Casey’s reputation, roster stability will be Pistons calling cards in free agency

Dwane Casey’s reputation for using his bench and building trusting relationships with players will be a plus for the Pistons in free agency
Gregory Shamus (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The draft is over and there’s a week left before the Pistons move their operations to Las Vegas for their first Summer League venture outside of Orlando since 2010.

Oh, also a week before the start of free agency. That would usually get first billing, but the Pistons are likely to sit out the first wave as the handful of teams with meaningful cap space bid for the top players on their boards. That doesn’t mean the Pistons necessarily should have depressed expectations for what they can accomplish in free agency.

Once the dust settles – and only capped-out teams are left to do the bidding – there are always good players to be had on below-market deals. The Pistons could be in a more advantageous spot than a lot of teams for a few reasons.

Most of the league is still feeling the effects of the 2016 spending splurge as the cap spiked with money from the new TV deals flooding the market. Everybody had cap space that summer. It was the best year in NBA history to be a free agent. This summer – and next, for that matter – will be very much a buyer’s market.

That’s good news for the Pistons, who have only one obvious need in free agency: small forward.

And Ed Stefanski’s front office will have at least a couple of strong selling points to convince whomever they target to take their below-market deal over somebody else’s. One is Dwane Casey and his reputation for the way he trusts his bench and for establishing strong player relationships.

The other is roster stability. The Pistons can pitch a simple, succinct vision to the players they pursue because the foundation is very much in place with all five starters and a big chunk of the bench from last season all under contract for 2018-19.

There’s an opening for a veteran to compete with Stanley Johnson for minutes at small forward. For a free agent looking for a chance to re-establish or set his market value for free agency in 2020 – the next time more than a few teams are projected to have ample cap space – a two-year deal with a team poised to win now should be more attractive than murkier roster pictures elsewhere.

I’d still expect a trade, too, not necessarily a headline-grabbing one but something that balances the roster, maybe. The Pistons needed wings in the draft and got two of them – players in Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown both projected as first-round picks in many circles – but they could use another with a little more size.

Casey made a provocative comment last week when he said, “Stanley Johnson is the best matchup for 23 in Cleveland that there is, physically.” There aren’t many – well, any – quite like LeBron James, but the Pistons need another somebody to line up against the more physical and rangier small forwards in the league to avoid having to play Reggie Bullock or Luke Kennard in bad matchups at small forward.

The need will become especially pointed if Johnson misses time due to injury. He missed 13 games last season with an assortment of core muscle issues – lower back and hip, primarily.

That need aside, Stefanski did great work on draft night to restock the wing cupboard. There are big chunks of a 48-minute game now where teams – especially when they get into their benches – are playing with three and even four wings at a time. Adding Thomas and Brown – who project as advanced defenders for rookies with adequate offensive games now and plenty of room for growth – will give Casey infinite defensive flexibility.

And Thomas and Brown will soon know, if they don’t already, that Casey isn’t afraid to throw rookies into the fray. O.G. Anunoby, coming off a January 2017 ACL tear, wound up a starter for the 59-win Raptors. Fred Van Vleet, an undrafted 2016 free agent, worked his way into Toronto’s rotation as a rookie and advanced to point guard for a powerful second unit last season. Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Jakob Poeltl all were entrusted with rotation minutes early in their careers.

Whether there’s room for both rookies in Casey’s rotation will depend on what other moves are made over the summer and on how quickly the rookies earn Casey’s trust. That process will start in Las Vegas, where on some level Thomas and Brown will be competing with each other to be first in line for playing time when the opportunity presents itself.

They’ll have veterans in front of them, of course. Johnson, Bullock and Kennard are clearly at the head of the line. There’ll be another veteran added somehow. And if it’s via free agency, the Pistons can build a strong case to woo one from among the group of players who aren’t snapped up in the frantic first wave.