Pistons deals for Morris, Ilyasova held appeal on many levels – no-brainers, SVG says

Ersan Ilyasova, Marcus Morris
The Pistons were able to add Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris in trade and avoid the uncertainty of free agency to fill their roster needs at forward.
NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: First of a five-part series on the Pistons off-season’s significant personnel moves, starting with trades for forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris. Coming Tuesday: drafting Stanley Johnson.)

The record shows the Pistons signed only one free agent this summer, Aron Baynes. The reality is that they landed three free agents. The trades that brought in presumptive starting forwards Ersan Ilyasova and Marcus Morris, for all intents and purposes, were free-agent signings.

They were acquired using Pistons cap space. They were dealt by teams looking to create cap space.

They also happened to fill glaring needs for the Pistons, fit the roster ideally and come with team-friendly contracts. And they cost the Pistons nothing in terms of players who factored into next year’s roster – Ilyasova was acquired with the non-guaranteed contracts of Caron Butler and Shawne Williams – and nothing more than a second-round pick five years removed in terms of assets.

If, in fact, Ilyasova and Morris had been free agents, Stan Van Gundy says they would have been heavily pursued by the Pistons.

The Ilyasova deal was made before the draft and free agency. Milwaukee, the only team for which Ilyasova suited up in his seven NBA seasons, needed cap space in large measure to have the wherewithal to sign its own restricted free agent, Khris Middleton.

The ex-Piston likely would have been high on their shopping list, too. Van Gundy said before free agency the team had two unrestricted and two restricted free agents it would pursue and it’s a fair guess to say Middleton was one of the latter. So it says something about their interest in Ilyasova that the Pistons were knowingly making it easier for Milwaukee to retain Middleton by enjoining the Bucks in trade.

“If he’d been a free agent, he’d have been the guy at the top of our list at power forward,” Van Gundy said of Ilyasova. Indeed, when Van Gundy hired Jeff Bower in the spring of 2014 and they identified a power forward with shooting ability as a need, Ilyasova is the guy they went after most ardently. But Milwaukee, even after drafting Jabari Parker with the No. 2 pick, wasn’t quite ready to let Ilyasova go.

Van Gundy is hesitant to pigeon-hole Ilyasova as a stretch four. While he’s been among the league’s most reliable 3-point shooters at his best – he shot better than 44 percent in consecutive seasons just two seasons removed – he doesn’t take a disproportionate share of shots from the arc. Where backup power forward Anthony Tolliver took 70 percent of his 2014-15 shots from the arc, Ilyasova’s rate was less than half that, 34 percent.

“He can put the ball on the floor and drive the ball to the basket,” Van Gundy said. “It’s dropped off a little bit in the last couple of years, but he’s been a good offensive rebounder in his career. He can play in transition – he’s a good runner. He’s a good cutter, so he’s got some other ways to score and some other ways to impact the game, too. He’s a good pick-and-roll defender – and in today’s game, that’s huge.”

Van Gundy sees similar versatility in Morris.

“No. 1, he gives us more size at that position than we’ve had. He gives us another guy who likes to compete physically,” he said. “He’s a tough, physical guy and we’ve got some good, big, powerful wing players we’ve got to defend in the East – LeBron (James), Carmelo (Anthony) and Jimmy Butler, guys like that.

“He can shoot the three, which we like, and he shoots it without hesitation, which is good. And he gives us a guy I think that we can go to against threes and fours. He can get down there and post up and isolate and create his own shot. We don’t have a lot of guys who can create their own shots. I also like the fact that he rebounds his position. And he’s another guy with two-position versatility, which helps your roster a lot.”

Morris, 6-foot-9 and 235, as Van Gundy suggests, can swing to power forward. That could factor in two situations: if Van Gundy wants to pare the rotation – essentially, use Stanley Johnson at small forward, Ilyasova at power forward and shuttle Morris between the two spots – or to finish games with Morris at power forward when teams go small and try to put their best players on the floor with less regard for positions.

All of those reasons are what would have made Morris a targeted candidate had he been in free agency.

“There’s no question we would have opted to take him rather than go into free agency had that been there (before July 1),” Van Gundy said. “It wasn’t at the time, so we did try to make a play for a couple of guys. But when it didn’t work out and that presented itself, we were fortunate. We were fortunate that the trade was there, but we had put ourselves in position with the cap space and with the scouting that we had done all year to be able to get it done.”

Beyond the size, toughness and shooting the Pistons added at the forward spots on either side of Andre Drummond, the bonus is the value the additions bring. The Pistons have two years of Ilyasova at a reported $16 million and four years of Morris at a reported $20 million – bargains today that get even more team-friendly with the rising salary cap.

“There’s no question,” Van Gundy said of the economic appeal. “For us right now, when you’re coming from where we are, you’re not going to be in a marketplace like the next three years will be, especially. It’s hard for us, when everybody’s going to have money (under the cap), coming from where we’ve been the last few years, to be a destination for the top free agents. So being able to get guys locked into good contracts who are good players and who we feel like are still on the rise and can be better with more opportunity, that’s key for us.

“When you get guys on good contracts like that, then it gives you the money to spend at other positions. It was just good all the way around. It was good business from a contract standpoint, it was good on the court. We had two moves that were no-brainers, really, and you don’t usually get those.”

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