Pistons Mailbag - June 6, 2018

by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Another week, another Pistons Mailbag. This one delves into the Pistons search for a new coach and general manager, as well as a look at their cap situation – which is strikingly similar to that of more than two-thirds of NBA teams as free agency’s start approaches.

Leighton (@LeightonChappe1): Can you explain the Pistons cap situation? Are they hard capped through the entire summer/off-season? And if they are not, why is it said that they lack flexibility?

Langlois: No, the league starts a new business cycle on July 1. The Pistons will be over the salary cap but under the luxury tax line. They’ll have the mid-level exception available to them. Using it all would risk going over the tax line, so they’ll be prudent. As to why it’s said they lack flexibility, I guess that would be the reason – they’re over the cap. They won’t be going after the top-tier free agents. But there’s a flip side to having no cap space because you have so many players under contract – the ability to use any of those contracts to match salary slots with 29 other rosters to facilitate trades. In that sense, the Pistons have tremendous flexibility. If I had to guess, I’d say the most significant off-season additions would come via trade rather than free agency, though it’s certainly possible they find a rotation-worthy player with whatever part of the MLE they wind up using.

Lenon (Detroit): If the Pistons are ready to win now, why are they interviewing so many candidates without a proven NBA winning record? Doesn’t make sense.

Langlois: You know a lot of out-of-work coaches with a proven winning NBA record? Mike Budenholzer was unemployed for about a minute before Milwaukee hired him and he’s coming off a 24-win season. Dwane Casey was fired after being voted Coach of the Year by his peers – not the official award – and has been reported as being a finalist, if not the frontrunner, to succeed Stan Van Gundy. The other reported candidates after several reported interviews are John Beilein and Ime Udoka. That’s a pretty impressive cross-section – Beilein an acknowledged offensive guru with an impressive record of player development and Udoka acknowledged for quite some time already as a future NBA head coach who had a reputation as being a great and insightful teammate during his playing days, his reputation now burnished by spending six years under Gregg Popovich. Those are three extremely strong candidates.

Aidan Summer League (@arashap69): Which likely head coach candidate is the best fit for the Pistons, both in terms of culture and personnel?

Langlois: That’s the $64 million question, isn’t it? Picking up on the answer to the previous question – and making the assumption that reports that Casey, Udoka and Beilein are the leading candidates – they all bring something to the table. Casey, perhaps, is the surest thing given his long history as a successful NBA head coach. Beilein has no NBA experience but has two overwhelmingly strong qualities – he’s been ahead of the curve as an offensive innovator for years and his record of player development, an increasingly valued quality in NBA circles, is top of the charts – in his favor. Udoka is the least known quantity, but the full expectation is that he’ll be great at handling players and creating a positive environment.

Josh (@sipologyblog): Any chance the Pistons would interview Chauncey Billups for the GM or coach position?

Langlois: It seems they’ve cast a wide net. Billups has not been a name linked to them so far, but it doesn’t mean he hasn’t been considered or remain a possibility – for the front office, since Billups has long been adamant that he has zero interest in coaching. Tayshaun Prince has been linked to them for a potential role in the front office based on his Pistons roots and, more prominently, his ties to Ed Stefanski from their time together in the Memphis front office.

Charles (Redford, Mich.): Dan Gilbert is not selling the Cavaliers, but even so they’re not going to get past the Celtics. Without landing Paul George, the Lakers aren’t far enough along. But you have the modern-day Magic and Kareem all ready to go in Philadelphia. Can I get a Worthy? LeBron James could fill that spot for maybe another 10 years. As he gets older those kids will be able to carry him to more championships. What are your thoughts?

Langlois: I would wager a bet that not even LeBron could give you an answer to that at this point. Does it make sense? It might well turn out to be his best option in a year where there’s no apparent landing spot for him that would put him in better position to challenge Golden State’s reign. But he’s LeBron James. If he expresses an interest in going to any of the 28 other NBA franchises – we’ll assume even Golden State wouldn’t tear up its roster for the chance to add him – I suspect that front office would do whatever necessary to make it happen. But another 10 years? He’s 33 now and has played nearly 1,400 games between regular season and playoffs. Father Time remains undefeated. It’s remarkable that LeBron hasn’t yet begun a career descent, but expecting another 10 years – of anything close to his historic production, at least – is overestimating by … double? Maybe another three to five years as a dominant player, which would still be uncharted waters.

Chocolate Cowboy (@Antonio_moore78): What stars will be targeted in free agency?

Langlois: You might need to adjust your expectations, Cowboy. The Pistons – like about three-quarters of NBA teams, won’t have cap space this summer. The spending spree of 2016 – the year the cap jumped from $70 million to $94 million – saw most teams make a splash and subsequently limit their cap space for the next few summers. The Pistons – barring some major moves to shed salary – won’t have cap space until the summer of 2020. The flip side of that is they have a whopping 12 players under contract for next season who at one point last season held a spot in the rotation. Here’s what Ed Stefanski, senior adviser to Tom Gores, told me last week about the free-agent outlook for the Pistons: “It’s not a situation where July 1 is a huge date because we don’t have a lot of money. We wait and see the players that are available for the money we have. … We’re not a player, really, in free agency but in any free-agency period you’ll be surprised after the A guys go off the board and money gets tight, I believe some good players are out there and hopefully we can get them with the amount of money we have left.” The priority, almost certainly, will be at small forward. The Pistons could just as easily plug that hole – only Stanley Johnson on the current roster is a natural small forward – via the trade route. Having so many players under contract gives the Pistons a lot of trade possibilities to match contracts with the many other teams without cap space and looking to fill roster needs via means other than free agency. The Pistons have the mid-level exception at their disposal as their most attractive tool to acquire players other than trade.

