With the regular season complete and the postseason in full swing, we are now one step closer to the offseason festivities — at least as far as the Detroit Pistons are concerned. The NBA Draft figures to be the most important event on the calendar, but just as important is what direction Troy Weaver takes in free agency. Free agency decisions are what can make or break your tenure in charge (just ask Joe Dumars or Stan Van Gundy).
Following a third consecutive 20-win season (second with Weaver in office), will Detroit look to bolster the roster for a playoff push? Does Tom Gores push for a win-now trade? Or will the front office focus again on restoring and prioritizing development and minutes for young players, which leads to the kind of losses that could mean attaining five-star French prospect Victor Wembanyama?
Entering his third year as general manager, and with a projected $26 million in cap space, Weaver has the ammunition to chase some of the top free agents this summer. The first decision will be whether or not the team decides to re-sign Marvin Bagley III. The four-year big was attained at the deadline and played a major role in the team playing 10-14 post the All-Star break. Who Detroit selects in the draft will also be a determining factor in which free agents they target.
For this particular piece, I decided to shine a light on four realistic restricted free agents I could see Detroit offering contracts. Restricted free agents present opportunity and risk for teams. Their restricted status means their original club has the right to match any offer, and they have two days to match. Two days is an eternity during the madness of NBA free agency and most teams opt not to tie their hands and risk coming away with nothing.
The advantage is for teams who opt to take the risk, the market is suppressed and there isn’t as much of a bidding war. But the team better be confident the original club won’t match the offer.
1. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
2021-2022 Stats: 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals & 0.7 blocks
When it comes to listing the archetypal rim running, high-flying, ‘jumpy-jump’, ‘insert verb here’ big-men in the league, the 7-foot-1 Ayton towers amongst the pack. In his fourth season as a pro, the former Arizona Wildcat packaged his versatile offensive skill-set with supreme efficiency. He scored 17.1 points a night on an absurd 65.6 TS%. Such efficiency registered Ayton with the 2nd highest true shooting percentage in the league, trailing only MVP candidate Nikola Jokic (amongst those attempting at least 10 field goals).
While the vast majority of the fourth-year big’s buckets came at the rim, he made great strides as a mid-range scorer. Per Cleaning the Glass, Ayton shot 56% on looks from 4-20 feet, placing him in the 94th percentile amongst bigs. Part of the appeal with Ayton dating back to his days at Arizona is his ability to terrorize defenses with his brute strength while also having the means to gracefully shoot over his opponent with a silky smooth jumper.
Transitioning to the other end of the court, at 7-foot-1, Ayton naturally provides high-level paint protection. He held opponents to 5.9 percentage points less than expected when shooting within 6 feet of the bucket. While the raw block numbers indicate a lower level of rim protection, Ayton ranked 7th in the league for shot contests per game.
The final, and perhaps most appealing, aspect of Ayton’s defensive profile is his versatility as a pick-and-roll defender. Per Synergy Sports, pick-and-roll ball-handlers scored a lowly 0.759 points per possession (37.5 FG%) when Ayton was the opposing big. While some of the defensive success is attributed to the Suns’ glut of perimeter defenders, the 23-year-old’s ability to effectively show, switch or drop in the pick and roll provides a bevy of defensive options.
In a vacuum, Ayton is an ideal combination of what Isaiah Stewart and Marvin Bagley III offer separately: a lob threat, ‘switchability’ on defense, rim protection and an inside scoring presence. We’ve seen Cade Cunningham thrive in a half-court offense that features such attributes. If Detroit misses out on a top-3 lottery pick, Ayton supplies the roster with the perfect five-man to complement the skills of the franchise’s centre-piece.
2. Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-2022 Stats: 16.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals & 0.0 blocks
Year four was a forgettable one for Collin Sexton as the former Alabama product appeared in only 11 games prior to rupturing a meniscus tendon. Unsurprisingly, the left knee injury sidelined the ‘Young Bull’ for the remainder of the 2021-22 season. While the limited action will no doubt impact Sexton’s value on the open market, in many ways the combo-guard is a finished product.
Sexton’s style is a divisive topic amongst NBA circles. Fans either love what he brings to the table or grimace at the thought of the 23-year-old donning their team's colors. Detractors will claim he’s too short, too ball-dominant, and can’t reliably shoot from the perimeter.
There is truth there, but Sexton does one thing extremely well, he puts the ball through the basket. Prior to his injury-riddled fourth season, the Georgia native increased his scoring average by four points in each of his first three campaigns. At the conclusion of year three, Sexton boasted a scoring average 24.3 points on shooting splits of .475/.371/.815. Additionally, Sexton has made great strides as a three-point shooter, converting on 38.5% (3.9 attempts) through his first few seasons.
Following a successful freshman campaign at the University of Alabama, Sexton was lauded for his on-ball defense. Although under-sized, Sexton has a nice blend of strength and quickness, allowing him to contain ball handlers. When he’s locked in on the defensive end, the 23-year-old is capable of disrupting passing lanes for ‘pick-6’ transition buckets.
