Stefanski on free agency: ‘We’re going to have to be patient and see’

AUBURN HILLS – The Pistons picked a good year to have no cap space. They have plenty of company. Across the NBA, only a handful of teams will have more than the mid-level exception to spend in free agency when it opens on Sunday.

“It’s your best scenario when there isn’t much money to go around like there was a few years ago,” said Ed Stefanski, hired last month as senior advisor to owner Tom Gores. “We’re just going to have to be patient and see.”

The Pistons return all five starters – Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson – plus key bench players Ish Smith, Luke Kennard and Jon Leuer. And both Stefanski and newly hired Dwane Casey, fresh off winning Coach of the Year, have indicated they expect 2016 No. 1 pick Henry Ellenson to cement a more important role in 2018-19. Also under contract are Eric Moreland, Langston Galloway and Dwight Buycks.

So Stefanski can afford the patience he anticipates exercising through the first wave of free agency when the few teams with cap space chase premier free agents. Because there are more free agents than salary slots available for them, there inevitably will be several players scrambling for something more than a veteran’s minimum deal in the second and third waves of free agency.

“I look at what our core is right now,” Stefanski said. “We have more than enough to compete. If we could get fortunate to add to that spot, that’s what we’ll do.”

Adding a veteran to compete for minutes with Johnson at small forward is Stefanski’s likeliest play, though the crop of free-agent wings isn’t teeming with proven options. With all teams putting a premium on versatile defenders who can switch comfortably in pick and rolls, front offices are doing what they can to lock up the best at that position before they get to free agency.

While the Pistons have the mid-level exception at their disposal, using all of it without making other moves to shed salary would put them into tax territory. Even at that, the Pistons have plenty of company. It’s estimated that about a dozen other teams are in the same straits. The Pistons, by various estimates, can probably spend about $5 million and stay below the tax line. They can spend that all on one player – likely a small forward – or split it over multiple players, though the roster would argue against overpopulating other positions.

Rookies Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown, both of whom will be 22 when training camp starts, are physically mature – Brown had the best bench press performance at the NBA draft combine with 16 reps and Thomas wasn’t far behind at 14 – and advanced defensively, meaning they could be viable rotation challengers. But neither would be likely capable of filling Johnson’s role at the defensive end should he miss significant time with injury.

“With the limited funds, we’ll be in the background,” Stefanski said of Sunday’s opening frenzy. “We’ll talk to agents after the (July 1), tell them we like their players if they fall through the cracks. I’d say probably the wing position would be the one spot. If we could address it, that’s probably the number one priority.”

Of the two Pistons who were part of the rotation to end last season not under contract for 2018-19, Anthony Tolliver and James Ennis, Ennis is the likelier to return. That’s because he both better fits roster need as a small forward and is likelier to be in the team’s price range.

“They’re still on our list,” Stefanski said. “We like both players. I was with James in Memphis. Tolliver, the people in Detroit, teammates and everybody, loved the guy. So they’re still in play. It’s all going to depend on what kind of money is out there and the demand for both of those players. The ball is more in their court than ours.”