The Pistons won’t be major players in free agency this summer – next summer, different story – and that works out pretty well for them. Not a great free-agent class plus not much cap space plus precious few roster spots makes for a pretty convenient meshing of salient facts.
There’s more than a realistic chance the Pistons won’t bring back any of the four players who are or likely will be unrestricted free agents. You can see a world where they make a play for Wayne Ellington, given his elite 3-point shooting, a clear team need for that skill and Ellington’s ideal makeup for a young team in transition. But he’ll have suitors for those same reasons and, as a 12-year veteran, might choose to latch on to a title contender if that chance arises.
Rodney McGruder and Cory Joseph are two others the Pistons highly value for character as well as an ability to fill any role required – and if they were on more favorable contracts or if roster spots were more plentiful, bringing them back would be an easy call. But the guarantees are what they are and they alone make it unlikely – though not out of the question – that they’ll return. Similarly, Dennis Smith Jr.’s cap hold of nearly $8 million to make him a restricted free agent is likely prohibitive.
But even if none of those four players return, the Pistons still will have to be selective with their acquisitions this off-season. Remember what general manager Troy Weaver said when the season ended in May?
“I don’t anticipate having too many roster spots available. We like our group and are excited about the guys under contract and even our own free agents. I don’t anticipate much turnover at all. I would say maybe one or two additions from outside, but the assets from the Pistons moving forward are all in house. It’s internal development and growth and that will be our focus this summer.”
If you’re going to break down the roster of 17 players – 15 on standard contracts plus two two-way deals – who finished the 2020-21 season and group them by likelihood of returning in descending order of certainty, I’d group them this way:
SLAM DUNKS (5): Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey, Jerami Grant, No. 1 pick.
The three rookie first-rounders aren’t going anywhere, of course, unless a most unlikely trade proposal comes that includes one or more of them. They’d all have trade value, considerable in most cases, but it’s tough to imagine the value of the rookies being greater to others than to the Pistons at this stage of their development.
Grant, whose Olympic inclusion reflects the status he’s achieved among NBA front offices, would fetch a hefty return but he’s critical to the Pistons in the here and now on multiple levels.
First is the obvious one: He’s their offensive centerpiece and the guy who helps establish an order that defines roles more easily for teammates. The Pistons want to be competitive, just as Grant allowed them to compete in 2020-21 even with all their youth and roster turnover. Trade him for the future draft picks he’d command and you’re throwing all the young players already in the pipeline to the wolves in roles they’re not yet suited to fill.
Then there’s the statement Grant made on the Pistons behalf by choosing them in free agency over the same offer to remain a vital cog of the 2020 Western Conference finalist, Denver. Grant spoke of the trust he had in Weaver as the principal motivating factor in his eyebrow-raising decision to come to Detroit. Weaver, for his part, saw Grant validate a vision for him that few others held. One year into their partnership would seem a very unlikely time to unravel it.
The No. 1 pick is … well, I don’t think we need to explain why the No. 1 pick isn’t going anywhere. If the Pistons exercise the pick as opposed to trading it on draft night for a trove of assets, then you can bank on that player in the opening night lineup.
LAYUPS (2): Mason Plumlee, Saben Lee
Mason Plumlee has two years left on his three-year deal – he and Grant were the only free agents Weaver signed last fall to more than two years – and the same reasons that made him important to Weaver and Dwane Casey last year still apply. Stewart’s emergence means it’s closer to a 50-50 partnership at center than the Pistons could have imagined it would be this soon, but Plumlee’s durability and reliability make him a highly valued asset.
Saben Lee slots in with his three fellow rookies as part of Weaver’s “core four.” The fact he’ll be a restricted free agent cracks the door for the possibility he won’t be back, but it’s a crack barely wide enough to allow light to penetrate.
FREE THROWS (6): Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson, Josh Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, Sekou Doumbouya, Deividas Sirvydis
Diallo and Frank Jackson are restricted free agents, so all the usual cautions apply. Restricted free agents most often wind up with the home team if there’s mutual interest, but it’s conceivable Diallo draws an offer sizable enough to give the Pistons pause. In the case of Frank Jackson, the Pistons are hamstrung to a degree by the reality of his non-Bird rights status, limiting how much they can offer.
Josh Jackson could be a trade target given the sum of his status: one reasonable year left for a guy who plays hard and can be a defensive force. Okafor is a clear No. 3 on the center depth chart, but the Pistons under Weaver aren’t likely to go with just two big men.
Doumbouya and Sirvydis are the only two of the 17 players who finished the season acquired before Weaver’s arrival in June 2020. Both 2019 draft picks figure are facing big seasons to determine their futures, but given that their trade value is fuzzy it’s reasonable to assume they’ll get to make their case with the Pistons.
3-POINTER (1): Tyler Cook
Cook signed a standard contract after two 10-day deals that will keep him with the Pistons through the off-season. To some degree, his fate is tied to other moves. If things fall into place for the Pistons in free agency, it’s going to be a numbers game for Cook with roster spots. The Pistons probably will be looking for help at point guard and for a versatile big man – 3-point ability at both spots is likely part of the package – in free agency and that could put a squeeze on Cook in the frontcourt depth chart.
If the Pistons keep everybody but Ellington, Joseph, McGruder and Smith, that still leaves them with only three slots, two of them two-way deals, once the addition of the No. 1 overall pick is factored into the equation. They’re probably going to need to make room for at least one more standard contract to accommodate the signing of two role-playing free agents. Trades, of course, are one way to thin out the roster. And since Weaver made 10 trades between mid-November 2020 when the NBA transactions moratorium lifted and the late-March 2021 trade deadline, that’s probably the likeliest way the Pistons create roster space this off-season.