Tayshaun Prince and Jose Calderon had bigger names – and they weren’t even the driving force behind the deal that Joe Dumars executed late last month. That three-team trade – technically, two separate two-team trades – was driven by Toronto’s desire to land a go-to scorer and Memphis’ equally strong motivation to pare down a payroll already bloated at the top by hefty payouts to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
So if you were emotionally deflated by the Pistons’ inactivity at Thursday’s 3 p.m. deadline, let that January deal be instructive. It’s sort of the blueprint for what will be possible, on a grander scale, this summer.
To wit, when teams hunting big game go on the prowl, the obstacles to complete a trade can become so daunting that they need help greasing the wheels. That’s where the Pistons – and the considerable cap space that Joe D began hoarding with last June’s trade that sent Ben Gordon to Charlotte – come in. That’s where the Pistons can pick up a player or two every bit as attractive to them as Calderon was a few weeks ago. That and the desperation of teams looking to dodge the increasingly punitive tax consequences about to take effect next season.
It’s unclear exactly how much cap space the Pistons will have when July 1 rolls around, but $25 million is a pretty safe starting point. It could go higher – significantly higher, even – if the Pistons make a few moves at their disposal and depending on where the cap number is set. Nobody will know that until the early days of July, when the league closes the fiscal books on 2012-13 and runs the numbers. But there is speculation it might take a nice jump from the $58 million it’s been the past two seasons.
Every dollar increases the Pistons’ options. It’s conceivable they could have enough latitude to cover two maximum contracts, though the chances of them lavishing that type of money on anyone but a Hall of Fame talent is negligible. But before they rush to the market to spend their money – long before – they’ll have plotted their course with an eye toward the future and what it will take to sign Greg Monroe and, behind him, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond for the long haul.
That has nothing to do with being cheap or unwilling to pay what it takes to field a contender and everything to do with prudence and doing what it takes to ensure being able to maintain a contending roster once it’s assembled.
This goes back not just to last June’s Gordon-Corey Maggette trade but to the moment the 2011 lockout ended and Joe D reached out to hire Ken Catanella from the NBA league offices. Catanella, the league’s point man when it came to running the numbers on proposals forwarded by the players during collective bargaining, is focused on exactly the sort of long-term planning required to make sure teams consider every conceivable option and commit their precious cap space as judiciously as possible.
Dumars saw this coming, the new CBA and how it was going to change the landscape, and deemed it necessary to have an in-house expert on board. Part of Catanella’s job is to present Joe D with that multitude of conceivable options and to have ready answers for questions whose answers must be found in the complex navigation of the CBA.
Free agency doesn’t start until July 1 and hard decisions are best put off until they need to be made. But rest assured that Dumars, assistant GM George David and Catanella spend big chunks of every day preparing for the off-season ahead. They’ve known for many months – dating back to last July, at least – what players were headed for free agency. All the time Joe D spends talking to his peers on a daily basis contribute to the information stream that will pool up and inform all of those decisions to be made in July.
All off-seasons are important, of course, for the opportunity they provide an organization to make incremental gains in the season ahead. But some are more important than others. This will be one of those off-seasons for the Pistons, the kind that comes around once every four, five or six years.
Dumars and his staff have done great work laying a foundation by shrewd drafting over the last six drafts, really, dating to 2007 when they took Rodney Stuckey with the 15th pick. Over their three trips to the lottery, they’ve landed foundational pieces in Greg Monroe, Brandon Knight and Andre Drummond.
Those drafts make possible the off-season ahead. That will be a far, far more critical time than the Thursday trade deadline that passed with J.J. Redick on the NBA marquee.