Injuries hit and the Pistons altered course, embracing a rebuild – ‘We just decided this is the time’
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OKLAHOMA CITY – The destination hasn’t changed but the course has been dramatically altered.
For the first time since Tom Gores bought the Pistons nearly nine years ago, the Pistons are undertaking an active rebuilding. Gores has steadfastly maintained that competing for a playoff berth – and ultimately an NBA title – without harming future competitiveness was the mission statement, but the balance has now swung to the future over the present.
It was a change brought on by the stark reality of an unrelenting wave of injuries that prematurely stamped the expiration date on a roster built for playoff contention.
“We are looking to rebuild,” Pistons front office chief executive Ed Stefanski said on a Friday morning conference call, the day after trading Andre Drummond. “What the future holds is going to be interesting. We haven’t had the luxury the last two seasons of having any real cap flexibility.”
The Pistons traded Drummond not for the return – the expiring contracts of John Henson and Brandon Knight plus a 2023 second-round pick – but to open up approximately $35 million in cap space this off-season. Drummond had an option for 2020-21 that would have left the Pistons effectively without cap space had he exercised it, meaning they would have come back next season with a roster that looked much like the current one.
That was a roster the Pistons thought in September would be good enough to contend for a playoff berth – perhaps a top-four spot – without the injuries that sidelined Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson for long stretches and virtually everyone else for briefer periods. They’d added Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris and Tony Snell to a playoff team and expected improved versions of young players like Kennard and Bruce Brown.
“We haven’t had our projected starting lineup one time,” Stefanski said. “The coach has had to juggle lineups constantly. We were always discussing that we were probably going to have to rebuild here because we were in the middle of the pack. It’s not the place we want to be in or the fans want to be in.”
Key players under contract for next season are Griffin, Rose, Kennard, Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk and rookie Sekou Doumbouya. Stefanski said Griffin’s rehabilitation from January knee surgery has him on track to be “totally healthy” in June, allowing for a full off-season regimen. Christian Wood, a pending free agent, is a logical candidate to return now that Drummond leaves a void at center.
“We like Christian,” Stefanski said. “He’s worked well. We want to take a longer look at him to decide what we want to do going forward, but he has talent.”
Signing Wood would take a chunk out of that $35 million in cap space. How best to use it will occupy a great deal of front-office manpower in the weeks between the mid-April season’s end and the June 30 opening of free agency.
“How do we use it wisely?” Stefanski said. “Do you use it on players? Do you use it on collecting assets? Different avenues. The obvious answer is it’s great to have it and now use it wisely and make the right choices.”
“Collecting assets” is a way of saying you’re willing to take contracts other teams are looking to shed for various reasons and attaching a premium to them in the form of draft picks or young players on rookie deals with growth potential – a player like Mykhailiuk, for instance. The Pistons acquired him at last year’s trade deadline, along with a second-round pick, in the deal that sent Reggie Bullock to the Lakers.
Stefanski and Dwane Casey are kindred spirits when it comes to the value of investing in player development and that’s been the saving grace of this injury-wracked season.
“The draft is important, too. We have all our number one picks going forward,” Stefanski said of the foundation for rebuilding in addition to cap space. “And we’re going to have the young guys out there. Tom Gores has given us unbelievable resources in the development area and I think you’ve seen that this year.
“Bruce Brown got better. Svi got better. Christian Wood got better. And Sekou’s a roller coaster. He’s 19 and playing exactly like I thought he would. Sometimes you go ‘wow’ and sometimes you say ‘where the hell is he?’ If Sekou focuses and tries to become the best player possible, I think we’ll have something there.”
There are no certain outcomes with a rebuilding project. It takes a series of good decisions on players who in turn must do their part to reach their potential – and it also takes a fair bit of good fortune, whether in the draft lottery or avoiding injuries or otherwise.
The Pistons didn’t anticipate making the decision to rebuild this season, but circumstances dictated otherwise as injuries piled up. Opening up cap space is a necessary step. Trading Drummond now gives them a jump on the process.
“We just decided,” Stefanski said, “this is the time.”