Pistons jump the gun on free agency by swinging low-risk move for Ersan Ilyasova

Ersan Ilyasova fits Stan Van Gundy’s offense and was a low-risk addition for the Pistons
Gary Dineen (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The draft comes before free agency. Except when it doesn’t. In effect, Thursday’s trade that netted the Pistons Ersan Ilyasova was Stan Van Gundy’s way of jumping the market. Ilyasova, in all but a formal sense, was a free-agent signing for the Pistons.

And when you boil it down, a remarkably low-risk, cost-effective jumping of the market.

It will cost them about $8 million of the cap space they would have had on July 1 but they would have been hard pressed to find a free agent proven capable of starting at power forward for that $8 million.

Two other factors made it even more appealing than wading into free agency and taking their chances: (1) Ilyasova is an obvious fit for Van Gundy’s blueprint – the one I wrote about earlier today that spins off of the Andre Drummond-Jackson pick and roll – and (2) it would have been impossible to get a one-year commitment from a free agent of Ilyasova’s stature.

(He has two years left on his deal, but the second year by multiple accounts is virtually non-guaranteed. A decision on his 2016-17 option won’t be made until it’s necessary, of course, but if he performs as Van Gundy surely expects – and considering the anticipated spike in the cap next summer – it would be surprising if the Pistons declined that option a year from now. In any case, it’s in their hands.)

We might not know exactly what moves the Pistons are making next, but you don’t have to squint – not even a little bit – to see what Van Gundy is putting together here. He wants shooters to surround Drummond and Jackson and shooters who offer something else, to boot.

That’s what the Pistons got by trading away two players with team options, Caron Butler and Shawne Williams, for a guy who’s a .370 career 3-point shooter. He’s had periods where he’s played like an All-Star and others where he slides to the fringe of the rotation over his seven NBA seasons – all of them spent in Milwaukee – but when he’s in the right system with a coach who believes in him and knows how to utilize his abilities, he’s been really, really good.

We know Van Gundy knows how to utilize floor-stretching power forwards. Playing next to Andre Drummond – he hasn’t had anyone quite like that in the middle during his Milwaukee run – should benefit Ilyasova as much as playing next to Ilyasova benefits Drummond and Jackson for the space his 3-point threat creates. And Van Gundy’s statement on the trade – he called Ilyasova a “player we have coveted since we got to Detroit” – leaves no doubt how he views him. Yeah, this is the system that fits him and this is the coach who believes in what he brings.

I suspect he’ll also like the fact that Ilyasova plays with a little bit of an edge, too. He’s mixed it up pretty good whenever he’s played the Pistons and had his share of big games against them. He rebounds. The Bucks are heavily invested in Jabari Parker at power forward and no doubt felt the cap room they created by trading for two non-guaranteed deals could be better put to use to fill other needs. This isn’t a case of a team shedding itself of dead weight in the least.

The looming question is what the Ilyasova trade means for the Pistons’ pursuit of Greg Monroe in free agency. Van Gundy said a month ago he and Monroe would talk in June and he hoped to have a little better idea of what his incumbent starting power forward was thinking with regard to free agency.

Maybe those conversations have taken place and maybe the trade for Ilyasova happened, in part, because of it. The Pistons also hold a team option on Anthony Tolliver’s contract for next season and Van Gundy loves him off the bench for 15 to 20 minutes a game. He didn’t want to go to training camp with Tolliver as the starter, he said as last season wound down, but an Ilyasova-Tolliver tandem appears perfectly capable of handling the majority of minutes at power forward with room enough left over for small-ball lineups.

With Monroe back, power forward would seem a little crowded and the Pistons would have a lot of money tied up at one position with a glaring need still remaining. Remember, the trade of Butler means the Pistons are left with only Cartier Martin and Quincy Miller capable of playing small forward regularly – and neither is a realistic option to start.

The draft is now very likely to yield them part of the answer at small forward – perhaps someone from the group of Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Mario Hezonja, Sam Dekker or Kelly Oubre – with the bulk of their free-agent dollars targeted at coming up with another part of it in free agency.

How much will they have to spend? Well, it depends on a lot of moving parts, but let’s ballpark it: about $8 million including Monroe’s cap hold, about $18 million if he signs elsewhere or the Pistons renounce his rights to make another move. In other words – plenty of money to explore plenty of options.

In any case, you can bet they shared a few high fives out at 6 Championship Drive late Thursday after signing off on the Ilyasova deal. Three weeks before free agency, the Pistons crossed off one big item from their summer to-do list.

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