The Pistons might want to consider playing “O Canada” not only when the Toronto Raptors visit Little Caesars Arena next season but for every home game. After signing three Canadian natives in free agency – Kelly Olynyk, Cory Joseph and Trey Lyles – it only seems right. Did the Red Wings sign three Canadian free agents?
You can chalk the fact the Pistons wound up with three players from Canada in free agency as coincidence, but there was a clear deliberate intent behind the totality of Pistons off-season moves to field a team better able to create offensive spacing and exploit the resulting gaps produced in opposition defenses.
Beyond the addition of No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, the addition that will allow the Pistons to effect the greatest stylistic change was the signing of Olynyk to essentially take the rotation spot held last season by Mason Plumlee.
Plumlee was everything the Pistons expected and asked him to be last season, a workhorse who helped the offense function with his screening and adroit dribble handoffs. The intangibles he brought will leave a lasting impact on the next generation of Pistons, starting with Troy Weaver’s “Core Four” 2020 draft picks – Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee.
But Plumlee wasn’t a threat outside the paint, never mind to the 3-point line, and that complicates the task of orchestrating a highly functioning offense in an era where teams have to score with ever greater efficiency to keep up.
Olynyk, 30, is a Toronto native like Joseph, who turns 30 next week. They have a long history and have been teammates on Canada’s national team. While Joseph was a one-and-done college player, Olynyk spent three years at Gonzaga before going 13th in the 2013 draft. He spent his first four seasons in Boston and the next 3½ in Miami before being involved in a March trade to Houston that sent Victor Oladipo to the Heat.
He’s a career 37 percent 3-point shooter who’s taken more than 40 percent of his shots from the arc and he’s comfortable putting the ball on the floor. Whether he starts or comes off the bench – Olynyk has started 165 of 570 career games for teams that have gone to the playoffs five times – Olynyk is in line for a significant role.
He’ll likely wind up sharing the center spot with Stewart, whose rookie impact and promise surely had an impact on the decision to trade Plumlee to Charlotte on draft night to create the cap space to pursue Olynyk. Stewart’s ability to fulfill many of the tasks the Pistons asked Plumlee to assume liberated them to look for a big man with the shooting range to take their offense to the next level. And because both Stewart and Olynyk offer two-position versatility, they can share the floor without clogging it if Dwane Casey wants to go bigger to create matchup advantages.
In bringing Joseph back, Casey retains a tremendous advocate and a guiding force for last year’s rookie point guards, Hayes and Lee. The Pistons traded Delon Wright for Joseph at the trade deadline mostly for the flexibility his contract for 2021-22 provided – only $2.4 million was guaranteed – but also because Casey knew how his professionalism and selflessness would resonate with the young core being steeped in the culture Weaver and Casey are intent on fostering. He responded with the best basketball of his 10-year career and has the skill set and temperament to adapt to any role Casey settles on for him as the careers of Hayes and Lee progress.
The Pistons similarly waived Rodney McGruder, another veteran whose leadership was extolled by Weaver and Casey last season, to bring him back on a more modest contract. McGruder, too, affords Casey great latitude for his ability to defend all across the perimeter and willingness to adapt to any role. He even served as emergency point guard last season and held his own.
Lyles, 25, is a native of Saskatchewan who spent one season at Kentucky and was the 12th pick in the 2015 NBA draft, taken one spot ahead of Wildcats teammate Devin Booker. He’s spent two seasons each with Utah, Denver and San Antonio and started 103 of 374 career games. At 6-foot-9, Lyles is a 34 percent career 3-point shooter and might have more to give in that area in a Casey offense that’s historically been proficient at producing open threes. Lyles is big and physical enough to give the Pistons minutes at center.
The Pistons also have re-signed restricted free agent Frank Jackson, who had a breakout season while playing on a two-way contract. Picked up by the Pistons in December after being waived by Oklahoma City, Jackson thrived as a bench scorer, averaging 12.1 points after the All-Star break and shooting 41 percent from the 3-point line for the season.
The Pistons are currently at the limit of 15 standard contracts and still have Hamidou Diallo’s situation as a restricted free agent unresolved, leaving open the possibility – and perhaps the likelihood – that another move is coming. The number of potential Diallo suitors has shrunk as most teams have effectively exhausted their cap space and are running out of roster spots.
The Pistons have one remaining open two-way contract after signing UCLA’s Chris Smith, recovering from an ACL injury, to a two-way deal and need to resolve the status of second-round draft picks Luka Garza and Balsa Koprivica. The third second-round pick, Michigan’s Isaiah Livers, has been signed to a standard contract.