then it got much worse.

The only way the Pistons could afford to add Grant was to stretch the contracts of Rodney McGruder and Dewayne Dedmon. Both recently acquired players had two years left on their deals, but with only a small guarantee. Because stretching involves double the length of the remaining contract plus one, Detroit could stretch the deals and take “just” a $3.8 million cap hit. For five years.

This is why they were acquired — so their non-guaranteed deals could be stretched and create less pain.

But bad teams — rebuilding teams have no business tying their hands behind their back to the tune of nearly $4 million a year for five years. Championship-caliber teams? Maybe. Short-sighted teams? Definitely.

Apparently, the Pistons never learned their lesson from years of struggling to work around Josh Smith’s cap hit.

But these anxious, short-sighted Pistons are committed to change and they want it as fast as possible. Dealing Kennard and Brown was never about rebuilding. It was never about them not fitting the timeline. They just weren’t the kinds of players Weaver wanted to build around.

So they sacrificed bits of their future to change things, and change them now. Four second-round picks sent with Kennard and 21-year-old forward Dzanan Musa for Brown in a clear talent downgrade.

Where I once thought the Pistons were committed to a rebuild, I now sit here just after midnight six hours into free agency thinking the Pistons are not planning on trading Griffin and Rose for the biggest value but building around them for yet another playoff push. Another major investment into the eighth seed that is more likely to fail than it is to succeed.

To win now and win later. It’s the same old Tom Gores song and dance. And when the music stops where will Detroit find itself?

Constructed around a player not built for his outsized role. Capped out with few avenues to fundamentally change the direction they’re ultimately headed down — mediocrity. If this path does ultimately succeed it will be in spite of the process and not because of it. These are huge gambles, and Detroit can’t afford many of them to not ultimately pan out. Weaver was always credited for his eye for talent.

He saw Grant up close in OKC so even if the data tells us he relies heavily on other playmakers for his success, maybe Weaver knows there is more Grant can show. Maybe he knows as good as Wood was in his one-year stint with Detroit there are dangerous shortcomings that make him reluctant to invest heavily. Maybe Kennard, for all his 3-point marksmanship and ball handling, has limitations that make it right to walk away before his first big contract.

Maybe all that’s true, but I’m not confident.

I thought this time would be different. That Weaver came on board, did a forensic analysis of the situation and decided to tear it down to the studs and rebuild the right away. Slowly, patiently, taking advantage of opportunities as they come.

But when someone talks you should listen. Weaver said he was going to attack free agency and he attacked. When he was hired he said, “This isn’t a rebuild, this is a restoring.”

He has restored the team in his image. It’s younger. It’s more athletic. It has a prayer defensively, with an emphasis on hard workers who bust their ass every night. That’s worth something. But Detroit is still on track to be a bad team, they’ll just be bad in a way Weaver can accept. But it still makes little sense to have Griffin and Rose on board. And now the team has already committed $91 million to next year’s salary cap, with $42 million of that coming courtesy of tonight’s free agent binge.

Hopefully, it’s at least fun to watch. And with Weaver at the helm, you never know what tomorrow will bring.