Pistons in a spot that argues for them to explore moving up from 42nd pick

Stanley Johnson is the only true small forward the Pistons have, so they might look to use the draft to find a complementary fit next to him.
Melissa Majchrzak (NBAE/Getty)

AUBURN HILLS – Let’s put a few facts on the table and see where they lead us.

The Pistons don’t have a first-round draft pick. Their pick in the second round, 42nd overall, comes at a point in the draft where history suggests they have, at best, a 50-50 shot at landing someone who’ll leave much of a footprint on the NBA.

Stanley Johnson is the only player of the 12 under contract for next season who held a spot in last season’s rotation that can be labeled a natural small forward. The free-agent class is thin in wing players, who have become a coveted species in an era that places a premium on the ability to guard multiple positions and provide some floor spacing via the threat of a 3-point shot.

Add that up and the hunch is that Ed Stefanski, the guy running the front office and the one who’ll ultimately decide how to spend that middling asset of pick 42 on Thursday, is exploring ways to come out of draft night with a player capable of, at minimum, complementing Johnson in the small forward rotation in 2018-19.

He might be comfortable enough that he can sit at 42 and land that player. After all, Stefanski was part of the Memphis front office that last season landed Dillon Brooks with the 45th pick. Brooks wound up starting 74 games, averaging 11.0 points and scoring with relative efficiency for a rookie on a team that was in scramble mode virtually all season after Mike Conley went down after 12 games.

Brooks, as I argued before Stefanski was hired as senior adviser to Tom Gores, is the realistic best-case scenario for the Pistons with the 42nd pick.

A few more facts: The Pistons can’t use all of the mid-level exception without risking luxury tax and the lack of free-agent depth at the wing spots means the players most likely to be of immediate help are going to go fast and be costly. Waiting for free agency to solve that hole is risky. Thursday night might be Stefanski’s best shot at finding a solution short of the trade route, which could create a hole elsewhere.

At 42, you can’t afford to do anything but take the player you think has the best chance to carve out a meaningful NBA career. Stefanski won’t have the luxury of considering roster need. Now, it just might happen that he sits at 42 and the best available player also happens to be a small forward and, beyond that, someone as physically and emotionally capable of contributing as a rookie as Brooks was.

The greater likelihood, though, is that player – if he exists – will be taken from late in the first round to somewhere before pick 42 in the second. The draft tends to thin out when you get past the mid to late 30s. One relevant example: the 2012 draft when the Pistons had picks 39 and 44 in the second round. At 39, they took Khris Middleton and gave him three years, two guaranteed on his contract. At 44, they took Kim English and gave him only one guaranteed year – the best reflection of the reality of how deep the talent pool usually runs.

If Stefanski sees someone with a Middleton ceiling at pick 27 or 33 or 37, I’d expect him to do what he can to trade up. Who that trading partner might be, who knows?

Philadelphia picks 26th in the first round and 38th and 39th in the second among six second-round picks. Fair to guess the 76ers would be open to dealing at least one of those picks. If creating more cap space for a run at LeBron James is a thing in Philly, getting off the guaranteed money for the 26th pick might be attractive to 76ers management.

Orlando has picks at 35 and 41 ahead of the Pistons and already a ton of youth on its roster. Ditto for Sacramento, which has the 36th pick. Atlanta picks third, 19th and 30th in the first round, then picks again at 33. That might be Stefanski’s opening.

It’s tough to move up. Teams value draft picks more today than ever, another byproduct of the influence of analytics and the reality of the salary cap. Finding players who can out-produce their salary is invaluable. The more picks you have, the better your odds of finding such players. It might simply be too pricey for the Pistons to move up even a half-dozen or 10 spots.

So there’s no guarantee the Pistons will be able to do anything more than stay put at 42 and take their chances with finding this year’s Dillon Brooks sometime around 10 p.m. Thursday. But you might want to tune in an hour or so earlier than that, just in case.