With Drummond trade, Pistons unmistakably move to a course correction

Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond spent all of his eight NBA seasons with the Pistons before being traded to Cleveland on Thursday.
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

DETROIT – There is no small number of meaningful takeaways to be gleaned by the Andre Drummond trade and its return to the Pistons, but the most significant is this: The rebuilding that a vocal segment of Pistons fans have clamored for is upon us in full flower.

The Pistons held out as long as they could for the biggest bounty and in the end took expiring contracts of two solid but oft-injured players, John Henson and Brandon Knight, plus a second-round pick three years in coming.

That’s not the move of a team positioning itself for a playoff run. It’s a loud exclamation that the reset button has been fully activated.

The biggest return the Pistons got in trading Drummond – who departs after nearly eight full seasons of remarkable durability and elite rebounding, though ultimately not consistent success – was the cap space to hasten the rebuild.

The Pistons will carry somewhere around $35 million in cap space into July. No, there will not be a robust crop of free agents to spend it on and, no, the Pistons are not likely to be shopping in the glamour aisle.

Some of the teams that have gone down this path in recent seasons – Atlanta and Memphis spring to mind – have found the most effective use of cap space is to take on contracts that other teams, for a variety of reasons, need to offload in return for assets, either promising young players or the draft picks to acquire them.

In a best-case scenario, Blake Griffin comes back in 2018-19 form next fall and Derrick Rose picks up where he leaves off in this renaissance season and the young core – Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk, Luke Kennard, Christian Wood (assuming he’s retained in free agency, a more likely scenario with the space created), Jordan Bone, Louis King – take reasonable steps forward. And the lottery delivers another player who slides right into that mix, hopefully someone with all the promising sizzle of the 19-year-old Doumbouya.

The acquisition of Griffin a little more than two years ago determined the path the Pistons would take these past two seasons. He was marvelous last season, deserving of the All-NBA status he won, and the Pistons made the playoffs for the second time in 10 years. In acquiring Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell last summer, the Pistons felt – with ample evidence – that they’d improved on a playoff team and could conceivably challenge for a top-four seed.

An unimaginable wave of injuries that left hardly anyone on the roster untouched obliterated those ambitions. Owner Tom Gores has consistently maintained he wants to be as competitive as possible without imperiling the future. But he also hinted at a move of this nature last month when he said “everything” would be re-evaluated as the trade deadline approached, citing all those injuries – to Griffin, to Kennard, to Reggie Jackson and almost anybody else you can name – as an impetus.

The next step for the Pistons will not emulate a Philadelphia-esque embrace of losing, but it’s clear that the balance of competing interests is now tipped to the future over the present.

And that, logically, begs the question of how a star of Griffin’s magnitude fits. Griffin has two years left on his contract at nearly $77 million.

If he comes back looking like the Blake Griffin of last season, then anything becomes possible, including Griffin at the center of a competitive roster. To be sure, Griffin has been a model citizen and leader since joining the Pistons, immediately dispelling common assumptions he’d be disgruntled after being uprooted from the only NBA home he’d ever known, Los Angeles. He and Gores will deal with each other honestly and honorably to make the best decisions for the interests of both parties.

For the immediate present, the Pistons have 29 games to develop their young and learn as much about them as possible. They’ll be given new exposure now and Casey has been clear that he believes experience is the best teacher. He’ll make them earn their minutes by playing hard and he’ll game plan to win each of those 29, but he’ll put games in the hands of those young players and be more tolerant of youthful mistakes than most of his brethren.

Thursday’s trade of Andre Drummond spoke to the diminishing value of traditional big men in today’s NBA and to the uncertainty of free agency. Mostly it spoke to a course correction for a franchise eager to find a path to another championship era.

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