Blueprint Trade

Pistons deal Prince, get Calderon in swap that expands future leverage

Jose Calderon
The Pistons acquired Jose Calderon via trade Wednesday night.
Noah Graham (NBAE/Getty)
For the parameters of a trade that serves the Pistons’ interests – now and in the future – this makes perfect sense. This deal – saying a fond goodbye to Tayshaun Prince, who forever carries the luster of the 2004 NBA championship, and Austin Daye for Toronto point guard Jose Calderon as part of a larger deal that lands Memphis’ Rudy Gay in Toronto – does what Joe Dumars has maintained would be the only type he’d consider.

A deal that might or might not move the needle dramatically in the here and now – though Calderon’s tantalizing playmaking skills fill an obvious void – but one that nudges open the door to the future that much wider.

That was the blueprint. The Pistons made their commitment to this path clear with last June’s trade of Ben Gordon for Corey Maggette, dealing their largest contract – one that ran two seasons – for Maggette’s expiring deal. This trade is the next logical step. The numbers are a little fuzzy, but the Pistons could have conceivably gone into July free agency as much as about $25 million under the cap before this trade; now, they could push that number to about $33 million.

That gives them flexibility and leverage. And it’s a good summer to be armed with cap space – less for the names on the free-agent marquee than for the timing relative to the collective bargaining agreement that grew out of the 2011 lockout.

The fine print on the CBA imposes escalating penalties for teams over the tax line, so many organizations are scrambling to get under it. You want dramatic proof? Look at the other side of this trade. Memphis, by most accounts, is a legitimate title contender – not a front-runner, perhaps, like Miami or Oklahoma City, but in that next tier, or right about where the Pistons were when they picked up Rasheed Wallace nearly nine years ago. How did that turn out?

If players of Gay’s ilk – not bona fide superstars, perhaps, but impact players, borderline All-Stars – are being dumped during the season by teams in the title hunt, it’s fair to extrapolate that similar players will be on the market come July.

A word about Prince: If Rasheed Wallace was the final piece of the 2004 title drive – and the subsequent exhilarating runs, including a near-repeat in 2005 – Prince was just as integral to the finished product for the way he fit.

He had the unique ability to be whatever the Pistons needed him to be on a given night. Everybody else had clearly defined roles. Prince? He was the amorphous one – ace defender, post-up small forward, facilitator, rebounder when you needed that, rim finisher, 3-point shooter.

This is about as soft a landing spot for the longest-tenured Pistons as it could be. The rebuilding years were tough on him. He watched all of those other players fall away – first Ben Wallace, then Chauncey, then Rasheed and finally Rip, the exodus leavened only a bit with Big Ben’s three-season return – and endured seasons he’d never known. Think about this: He was a rookie in 2002-03 and the Pistons went to the Eastern Conference finals. And each of his first six seasons stretched that long or longer.

The Pistons will miss him. But their offense gets more dynamic with Calderon, who even while splitting point guard duties with Kyle Lowry in Toronto still averages 7.4 assists per game – which would lead the Pistons by a healthy margin.

His setup ability should help everyone get the ball in their sweet spots. He takes care of the basketball impeccably, averaging under two turnovers a game – an important consideration for a team that has leaned on young players like Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight for much of the ballhandling chores and suffers from turnovers in bunches. He shoots with deadly efficiency – 47 percent overall, 43 percent from the 3-point arc and 90 percent at the foul line. That last one also comes into play late in games when the Pistons, near the bottom of the NBA in foul shooting, are trying to protect leads.

At 31, given his shooting accuracy and his uncanny basketball IQ, Calderon figures to have several good years ahead of him. The Pistons get nearly half a season to gauge whether it makes sense for those years to be spent here.

Don’t rule that out. The salary cap implications were huge for the Pistons, but they weren’t nearly as central to the motivation in this case as the Gordon-Maggette deal. The Pistons came close to landing Calderon a few years ago. They’ve long had interest in him. Lawrence Frank, when the Pistons were in Toronto last month, raved about Calderon’s ability to orchestra an offense, his basketball IQ and his competitiveness.

Sure, this trade was about the future, the next logical step in executing their blueprint. But it also puts the Pistons that much closer to the day when trades are motivated by the present. That door was nudged open a little wider by this deal, too.