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Talking Money: Taking a look at Detroit Pistons’ financial flexibility

Dead cap and starter criteria, let’s take stock of where the Pistons are spending their money.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Sacramento Kings Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know when I turned into the finance guy on DBB, but given my limited time nowadays I guess it’s the role I was born to play.

Anyway, after the trade deadline and the moves and non-moves, I wanted to take a brief look at the financial fitness of this Detroit Pistons roster and see if there’s any obvious plan or ideas going forward.

But first, a look at the trusty Excel cap sheet.

*Click to expand the image for better readability

Hands up if you remembered that the Pistons briefly had DeAndre Jordan on the roster this past offseason? Put your hands down, you liars.

If you need a reminder, the Pistons took on Jordan’s contract from the Nets in exchange for Sekou Doumbouya and Jahlil Okafor, getting four second-round picks as a thank you.

OK, rather than bore you with a long run down on the implications of every contract currently on the roster, I have a few main talking points I wanted to address instead.

Sacramento Kings v Boston Celtics Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Marvin Bagley’s Qualifying Offer

Just by virtue of being the second overall pick back in 2018, Marvin Bagley’s fourth-year contract (which I’m honestly surprised he even reached considering the constant rumblings of unhappiness and dysfunction in Sacramento) is set at a hefty $11.3M.

While that means nothing to the Pistons by itself, the knock-on effect is the qualifying offer that will be set for Bagley this summer. Before we get into that amount, let's discuss the “starter criteria.”

Starter criteria, relating to restricted free agency, is arbitrarily set at starting 41 games OR playing 2000 minutes across a season. For a player drafted with picks 1-14 (as is Bagley’s case), if they do not meet the starter criteria, their qualifying offer can be no larger than the applicable qualifying offer of the 15th pick in their draft class.

The 15th pick in Bagley’s draft is Troy Brown Jr of the Bulls, with a qualifying offer of $7.2 milion, setting Bagley’s floor. Bagley’s qualifying offer if he were to fulfil that criteria would be $14.7 million, over double that amount.

Bagley has started 17 games this season and only played 656 minutes, making him unlikely to fulfil either one of the criteria to qualify for his full qualifying offer, barring a drastic change in circumstances, so let’s assume Bagley’s QO will be that $7.2 million.

Qualifying offers, as I’m sure I don’t need to explain, are the retention mechanism in the CBA to allow teams a right of first refusal on restricted free agents. Players with a qualifying offer are under indirect control from their team in that, if they sign with another team in free agency, the team that has presented the qualifying offer has the chance to then match the offer.

Qualifying offers, therefore, count against the cap, as they are still actual contracts if they’re signed, and are pseudo-offers. Rarely does a player end up signing one, but it has happened in Detroit before (Greg Monroe). Of course, a team can choose to rescind their qualifying offer to a player, but doing so converts them into an unrestricted free agent.

As you can see above, the Pistons are projected, right now, if my maths are correct, to have just over $34 million in space available, so once you factor in the cap hold for Bagley’s qualifying offer, it’s down to a meagre $27 million, veritable chump change in the modern NBA (sarcasm).

If I was a betting man (and I am), I’d wager that Troy Weaver has absolutely made it clear to Dwane Casey where Bagley stands in terms of meeting his starter criteria and to ensure he does not exceed it (not that I think Bagley was going to play bulk minutes anyway). His heavily-reduced qualifying offer shouldn’t inhibit the Pistons too much in whatever they want to do this offseason, and chase whatever big fish they chase. I’m equally sure Weaver made it clear to Bagley’s reps that he was acquired with a legitimate shot to stick with the Pistons on a new multi-year deal regardless of his workload for the rest of the season.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Value In Keeping Jerami Grant’s Contract

I can’t claim the point I’m about to expound on but I saw it while scrolling the Twittersphere post-deadline and thought it was very pertinent so it gets bandwidth. I tried to find the original tweet but I forget who it was from, so if you’re reading this I apologise, feel free to DM me abuse on Twitter.

Jerami Grant becomes a $20.9 million expiring contract in the offseason, which by itself is still a useful trade chip, but if you’ll allow me to indulge for two seconds. Rumours have placed the Pistons next to some rather notable names in the upcoming free agency period (DeAndre Ayton, Miles Bridges, Jalen Brunson). While Brunson is an unrestricted free agent, the other two are restricted, and as we all know, prying away a restricted free agent is damn near impossible.

The value of Grant in this scenario comes in the form of an admittedly-unlikely sign-and-trade, but I’m hesitant to exclude any eventuality in Troy Weaver’s tenure. Common convention is that Charlotte will probably match an offer for Miles Bridges, but with decent money committed to Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward and Kelly Oubre, plus the looming LaMelo Ball extension, why not force their hand with a monster offer sheet for the Flint native?

Charlotte won’t let him go quietly, and that’s where a sign-and-trade for Grant and other filler (Olynyk, Diallo, CoJo etc) comes into play to make it more palatable for the team on the other end of the call.

Again, that’s a fairly unlikely scenario, and I get the frustration at keeping Grant around past this deadline if you believe there were offers out there worth exploring. But pivoting from getting nothing at the deadline to this, it’s one way for the Pistons to create $20 million of space without actually having $20 million of space, regardless of who you use it on, Bridges or otherwise.

Detroit Pistons v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dead Cap

That dead cap figure is horrendous, but it clears so deep breaths.

The obvious boon is the removal of the ugly $29.8 million in dead cap for Blake Griffin’s contract, which makes up almost two-thirds of the dead cap figure this season. Also gone are Deividas Sirvydis’ old contract, and former money tied up in Cory Joseph.

The Dedmon and Jordan figures are an annoyance, and that’s $10 million the Pistons could really afford to use elsewhere, so that’s my one main criticism of Troy Weaver so far. I’m not sure if gaining those second-round picks to eat Jordan’s contract was an equal value sacrifice, especially as you’re effectively giving up a value equivalent to a mid-level exception and bi-annual exception combined.

Other Notes

Next year looks set to be a transitionary year for the cap, as the Pistons manoeuvre into working their money into more long-term commitments. As mentioned, the dead cap figure above is ugly, but that’s somewhat offset by the very friendly contract values of Hamidou Diallo and Frank Jackson, who are both bound by a team option for a combined value of less than $8.5 million.

Longer term, the Pistons are still a couple of years away from any sort of serious decisions re: rookie extensions, with the class of 2020 only becoming eligible for their post rookie extensions next offseason anyway, and still three years away from counting on the cap anyway.

Depending on what happens this offseason re: Jerami and free agency, there’s a bucketload of flexibility in the near future for the Pistons. They have no long-term commitments outside of their rookie/sophomore class, and Kelly Olynyk’s third-year money is only partially guaranteed for $3 million anyway (although I’m sick of eating small amounts of dead cap, thanks Troy).

Just one last thing to remember when projecting is that the $34 million in projected cap space is a bit of a mirage for a couple of reasons. Like I said above, Bagley’s qualifying offer of likely $7.2 million counts against it, but this team will also be adding another high draft pick with a salary similar to Cade Cunningham’s.

Of course, the draft pick and Bagley can both be signed after other moves are done to go over the cap, but what looks like $34 million in space now can very quickly turn into squeezing around exceptions and minimums.

Still, this team is looking very financially fit and flexible this offseason and beyond, so now begins the true test of Troy Weaver’s abacus, as he transforms this lean cap sheet into a formidable contender. That takes time, and a lot of money.