To deal the 15th pick or not: Weighing Pistons options for the decision ahead

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has been cleared for basketball-related activity and is considered day to day after missing the first 9 games of the Pistons season.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – If the question is merely “Should the Pistons trade their first-round draft pick this year?” then the response should be “more information, please.”

That’s not a yes or no proposition, not without knowing the value of the pick and not without having an idea of the pool of potential buyers.

It’s like asking “should I buy a new car?” without knowing what the selling price is or how it compares to every other new car on the market.

In a vacuum, sure, it makes sense that the Pistons would have interest in shopping the pick. It’s certain that Ed Stefanski and his inner circle will be gauging the value of the pick over the next five weeks. The 15th pick brings no guarantees in any draft, let alone one that’s been widely described as not particularly deep.

The Pistons, with three years remaining on Blake Griffin’s contract and a coach in Dwane Casey who wasn’t hired to oversee a tear-down, could use a ready-to-roll veteran to fill one of their glaring roster needs over a 19-year-old with one spotty season of NCAA production on a scant resume.

Teams get in massive trouble by lightly trading away first-round picks, Brooklyn’s disastrous deal with Boston for aging Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce this era’s cautionary tale. But targeted use of first-rounders for teams that need more immediate help to fully exploit a window of opportunity must be a tool kept at hand.

It’s more complicated than that, though. The Pistons have only so many resources to fill their needs for a wing player with enough size to guard the Kawhi Leonards, Jimmy Butlers and Jayson Tatums of the Eastern Conference and a point guard to run the second unit – a position that really should be valued as a sixth starting spot in today’s NBA.

If they could parlay the 15th pick into a quality backup point guard – preferably one with multiple years of team control – then, sure, that would be a deal worth pursuing.

But the Pistons will have their list of potential trade partners whittled down significantly by one fact: They’re over the salary cap. In a nut shell, that means they’ll have to send out roughly the same amount of salary as they absorb. So it’s not just the first-round draft pick, it’s a player or players leaving. If it’s a player who doesn’t figure in the Pistons’ plans, then chances are they’re not figuring in another team’s plans, either – and that means you have to sweeten the pot further.

The Pistons have their own second-round pick this year but not for the next four. They get the Lakers’ second-rounder in 2021 from the Reggie Bullock trade, but the only sweetener that really moves the needle in a trade is another first-round pick. Are you willing to part with two first-rounders for immediate help?

Depends on the return, of course. If you’re talking an under-30 All-Star with two-plus seasons of team control, sure. If you’re talking a journeyman who fills an obvious need but doesn’t immediately upgrade next season’s outlook by 10 percent by whatever analytics model you employ, less appealing. There’s a threshold somewhere in there where it makes sense to push your chips to the middle of the table. Finding it – and staying disciplined to its instructions – is the challenge.

All of that has to be weighed against the great unknown of what you might be able to accomplish in free agency. While Stefanski and his guys are engaging in the daily diligence of chatting up their peers across 29 other franchises, they’re also ranking their preferred free agents and gauging what the market for them will be based on depth charts and cap situations across the NBA.

If they’re confident they can get that wing player and a point guard with their mid-level and biannual exceptions – the former giving them a $9.25 million lure, the latter a $3.6 million bait – then they can keep that 15th pick in their pocket.

If you’re thinking, well, why don’t they see what happens on draft night, take their guy at 15, then wait for free agency to unfold and make their determination from there … well, opportunities that are there on draft night won’t be after free agency starts. Different ones will be. And that, again, is the job of front offices – to weigh offers against others in real time but also to anticipate what offers will become possible down the road.

The reality of free agency is that some teams get left holding offers in their hands and sometimes circle back to proposals they’d previously rejected. Sometimes teams that lose out on plans A, B and C make moves out of desperation that could benefit the Pistons. Take their shot before the draft and they well might rue the lack of that resource to do an infinitely more appealing deal after it.

On the other hand, the 15th pick loses value once it’s spent. To extend the new car analogy, sign the papers and drive it out of the showroom and it’s automatically diminished. Teams want the pick to spend on the player of their choosing, not the guy you took. You further reduce the pool of potential trade partners when you have an actual player in the return package as opposed to a pick that comes with all sorts of possibilities attached.

So, sure, the Pistons absolutely should consider trading their first-round pick this season. A team with Blake Griffin at 30 must weigh every opportunity to get better now. Their only mistake would be predetermining they were going to deal the pick for the best offer – even if the best offer isn’t a very good one.


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