Pistons don’t expect instant results in free agency, but they’ll bait their hook

The priority for the Pistons in free agency when it opens Friday night will be to get Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back in the fold.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

ORLANDO – If you’re not up to pulling an all nighter Friday when free agency opens at midnight, that’s OK. Stan Van Gundy probably isn’t going to do so, either.

“I’m going to bed at some point,” he said Wednesday night, an acknowledgment that a team without cap space, as the Pistons are, isn’t likely to be first in line – or second, or third, for that matter – for top- or middle-tier free agents.

Van Gundy will make a handful of phone calls at midnight, with little doubt about who’ll get the first one. The overriding goal for the Pistons in free agency is to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who as a restricted free agent can negotiate with other teams but can’t leave the Pistons without first presenting them an offer sheet they can choose to match.

Other than that, the Pistons have two distinct needs: a third point guard and a third center. But it’s conceivable that a player other than a point guard or center will be the bigger fish the Pistons land.

“We’re looking for guards,” Van Gundy said. “Ones, twos – we’re looking for guards. Whatever we can spend on the mid-level (exception), our focus is guards and then a third center, but that’s almost certainly going to be a minimum guy.”

Van Gundy has seen no red flags with Reggie Jackson’s return from the knee condition that hovered over his 2016-17 season, but there’s just enough uncertainty surrounding him to tilt the priority list.

“We want to make sure that we have the position covered with somebody that has NBA experience, just to be covered. We’re really feeling good about Reggie and his situation, but I think that we certainly saw the value of a guy like Beno (Udrih) last year and I think that we would prefer a guy with NBA experience.”

If the right guy is there, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Pistons commit a healthy chunk of the mid-level exception of $8.4 million to a third point guard. He’d have to be a fairly unique player, though, somebody with the size to be a versatile defender and probably somebody who satisfies one of Van Gundy’s greatest off-season priorities: improving the team’s 3-point shooting. Such a profile would make that player more than just a No. 3 point guard who’d play only if injury or foul trouble sidelined Jackson or Ish Smith – and perhaps one who could play alongside either one.

The third center, Van Gundy said, could fall under any number of categories. They’ve got Andre Drummond and Boban Marjanovic to play more traditional center roles and Jon Leuer and Henry Ellenson to match up against teams that want to downsize and play with five perimeter shooters.

“It could be more of a skill, finesse, passing guy. It could be more of an energy-effort guy,” Van Gundy said. “When it gets to the point of somebody’s ready to agree on that, it’ll be who’s left. It’s not like on the minimum, you’re picking.”

The Pistons would have 12 roster spots filled if they retain Caldwell-Pope while seeing Reggie Bullock – also a restricted free agent – go elsewhere and decide to pick up the second-year option on Michael Gbinije’s contract. If the Pistons want to stay at 14 on the roster – something more likely with the addition of the two two-way contracts new to the NBA next season – then declining Gbinije’s option would allow them to add both a third point guard and third center plus add another backcourt player and still stay at 14.

One roster spot opened Wednesday when the Pistons dealt Darrun Hilliard to Houston to help the Rockets pull off their trade for Chris Paul. Van Gundy confirmed that the Pistons had already informed Hilliard they were not going to guarantee the third year on his contract, which needed to be decided by Friday. The Pistons, Van Gundy said, got $1 million from Houston in that deal.

There could be a benefit to the Pistons in the waiting game in free agency common to teams in their cap situation. Because a trade – the more likely way for the Pistons to significantly augment the roster this summer – could alter their priority list in free agency, holding off on signing free agents might result in a more complementary roster fit.

But the Pistons are going to drop a few lines in the water at midnight Friday. They’re not necessarily expecting any quick bites, but you can’t land any fish unless you bait the hook. Stan Van Gundy doesn’t plan on fishing until dawn, but he’s going to launch the boat and see what develops.