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Top 5 free agent signings in Detroit Pistons history

The Pistons might have one of the worst free agent track records in the NBA, but they also managed perhaps the best value signing in NBA history

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics, Game 1 Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images

It has been a sleepy offseason for the Detroit Pistons. They entered July with one of the largest free agency war chests in the NBA and plenty of holes to fill after a 17-win season. They subsequently signed zero free agents.

A cursory dive into the team’s history indicates they have not gone an entire offseason without adding someone to the 15-man roster via free agency since unrestricted free agency began in 1988. This team could make history. But the boring kind.


Instead of opting for the “winner’s curse” — aka outbidding everyone for a player and subsequently finding out the only way to actually do that is to overpay and not get value in return — the Pistons decided, as they have done in the past, is to do most of their shopping on the trade market.

They traded for Joe Harris, the veteran sharp shooter from the Brooklyn Nets, and Monte Morris, the point guard and Michigan native who is also one of the NBA’s best at taking care of the basketball while also facilitating the offense.

That got me wondering. What are the biggest success stories in Detroit free agency history?

Detroit Pistons Chauncey Billups, 2005 NBA Playoffs SetNumber: X73591 TK1

1. Chauncey Billups

I can tell you who tops that list without a moment’s hesitation — Chauncey Billups.

Mr. Big Shot came to Detroit, and earned his moniker, after a couple successful seasons in Minnesota after spending years as a well-traveled top-3 disappointment on various teams.

The Pistons signed Billups to a five-year, $35 million contract in 2002. The deal ended up being the best-value contract in NBA history.

Billups delivered All-Star appearances, an NBA Finals MVP and, of course, an NBA Title to Detroit. He was also, I would argue, the best point guard in the NBA from 2002-2010. He was the ultra efficient dream of a point guard before NBA fans really understood the value of that efficiency.

He only shot 42% from the field in his time in Detroit, and the Pistons played at a dreadfully dull pace, but his true shooting percentage was 59.3%, which was second in that span to Steve Nash. That was thanks to his nearly 40% shooting from deep and 89% shooting from the free-throw line. He got to the charity stripe 1,500 more times than Nash in that span. He also, of course, played much better defense.

He, along with Ben Wallace, were the superstars nobody can seem to admit were superstars during Detroit’s Going to Work era. And it all started with a full mid-level exception contract that most of the NBA could have signed him to if they only saw what lied ahead.

Detroit Pistons v Phoenix Suns Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

2. Antonio McDyess

There is, to put it simply, a steep drop off after Billups. Considering play on the floor, team success, and popularity among fans, it is hard to argue that the second best free agent signing was Antonio McDyess.

He was signed in the latter half of Detroit’s competitive era in the early 2000s, and damn if he didn’t deserve a title that Detroit could never quite deliver for him. After injuries rob him of explosive athleticism, McDyess rebuilt his game as a savvy, hard-working pick-and-pop master.

He played five seasons in Detroit, including years of 77, 82, 82 and 78 games, which is pretty amazing after a knee injury nearly ended his career. He averaged just 8.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per game in Detroit, mostly serving as the team’s sixth man and often in closing lineups.

He was impossible not to root for and, hilariously enough considering how nice he was, got ejected in his first game playing for the Pistons after kicking a ball into the stands after a foul call.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Bullets

3. M.L. Carr

The Pistons signed M.L. Carr out of the ABA in 1976. Carr is most well known for being a reserve on a pair of title-winning Celtics teams, but he had three solid seasons with the Pistons before moving on to Beantown. He averaged a career-high 18.7 points per game in his final year in Detroit while being one of the better rebounding and defending wings in the NBA, including a league-best 2.5 steals per game.

Carr also ended up being part of one of the worst trades in franchise history, but I guess that is a story for another day.

Terry Mills

4. Terry Mills

Mills was a stretch big before it was cool and he was ... fine, I guess. He was most effective in a sixth man role, and he was averaging about 40% shooting from deep, including a season of 7.5 attempts per 36 minutes in his final season in Detroit. Not bad for a player who split his time at the two big man positions — especially for the 90s era of NBA basketball.

But he also never really got to the line, never scored inside, was a poor rebounder for his position, and was a bad defender. He played in the bridge era of Pistons basketball between the Bad Boys and the Going to Work eras. The time of Doug Collins (fired halfway into the season after Mills left Detroit) and Otis Thorpe and Theo Ratliff.

Hold on, I need to lie down for a bit.

Milwaukee Bucks v Detroit Pistons - Game Four Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

5. Ish Smith

Because no names were immediately coming to mind, I turned to good old basketball-reference to scour Detroit’s history. If you rank the players by win shares, the next free agents on the list are Bison Dele and Ish Smith with 9.3 and 9.1 win shares, respectively. That also ranks them 42nd and 43rd in franchise history, if you’re curious.

Dele made his mark in many fewer games than Smith, but I opted for Smith for a few reasons. Dele was a great, enigmatic player, but he retired early, created bad feelings among the fan base after walking away from a huge contract, and he died tragically.

Smith, on the other hand, is like the quintessential free agency success story. Smith bounced around the league, playing for a record 13 NBA teams. He also is coming off his first NBA title at the ripe age of 34 with the Denver Nuggets.

But he got his first real shot in Detroit. He signed a three-year, $18 million deal in 2016. His 219 games for Detroit are the most he’s played for any team in his 13-year career. In his first six seasons he made about $6 million total. Then in his seventh with Detroit he made $6 million in year 1. Hell yeah. He also delivered everything Detroit could have asked of him. He was a good player, a great teammate, and somehow an even better person outside the arena. He deserved great things and it really all started in Detroit.

What do you think of the list? Who is missing? What context am I getting wrong? Will the Pistons actually sign a free agent before this season begins?