A different summer for SVG’s Pistons, meaning trade is likely path to change

The priority for the Pistons in free agency when it opens Friday night will be to get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back in the fold.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – This sets up as a different summer for the Stan Van Gundy-era Pistons. It’s his fourth off-season but the first in which the Pistons go into July 1 without cap space – all while two and three deep at every position.

Here’s what that means, in all likelihood: If the Pistons make headlines this summer, it will be via trade.

And there’s a decent chance of that, but to guess at what move is likely or to put a percentage on the chances of a major deal is impossible. Van Gundy, since the dying days of last season, has indicated a willingness bordering on a preference to change the mix, but he’s also not about to make any quick-fix moves that risk a healthy future for a moderate short-term bump in expectations.

“I like our guys,” Van Gundy said after drafting Luke Kennard last week. “We didn’t have a good year. We can come back with our same group and I feel – with better health and guys with a little better focus – we can be a lot better next year with the same group. I like our group. Does that mean that we’re not going to do our due diligence and try to find things that make us better? Not at all. We are always looking for ways to get better.”

Because the Pistons will have only salary cap exceptions to use – the mid-level and biannual in addition to veteran minimum exceptions – it’s likely the Pistons won’t be striking any quick deals this year as they did last summer, coming to terms with Ish Smith only hours into free agency and with Jon Leuer within 48 hours. And with the luxury tax a concern – even more so with last week’s news that the threshold will be $119 million, $2 million less than expected – it’s unlikely the Pistons will use both the mid-level and biannual exceptions.

The major order of business later this week as free agency opens at 12:01 a.m. Saturday will be to bring things to a conclusion with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in restricted free agency. Chances are his agent probes the market to see what other teams are willing to offer, but Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower have been transparent in their intent to retain Caldwell-Pope.

And they have leverage on their side to make certain Caldwell-Pope wears their uniform at least for the 2017-18 season. If Caldwell-Pope doesn’t agree to an offer sheet with another team, one the Pistons would hold the right to match, and can’t come to terms with the Pistons – though a resolution by one or the other of those means is the overwhelming likelihood – he could sign his tender with the Pistons and play out next season well below market value to become an unrestricted free agent in July 2018.

Beyond that – barring trades that reshuffle the depth chart – the Pistons probably will use the mid-level exception, $8.4 million, to add a third center, assuming Aron Baynes signs elsewhere, and a third point guard.

With Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic at center; Tobias Harris, Leuer and Henry Ellenson at power forward; Marcus Morris, Stanley Johnson and Michael Gbinije at small forward; Caldwell-Pope, Johnson and Kennard at shooting guard; and Reggie Jackson and Smith at point guard, the Pistons would have a 14-man roster once they add the third center and point guard. Reggie Bullock, a restricted free agent, is likely to sign elsewhere and Darrun Hilliard has an option that must be picked up by July 1.

The Pistons might not want to commit to a 15th roster spot at this time, especially with Van Gundy saying last week the Pistons intend to make use of the new wrinkle that allows teams to sign two players to “two-way” contracts that limit them to 45 days with the NBA team during the G League calendar. Adding two such players would effectively give the Pistons a 16-man roster.

The Pistons open Summer League practice on Tuesday in Orlando and are set to play the first of five games on Saturday.