Things move fast in free agency. The Pistons, like all teams, hold endless hours of meetings to shape their strategy for July 1. But often plans A, B and C go out the window before the sun rises on the first day of free agency.
The ability to tack left or right as the winds shift is increasingly critical in a league where shorter contracts mean a greater percentage of rosters turn over every off-season.
If there’s one thing Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons have demonstrated in three off-seasons on the job since he was hired by owner Tom Gores in May 2014 is that the front office is extraordinarily light on its feet. When opportunities arise, there is no mad scramble to gather background information or form consensus opinions on players suddenly made available as teams that strike out in free agency turn to the trade market for solutions.
The most striking example came on July 1, 2015, when the favored options to address a need at small forward evaporated in the opening hours of free agency. When Phoenix offered the Pistons a chance to get Marcus Morris, they mobilized and had an answer before sunset.
Sure, the price was laughably easy to digest – a second-round pick five years into the future, with a promising young player in Reggie Bullock thrown in for good measure. But it nevertheless represented the Pistons’ one best shot to plug a hole in their starting lineup. They needed to be right about Morris’ ability to fill a role he’d never held in his first four years – full-time NBA starter.
They were. And Van Gundy says the reason the Pistons were so confident about Morris’ readiness to take a big leap on the career ladder was the work of his pro scouting department. Unique to the NBA, the Pistons – as part of Van Gundy’s vision spelled out to Gores in their spring 2014 meetings – employ four full-time pro scouts who watch, either in person or on videotape, 90-plus percent of NBA games and file weekly scouting reports on all NBA players to assistant general manager Jeff Nix and ultimately to general manager Jeff Bower.
Those reports – in specific weekly snapshots and in big-picture composites – give Van Gundy, Bower and Nix all the information at their fingertips for exactly such need-to-know moments.
And it played a big role in the cherry atop their off-season sundae this July, as well. With their two critical off-season needs – a power forward with the size to guard conventional power forwards and a backup point guard – satisfied by agreements with Jon Leuer and Ish Smith, the Pistons still had a sizable amount of cap space left over.
They batted around the possibilities, understanding that they were almost sure to have zero cap space next summer given the recent new contract for Andre Drummond and the expectation that they’ll need to spend a considerable sum to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2017. It was a case of spend it now or see it disappear.
With the likelihood that Aron Baynes will opt out of his contract next July and the Pistons limited to offering him 175 percent of his 2016-17 salary in holding only “early Bird” rights to Baynes – or an offer capped at about $11.4 million in first-year salary – Van Gundy feared the Pistons would be left without a backup center and no obvious avenue to find a suitable replacement.
So they scanned the available centers in free agency 2016 and decided to exploit San Antonio’s precarious cap situation to present an offer sheet to Boban Marjanovic that the Spurs – because they didn’t hold Marjanovic’s Bird rights – couldn’t match.
But Marjanovic had precious little NBA track record. Would the Pistons have moved so confidently to sign him if not for the work their pro scouting department had logged?
“No,” Van Gundy answers, immediately and emphatically. “The guy only played 500 minutes. We saw almost all of them. I’m reading our guys, the reports were about unanimous that this guy is a rotation player in the NBA.”
Van Gundy wanted to see more for himself, so he “did a rush job” on videotape when the idea to go after Marjanovic was presented to him.
“I watched on Synergy a good portion of those 500 minutes,” he said. “And the guy’s a good player. So there were two key things in that: number one, having the scouting background that we had and, number two, having the strategy to look ahead and do it.”
Van Gundy thinks a minute and comes up with a third significant factor.
“A third thing would be to have ownership support on making a move like that. Like, why are we spending that much money on a third center. When a lot of people saw that move, they went, ‘Wow.’ Not that he’s not a good player, not that he’s not worth it. But, ‘Why would they spend money on a third center?’
“It was to protect ourselves. You’ve got to have an ownership that understands you’re building. It’s the same thing Tom’s been saying the whole time: We want to win now, but we’re also building for the future. It certainly doesn’t hurt us now; it helps us now. It certainly helps us in the future. And so you’re able to make that move.”
That part about getting ownership to sign off shouldn’t be forgotten. Last year’s No. 3 center, Joel Anthony, played 96 minutes all season – the equivalent of two NBA games – and a quarter of that came in the season finale when Van Gundy rested all five starters. If Andre Drummond and Baynes stay healthy in the season ahead, Marjanovic’s appearances might be few and far between.
But with a thin free-agent market for centers next off-season and only a mid-level exception at their disposal, the Pistons made their move now – decisively and with the confidence they knew exactly what they were getting. Their history suggests they very likely do.