Killian Hayes turned 20 last week and Cade Cunningham will join him in two months. Between them, they have 26 games of NBA experience. And yet as the roster stands today, they’re clearly the two players on the Pistons roster who’d have the ball in their hands most.
It perhaps will be instructive how the Pistons feel about the prospect of having two such tenderfoots as their primary playmakers to see how they proceed with free agency. Do they prioritize a point guard with only Hayes and fellow 2020-21 rookie Saben Lee – a restricted free agent – on the depth chart at the position?
Or do they feel Cunningham gives them the ballhandling, playmaking and roster flexibility to perhaps prioritize other needs – 3-point shooting, maybe, or a big man who can share center duties with Isaiah Stewart? Either way, they’ll almost certainly add a point guard in free agency to provide adequate numbers at that critical position, but whether it’s their most significant signing is up for debate.
The moves of the last few days have created both cap space and roster openings and point guard and center are the two most obvious areas of need – unless the Pistons feel they’re ready to entrust Cunningham with the duties of a point guard even if he doesn’t line up at that position, necessarily.
“On any team, you’ve got to have multiple ballhandlers, playmakers,” Dwane Casey said after the Pistons landed Cunningham with the No. 1 pick last week. “He can do that. Killian can do that. So they can play together. And (Cunningham) can play also at small forward. He checks a lot of boxes.”
The Pistons, as expected, waived veteran point guard Cory Joseph over the weekend. It was with cap space in mind that they traded Delon Wright to Sacramento at the March trade deadline for Joseph, who had only $2.4 million of his 2021-22 salary of $12.6 million guaranteed. But waiving him doesn’t necessarily eliminate him from the pool of candidates to be added to the point guard pool. Joseph loved his time in Detroit and thrived in a system familiar to him from his days under Casey in Toronto.
The Pistons also got two second-round draft picks in that Sacramento deal and used the first of them to select Iowa’s Luka Garza, the consensus national college Player of the Year, with the 52nd pick.
Garza slid that far over questions about how he fits defensively in the modern NBA, but his offensive profile is so strong – he averaged 24.1 points last season and shot 44 percent from the 3-point arc while taking 6.4 free throws a game – that you have to believe there’s a place for him eventually.
For next season, though, Stewart will need a more veteran presence to tag team the center position with him after the Thursday trade with Charlotte – one that can’t be completed until August 6 – opened up the cap space that will take the Pistons from operating as a team over the cap to one that could potentially have more than $16 million in space.
That could well be enough to get both a solid point guard and capable center. The Pistons won’t be shopping in the luxury aisle, but getting out ahead of teams with only cap exceptions as their most powerful tool in free agency could set them up nicely when the frenzy starts tonight.
In addition to waiving Joseph, the Pistons also cut ties with Deividas Sirvydis and Tyler Cook. Sirvydis flashed 3-point potential in his late-season trial, but he got caught in a numbers crunch on the wings with the Pistons having added Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson, Hamidou Diallo, Cunningham and Isaiah Livers since drafting Sirvydis in the second round in 2019 when they had a serious lack of wings with size.
Even if the Pistons retain their three restricted free agents – they made qualifying offers over the weekend to Diallo, Lee and Frank Jackson – they now have enough roster space to do the necessary maneuvering to both bolster the roster with immediate help and keep a strong core of young players that won’t have to get thrown into the fire ahead of schedule
How they prioritize their free-agent targets might say something about the role they envision for Cunningham as a rookie.