(Editor’s note: First of a two-part look at how the Pistons dealt with the turbulent opening hours of free agency on July 1 as they sought to fill their greatest need, small forward.)
It was a little after 11 a.m. on the first day of free agency, another sweltering day in central Florida. The Pistons Summer League team was practicing at the Orlando Parks and Rec building they’ve made their home base for the past four years.
Suddenly, the doors to the gym swung open and Stan Van Gundy led a parade seven deep behind him: general manager Jeff Bower; assistant general managers Ken Catanella, Jeff Nix and Brian Wright; director of strategic planning Pat Garrity; executive director of basketball operations Andrew Loomis; and Adam Glessner, pro scout.
They stood in a circle for the shade offered by a grove of trees as Van Gundy delivered the news: Danny Green had already struck an agreement to return to San Antonio and the cost to stay in the chase for DeMarre Carroll had soared after he’d met with Toronto early July 1.
“I had talked to DeMarre at 12:01 that night,” Van Gundy said. “The conversation went real well. The price just continued to skyrocket and (Toronto) had a meeting scheduled ahead of us, anyway.”
First Van Gundy gauged the temperature of his inner circle: Do we stay in this thing? In the marathon two-day meetings they’d held in June to pore over free agents, they’d liked Carroll well enough to put him with Green at the top of their board at the No. 1 position of need, small forward. No surprise there. Pretty much every team looking for a small forward had Carroll or Green as the best unrestricted free agents.
When it was determined that the price tag put Carroll out of reach to the Pistons, then came the really hard discussion: What now?
There was strong sentiment to move on to the next-rated free agent, whoever that might have been. “We went through this process,” one of Van Gundy’s close advisers said. “We’ve had our steps laid out. Let’s just stay with it.”
It was even the way Van Gundy was leaning.
“It comes down to experience and who you hire,” Van Gundy said, looking back three weeks. “The one guy in the room who said, ‘I think we should just wait’ was Jeff. ‘Something better will come along in trade than is out there on the free-agent market right now.’ Quite honestly, I was sort of uncomfortable with that and I said, ‘No. I think we need to proceed and try to get somebody. That position is too important.’ ”
Between the morning and evening practices that day, the meeting resumed at the downtown Orlando hotel where the Pistons stayed for 11 nights. The agents for three or four other candidates, one of whom could come to Detroit to compete with rookie Stanley Johnson – who was still three days away from playing his first Summer League game – for the starting job were contacted. No offers were made, but the Pistons were clearly dropping hooks in the water.
Bower remained the strongest voice in the room for slow playing those other free agents and seeing what might develop in the trade market.
“Jeff raised the question that something always comes up. We should just wait. And everybody else not being comfortable with that. But Jeff, being the guy with the most experience in the room, said we should just wait.”
By the time the Pistons poured back into the bus to head to the second practice of the day, something else, indeed, had come up. Tomorrow, we’ll look at how another important decision by Van Gundy gave the Pistons the ammunition they needed to make a very important decision in a very narrow window of time.