The Detroit Pistons began 2021 offseason with a big splash. First, they won the Draft Lottery, moving up for the first time in franchise history, despite having the least favorable odds for their pre-lotto position to do so. Next, against many temptations to trade their precious No. 1 overall pick, they drafted a player with seemingly the best odds to be a franchise changing hooper among this year’s – and probably couple of others – draft class.
During the draft, they executed minor but sensible moves by drafting Michigander Isaiah Livers, Luka Garza and Balsa Koprovica with the picks they were left with in the second round. Isaiah can be a second-round Saddiq. There are some Laimbeer-esque traits in Luka (mean screens, rebounding, elbows, triples), that make you root for him. And Balsa can grow into a more athletic Kelly Olynyk.
However, some question marks are already appearing. Although it’s a bit premature to question whether Detroit could have drafted someone else with the picks in the second round, we can question whether they should have been better picks, and thus a chance to take even better prospects. It turned out that it didn’t take that much (Aaron Holiday and an early second-round pick) to land the 22nd pick and Isaiah Jackson. JT Thor was taken with the 37th pick, which Detroit originally owned. But Motown deprived itself of a chance to draft such players by doing the Mason Plumlee trade, which included exchanging the 37th pick for the 57th.
The Plumlee trade was meant to make room to sign Kelly Olynyk in free agency. Per se, that move wasn’t bad, either. Kelly looks to be a very good fit for the franchise’s young core, allowing it to play to its potential. Thus it looked like Troy Weaver’s restoration process might accelerate, and the young Pistons could be in a fight for the play-in as soon as this season. The addition of another free agent, Trey Lyles – who, although not flashy, can be very useful for Motor City’s offense and defense – points in the same direction. There’s also nothing to complain about when it comes to the signings of Saben Lee, Frank Jackson, and Hamidou Diallo, as they carry the potential to be a part of the team’s young core and are now on great, team-friendly deals.
However, there were a couple moves that I view as quite problematic.
Troy re-signed Cory Joseph to a two year, $10-million deal with a player option in year two. Cory’s signing doesn’t seems to fit Detroit’s plan. He isn’t a player that will help the young guys fight for wins. If he’ll be contributing to wins, they’ll be sporadic ones, that won’t push the team near the play-in. On top of that, it’ll cost the youngsters playing time (Kelly and Trey are “complementary” players for the Pistons youth, Cory is a “substitute” player for them). The same can be said about Rodney McGruder, who was also re-signed in the meantime. Yes, Joseph and McGruder both provide some necessary veteran presence. But they’re not players that will push the needle in terms of helping the youth win next season. As such, their signings contradict the signing of Olynyk and Lyles. Joseph and McGruder are here to school youngsters (though, apparently, at the expanse of their playing time) on the way to another trip for high lotto pick.
But if the idea was to continue to develop the youngsters while fighting for the best lottery odds for one more season, then Pistons should handled free agency differently. (To be clear, I don’t mean to appreciate or depreciate either direction; there are good reasons for both of them. I mean to highlight the lack of consistency. The Pistons caught themselves in between both of those directions, not because they want to invest more heavily into a youth movement or into winning, but seemingly to do some veteran players a favor.)
They should have looked for bigs suitable to help with the development of youngsters who they could get without depriving themselves of the ability to get more young prospects with high upside like Jackson and/or Thor, and without messing with their cap space for next offseason. Aron Baynes, who still is looking for any contract, or Frank The Tank (!!!) Kaminsky, who signed a one-year deal for just $2 million comes to mind.
They could also have gotten a veteran guard on much more friendly deal than Cory’s. For instance, Jeff Teague and Matthew Dellavedova are still looking for NBA teams to employ them, and so is Dennis Smith Jr., as so far he only got a camp invitation deal (It might indicate that DSJ isn’t ready to play the role of young veteran with lots of still untapped potential, though, as I suggested as a possibility in my review of him). Those vets would allow the younglings to develop but wouldn’t do it to such an extent to undermine our position in the lotto race by winning.
Instead, with all the moves he made Troy cut around $10 mil from next year’s possible cap space and gave up a shot at high-upside prospect(s). And recently, he got rid of another young player with high potential in Sekou (plus Jahlil Okafor) in a puzzling trade, just to trim the roster which once again was overcrowded because Troy apparently is making favors (last year, as it now looks to be, to Arn Tellem’s son who was the agent of former Pistons still getting paid by the team Deividas Sirvydis and this year to a neighbor’s son and to Dwane Casey’s favorite Rodney McGruder).
On the surface, we can even find some good things in that trade: Detroit got four second-round picks; moneywise the team is even, as the $6 mil left on Jordan deal after the buyout is only $500K more than Sekou’s third-year option Motown would have had to exercise soon to keep him for 2022-23 season. Counting in some possible offsets (including the $5.78 million in cash included) and it might be just even. The team even got relief for their roster crunch. But, again, the team needs to look for savings and relief from the roster crunch because of some problematic FA signings.
Cutting ties with a 20-year-old former 15th pick whose development was bothered by his team choosing not to take part in a G-League season he desperately needed but who still showed flashes that he can already be productive for the current Pistons motion offense and switchy defense (not to mention that in his rookie campaign, Sekou showed in the G League to have the makings of two-way star player), is puzzling to say at least. (And even if there were some attitude problems with him, it can’t be all on him since after the draft Dwane Casey, whom Troy apparently trusts in these matters, claimed that he’s good character-wise. So something went wrong on the part of the team as well, either in evaluation (in which Troy didn’t participate but someone who he trust in those matters did) or in the development process, which only adds to the puzzling. Whichever way you look at it, it still doesn’t look good.)
I understand that all the moves from this offseason probably will be judged in the shadow of drafting Cade. If the No. 1 pick will be who we think he can be, we won’t tend to remember that Troy could do better in other, “under the radar” moves this summer. But I’d prefer that Troy is serious about “emptying his clip” all the time. Even drafting a potential franchise player doesn’t release you from trying to win every deal. Last year, Troy won every offseason move he made, though until the Delon Wright trade his clip also seemed only half-empty.
The final, or at least the latest, move from this year’s offseason, the Sekou and Jahlil trade, doesn’t offer this assuring relief. On the contrary, it adds to the confusion caused by some of other Troy’s previous trades. A confusion that itself bears similarities to last offseason: Bruce Brown traded not for some upside guy we could have with 37th pick in this draft, but for a pick which we could easily buy; that no matter how good Isaiah Livers will be, Derrick Rose’s game is still valued more than just the 42nd pick we are left with for trading him; that Troy stubbornly doesn’t want to acknowledge that it’s too soon to expect Pistons fans to be OK with having a not insignificant amount of stretched dead money on a cap sheet, if it could be seen as a good strategy at all.
Contenders are build not solely by big-time acquisitions. They’re built also by the small moves and consistent proceeding. Troy Weaver needs to stop using those small moves to make favors that prevent him from staying the course and start to treat them with all the seriousness he tries to empty his clip in other areas.