King Mo (@Gimme_SomeMo_): Can you explain what a GM is supposed to do with such a bad cap situation? It seems like Stan Van Gundy really messed it up. Where is the flexibility?

Langlois: The most credible criticism of Van Gundy’s regime was the tendency to strike quickly in free agency on mid-tier free agents. Van Gundy’s theory was to act decisively at a point where many teams were occupied chasing bigger fish and others were waiting for the market to cool to find bargains so that the Pistons could get their preferred realistic targets. It worked very well in the cases of Aron Baynes and Ish Smith. The deal for Jon Leuer – signed in the crazy summer of 2016 when the cap spiked – looks less appealing at about $42 million over four years, though Leuer played very well for the first two-thirds of 2016-17, tailed off and then got hurt eight games into last season. (Seriously, go look at the contracts that signed that summer for the likes of Timofey Mozgov, Meyers Leonard, Bismack Biyombo, Ian Mahinmi, Evan Turner, et al. Compare Leuer’s deal to Leonard’s – virtually the same contract – and consider that Leonard has averaged 5.4 and 3.4 points a game the past two seasons.) Langston Galloway finished last season No. 3 on the depth chart at shooting guard behind Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard after signing a three-year deal for $21 million. Van Gundy clearly didn’t like the results with Galloway at point guard, but maybe he’ll fit better there under a different coach and system; Galloway actually played more point guard in his first three years in the league. As for your larger point, though, teams are never far away from a reset in today’s NBA where contracts have been reduced in term by a few factors: one, the maximum term is four and five years, four for signing free agents from other teams and five for retaining your own, whereas at one time they were six- and seven-year terms; two, players are more and more betting on themselves by requesting shorter deals, often three years with early-termination options after two. The Pistons won’t have cap space this summer and don’t project to have any next summer, but things can change via trades and every summer more salaries drop off the cap. More than 20 teams won’t have cap space this summer, so, as you asked, what’s a GM to do? Get on the phone and talk trade with those 20-plus teams. And many of the teams that have cap space also have plenty of open roster spots, another potential target for trade talks.

I Like Nice Collars (@brgulker): Do you miss Boban the movie star as much as I do?

Langlois: Boban’s one of the very few people you meet over a lifetime who puts a smile on your face just at the sight of him. It’s either brilliant casting or a complete whiff to cast Boban as a master assassin in “John Wick: Chapter 3.” Casting Boban as an assassin would be like casting Stormy Daniels as Sister Bertrille.

Quise (@OfficiallyQuise): Aren’t the Pistons setting themselves up for failure by hiring a coach before a GM?

Langlois: You’re kind of ignoring the fact that they have Ed Stefanski in place. His title is senior adviser, he reports directly to Tom Gores and the team announced that he has a three-year contract. That sounds an awful lot like the head of basketball operations to me. So Stefanski is leading the search for a coach and a general manager (or whatever they wind up labeling the position), which is about as close as you can get to ensuring that those two positions will be on the same page. Gores went with a more traditional model that he inherited upon buying the Pistons, then unified the coach and president roles when he saw a weakness in the traditional model, and now he’s going in another direction. By hiring Stefanski to oversee both searches, he’s doing what he can to ingrain a unity of purpose between the coaching and front office sides. They’re only setting themselves up for failure by hiring the coach first if they then hire a GM with a fundamentally different vision of the direction the franchise should take. And why would they do that?

Patrick (@Patrick_J_B13): Are the Pistons really going to hire a coach before a GM? If so, does this essentially mean Ed Stefanski has anointed himself de facto GM and we are looking at a pool of uninspiring candidates as many of the good ones (Battier, Rosas) have already dropped out?

Langlois: Anointed himself? It’s Tom Gores’ team. He hired Stefanski – after a six-hour interview – and named him senior adviser, reporting directly to Gores, and empowered him to conduct the searches for a coach and a GM. Everything we know about how Stefanski has been empowered and the length of his contract suggests he’s the de facto head of basketball operations as appointed by Gores, not himself. As I wrote above, that is the unifying force in the coordination of the coach and GM roles.

Jordan (@M15terBiscuit): Likelihood of Blake being traded on draft night? I’d like to see the Pistons get a nice pick back?

Langlois: Blake Griffin is scheduled to make $32 million next season. There are two teams in the entire NBA anticipated to have $32 million or more in cap space, Indiana and the Lakers. The Pacers have the 23rd pick and the Lakers have the 25th pick. See anything there that excites you? The likelihood of Griffin being traded on draft night is … tiny. Ownership signed off – enthusiastically, by all accounts, including Tom Gores’ – on acquiring Griffin in late January. A new management team might view the deal differently, of course, but even if that’s the case it would be a monumental upset if a new management team hit the ground running by suggesting to ownership it made the wrong choice a few months ago. And, even if you accept that as a possibility, it’s still a tall order to get a trade like that done on draft night before the cap resets on July 1 and teams have more maneuverability with regard to their rosters.

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