Ranking the returns: Which Pistons likeliest to be back for 2020-21?

There is one unassailable truth when it comes to NBA trades: You can’t separate the player from the contract.

To wit: A year ago at this time, if you’d have asked the average Pistons fan which player on the roster held the least trade value, the answer most likely would have come back as Jon Leuer.

Leuer, after all, had missed huge chunks of the previous two seasons with ankle and knee injuries. His last good season was in 2016-17 when he averaged 26 minutes a game. And he was making a healthy sum, on the books for $9.5 million in the final season of a four-year, $43 million deal signed in the hyperinflated summer of 2016 when the cap spiked.

But the Pistons traded Leuer for a starting-caliber wing, Tony Snell, plus Milwaukee’s first-round pick.

The reason the Bucks were willing to ship a first-rounder and a steady pro for a player they fully intended to waive (via the stretch provision)? The contracts. Leuer had a year left, Snell two years and $23.6 million. Moving the money – plus the guaranteed salary slot of the 30th pick – saved the Bucks cap space to try to preserve the guts of their roster and saved them considerable money in luxury taxes avoided.

So keep that in mind as you look at the Pistons roster and figure out which players are likeliest to stay and which could be on the move for a franchise that since last summer has entered a rebuilding phase – which means any and all players could be traded for the long-term good. Also keep in mind that the desire of teams to move contracts probably will be ratcheted up if the salary cap is adjusted downward from pre-COVID-19 projections.

A number of players on last year’s roster aren’t in the discussion as they’ll be free agents when Oct. 18 – the reported target date for the start of free agency in the revised NBA calendar – rolls around. Langston Galloway, Christian Wood, John Henson, Brandon Knight and Jordan McRae fall under that category.

Here’s a look at the rest of the roster in order of their likelihood to be Pistons to start the 2020-21 season:

Blake Griffin – He’s got two years at big money left (nearly $77 million) and he’s coming off a season in which he dragged his left leg through 18 games, necessitating a second surgery in eight months. It was a debridement – cleanup surgery, essentially – and Griffin has reported he’s raring to go, but teams that would salivate at the chance to stick a playmaking power forward with 3-point range in their lineup are going to want to see evidence of his health and effectiveness before entertaining ideas of trading for him. Griffin, thus, is the safest bet on the roster to open next season in a Pistons uniform.

Sekou Doumbouya – He’s worth more to the Pistons than anyone else at this point and he’s still the youngest player in the NBA. Doumbouya exhibited brilliant flashes last season when injuries rushed his timeline. It’ll be a huge developmental off-season for the French teen.

Bruce Brown – Guaranteeing his third-year contract will be a formality when July 10 arrives and the Pistons must make the call on Brown. He’d have value to other franchises, too, as a durable, versatile and high-level perimeter defender. But his greatest value is to the Pistons as Dwane Casey’s defensive tone-setter.

Derrick Rose – Rose, similar to Brown, would generate a lot of interest in trade but his value to the Pistons is clear. He’s the only point guard on the roster as it stands today and he’s their best points generator. If the Pistons adequately address point guard, short and long term, prior to opening night, then Rose would be a more logical trade candidate at next season’s deadline. For now, he’s an odds-on pick to be introduced on opening night.

Svi Mykhailiuk – Came on strong in the final days before the season was suspended in March and could be poised for a broader role with another productive off-season. Like Brown’s situation, the Pistons almost certainly will pick up the third year of Mykhailiuk’s contract.

Luke Kennard – Kennard’s name surfaced in trade rumors last February but his value surely was diminished by the fact he hadn’t played a game in more than a month with tendinitis in both knees. He was ready to return – would have, in fact, for the March 14 game at Toronto – when the season was suspended. Kennard’s shooting, playmaking and age (23) make him a logical piece for a rebuilding team with the only uncertainty a question of what it will take to keep him. Kennard, entering the final year of his rookie contract and headed for restricted free agency in 2021 if no extension is signed prior to opening night, would hold significant appeal to playoff teams and the acquiring team would have two years of team control.

Tony Snell – He’s now in the same spot Leuer was in a year ago and, thus, a player the Pistons could flip in a similar scenario – trade him for a veteran with more than one year remaining attached to assets in the form of draft picks or young talent. He still holds value for the Pistons in being a reliable defender and a 40 percent 3-point shooter – traits contenders always covet, furthering his trade stock.

Thon Maker – The Pistons have until June 29 as it currently stands – one day before what would have been the start of free agency – to extend a qualifying offer and make Maker a restricted free agent. That’s probably not likely though Dwane Casey is an enthusiastic fan of Maker for his motor and selflessness. Maker has a fair chance to return, though, but more likely on a smaller deal than the $4.86 million qualifying offer.

Khyri Thomas – The Pistons will have more of a decision with Thomas than they will with Brown or Mykhailiuk when it comes to bringing him back for a third year. Injuries have held Thomas back and he’s fallen behind in the wing pecking order, but he’s still got the same potential as a 3-and-D talent that prompted Ed Stefanski to trade into the 30s and make Thomas his first Pistons draft pick less than two years ago. He’ll be on a minimum contact, too, so Thomas won’t take up much cap space. The question will come down to whether the Pistons value the roster spot – which could be valuable in acquiring players that yield draft-pick compensation, as well – more than Thomas’ untapped potential.

Jordan Bone/Louis King/Donta Hall – Bone and King will be restricted free agents coming off their two-way seasons. Both showed promise, though neither is a lead-pipe lock to return. Hall’s second 10-day contract was set to run out as the season was suspended. The expectation is that he’ll be given a shot to stick next season, but the Pistons will put the rest of their roster together first, in all likelihood.