In his brief career, playing on mostly losing teams, Sexton has yet to show he’s physically and mentally willing to play defense through a gruelling 82-game season. It also doesn’t help he’s often played out of position on defense, due to playing alongside Darius Garland.
In Detroit, Sexton would be flanked by the bigger Cunningham on defense and his play-making limitations wouldn’t be as great a concern. Sexton could focus purely on scoring and providing solid perimeter defense. While the size will always be a concern, in today’s NBA great offense will always trump great defense. And the Pistons have been desperate for offensive punch for quite some time.
With Cleveland clearly belonging to Darius Garland (and Evan Mobley), moving off of Sexton makes sense for both the Cavs and the young player. If the price is right, Sexton could be a valuable piece to this iteration of the Pistons.
3. Lonnie Walker IV, San Antonio Spurs
2021-2022 Stats: 12.1 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.6 steals & 0.3 blocks
Four years into his NBA career, Walker has shown glimpses of an ultra-dynamic scoring wing. Standing at 6-foot-5 with a broad frame, the former Miami Hurricane is blessed with the ability to jump out of the gym. He’s also got the skill to match his physical profile, showing promise as a three-level scorer in his 208 career games. Not to mention his lengthy highlight reel of high-flying finishes at the cup.
Whilst he’s shown steady improvement as a scorer in his brief career, the 23-year-old has struggled to string together consistent performances throughout an 82-game season, particularly from the three-point line. This season the bouncy-wing shot an uninspiring 31.4% on five tries a game from distance. However, he did show improvement as a corner shooter, hitting 39% of such looks.
It should come as no surprise that the athletic Walker is at his best when attacking downhill. His explosive first step often provides him with a runway directly to the hoop. The acceleration, plus his tight handle, makes him a nightmare to defend in the pick and roll. Per Synergy, Walker ranks in the 75th percentile for scoring as the pick and roll ball handler.
On defense, Walker relies on his athleticism to help make up for his miscues, particularly when navigating screens. In the film I studied, he often guarded corner shooters and rarely was located as the point of attack defender. Per Cleaning the Glass, the San Antonio Spurs allowed an additional 4.9 points per 100 possessions when Walker was on the floor. However, while there is plenty of room for improvement as a defender, Lonnie Walker IV can still be moulded into a disruptive defender with his 6-foot-5 frame and 6-foot-10 wingspan.
With Detroit, Walker could thrive as Cade Cunningham’s back-court partner. The 23-year-old would benefit greatly from Cunningham’s space creation providing him with open catch-and-shoot looks, something he wasn’t privy to with the Spurs.
4. Nic Claxton, Brooklyn Nets
2021-2022 Stats: 8.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 0.5 steals & 1.1 blocks
In his third season as a pro, the 23-year-old Claxton put up career-highs in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. Though, much like his Brooklyn Nets as a whole, Claxton’s year has been full of inconsistencies. The former Georgia Bulldog suited up in only 47 regular-season games as he dealt with a variety of injuries, one after another. Unfortunately, availability has been Claxton’s Achilles heel to this point of his young career, registering minutes in 94 of a possible 219 regular-season outings.
While the injuries are cause for concern, when he’s able to suit up, Claxton is a dynamic athlete at 6-foot-11. The South Carolina native is blessed with supreme foot speed for a man of his size, providing him the ability to seamlessly glide around the court. These physical attributes allow him to cover immense ground when guarding the pick and roll, simultaneously instilling pressure on the ball handler, while also maintaining a safe distance from the roll man. Hence, it should come as no surprise the rangy big held opponents to 52% shooting within 6 feet of the rim, an impressive 11.0 percentage points less than the league average.
On offense, Claxton’s role is best described in three words; elite garbage man. To score, the 23-year-old has to create opportunities for himself by way of; tip-ins, catching lobs, sprinting in transition or cutting to the hoop. Per Synergy Sports, Claxton ranks within the 72nd percentile or higher for scores generated off; basket-cuts, put-backs and transition. Claxton is the ultimate opportunist in the dunkers spot, his cat-like reflexes and lanky 6-foot-11 frame, provide for a vast catch window on lob opportunities.
If Detroit decides to move on from Marvin Bagley III this summer, Claxton serves as an adequate replacement off the bench. Unlike the aforementioned Ayton, Claxton’s role on the team would not be detrimental to the development of a top-3 selection in this year’s NBA Draft.
Finally, I wanted to flag that both; Miles Bridges and Anfernee Simons were close to making this list. However, after having break-out seasons, it seemed unfathomable that their respective franchises would allow them to walk in free agency.
The decisions made this summer are arguably more crucial than the previous, and if I have one piece of advice it would be; expect the unexpected, nothing is out of the question with Troy Weaver.