The day after the Pistons traded Andre Drummond and publicly declared what that deal made obvious – they were entering a rebuilding phase – Ed Stefanski talked about the possibilities created by having $35 million in cap space.
“How do we use it? Do we use it wisely? Do you use it on players? Do you use it on collecting assets? Different avenues. It’s great to have it and now use it wisely and make the right choices.”
Only two franchises, Atlanta and New York, project to have more cap space this off-season – whenever it gets here – than the Pistons. Only seven others will have cap space, period. The best weapon most teams will take to free agency will be the mid-level exception and some won’t even have the full power of that.
There are always elements of chaos and calculation to free agency. Are you better off immediately pursuing high-end targets where the cost is certain to escalate as multiple suitors drive up the price or to focus on a compatible player from a lesser tier against fewer competitors? Are you better off simply waiting out a game of musical chairs, capitalizing to find value buys as cap space around the league is exhausted?
The uncertainty is amplified this year by current conditions. The salary cap and everything that falls under it – from maximum contracts to values for the mid-level and other exceptions – is determined by a formula based on league revenue. Nobody knows yet how or if the NBA will adjust the figures that formula produces this season given diminished revenue, which complicates the war-room projections teams almost certainly have undertaken to make use of their down time.
How that affects either end of the options Stefanski enumerated for how to allocate their cap space – using it to acquire free agents or taking on contracts other teams are looking to move while acquiring draft capital in return – remains to be seen.
Taking on contracts with a tighter cap and reduced tax threshold, if that eventuates, could mean a bigger bounty in draft capital coming back than typical, making that an attractive option. Put another way, teams feeling a more urgent need to offload contracts logically figure to be more willing to attach greater value. At the same time, a player who might have expected offers well above the mid-level exception – anticipated to be $9.75 million only a few months ago – now might come at a bargain price.
So, Stefanski said, the Pistons will go into free agency with all options on the table and a level of preparedness that will allow them to seize opportunity in whatever form it presents itself.
“I’ve been in so many markets. To go into free agency and have a plan and once free agency starts, the plan gets blown up,” Stefanski said. “We have numerous plans and different scenarios that could occur. We have to use this money wisely. What makes the most sense to us? We’re asking those questions now. What makes the most sense for the Pistons now?”
The Pistons will go into the off-season with pronounced needs at point guard and center.
Christian Wood will be an unrestricted free agent with the Pistons holding early Bird rights. They could sign Wood with cap space or use space elsewhere and then sign Wood using an exception for early Bird free agents, which stipulates that the Pistons could offer 105 percent of the average NBA salary for 2019-20. That means the Pistons could offer Wood a first-year salary of roughly $10 million – or slightly more than the projected mid-level exception.
Derrick Rose is the only point guard on the roster under contract for next season.
The top of the draft could help address the need at point guard with four of the top 10 and seven of the top 15 prospects in ESPN’s rankings at that position.
There’s long been discussion that the NBA calendar should reverse the order of the draft and free agency so that free agency comes first, as it does in the NFL. Anything and everything seems possible for the off-season ahead. Stefanski doesn’t have a strong preference either way.
“The league is always looking for new ideas and thinking of different ways,” Stefanski said. “(Commissioner) Adam Silver is great at that. I just don’t know with what’s happening right now, trying to see if there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, some thoughts the league could come up with. Whatever it comes up with, I’m fine with working either way.”