Pistons Priorities

Free agency the first order of business as NBA nears startup date
So, what now for the Pistons? Though Joe Dumars and his staff had more than five months since the end of the draft and the start of training camp and put that time to the best possible use, the sudden coming together of the new collective bargaining agreement that ended the 149-day lockout has all 30 NBA front offices scrambling – scrambling to understand the fine print of the CBA, deciding how it affects their rosters given the new salary-cap implications, figuring out how to fill out those rosters within those constraints and gauging the moves the new working agreement will require other teams to make.

Here are the issues the Pistons’ front office will have to work through in the short run-up to the start of the 2011-12 NBA season:

1. How to proceed with Tayshaun Prince – This is likely the first decision that will be required and it’s the most layered. Dumars drafted Prince 23rd in 2002, he moved into the starting lineup during the playoffs of his rookie season and he’s been a staple ever since, providing the Pistons with steady and often spectacular defense while being whatever was asked of him on offense. At 31, he still has at least a few prime years left. But does he have four or five prime years left?

The Pistons might be at a point they’re ready to consider life without the security blanket Prince provides as they further their transition to a younger core. But getting to that decision requires assumptions about the readiness of young players – players the Pistons have not had the benefit of observing since last June. The Pistons have alternatives at small forward, though their options dwindled by one with this week’s news that rookie Kyle Singler, their second-round pick out of Duke, will finish out the season in Spain after opening eyes with his strong play through the season’s first nine games in the world’s second best league.

With Singler apparently removed from the picture – for this season, at least; the Pistons retain his NBA rights and the expectation is that he will be with them in 2012-13 – Austin Daye would be next in line should Prince sign elsewhere.

Furthering uncertainty at the position, veteran Tracy McGrady is also a free agent. He defied expectations last season after three injury-plagued seasons and coming off of microfracture knee surgery. Both sides left the door open to a return when last season ended, but the long off-season and inability of Pistons strength coach Arnie Kander to continue his work with McGrady means all bets are off in pursuit of McGrady, who might be looking to land with a title contender.

In addition, Jonas Jerebko is back after missing all of 2010-11 recovering from a preseason Achilles tendon tear and is capable of playing either forward spot. Jerebko, by all accounts, is champing at the bit and reportedly in tip-top shape. Late last season, he had put on a solid 10 to 15 pounds while maintaining his athleticism, he felt. With the drafting of Brandon Knight, Lawrence Frank might choose to use Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey at small forward when the matchups are advantageous.

But having many options might not comfort Pistons management if they aren’t sure they add up to certainty at the position. Is the new coaching staff sold on Daye? Do they see Jerebko as more of a power forward? Could Frank even toy with the idea of using Charlie Villanueva at small forward?

It’s not as if the ball is completely in the Pistons’ court here. The decision to sign here or elsewhere rests with Prince. The Pistons, at a minimum, would be interested in a sign-and-trade deal that gives them something back in return. There have been reports of interest from other teams in Prince already, though take all such reports with a grain of salt at this point. The league will be cramming an entire off-season into a matter of days. Things will happen with dizzying rapidity starting Dec. 9.

2. How to proceed with Rodney Stuckey – This isn’t nearly as complicated. Dumars made it clear last season that the Pistons wanted Rodney Stuckey to return. He’s a restricted free agent. The Pistons are almost certain to match any offer Stuckey might fetch, and because other NBA teams are fully aware of that, it wouldn’t be a shocker if Stuckey wasn’t presented an offer sheet that tempts him. That would mean the Pistons and Stuckey negotiating a long-term deal. Stuckey could, of course, play out the season for the Pistons’ qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent next season. Either way, it’s likely Stuckey plays for the Pistons in 2011-12.

3. Preparing for an offer sheet to Jonas Jerebko – Other teams are probably nearly as certain that the Pistons will match any reasonable offer for Jerebko as for Stuckey. But because Jerebko won’t command the same type of deal – and because he’s coming off a major injury – teams willing to roll the dice on Jerebko could more easily construct a “poison pill” contract that tests the Pistons’ resolve, not unlike the types of offer sheets Portland gave to Utah restricted free agents Paul Millsap and Wesley Matthews in recent off-seasons. The Pistons, though, are in a more advantageous position than those Utah teams were because they are in no danger of being a tax-paying team. The odds aren’t great that Jerebko could be pried away, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility.

4. Deciding how to address the backcourt – Assuming Stuckey is retained, the Pistons will have five players for two guard spots, all five at points in their careers where they expect a significant role. Rookie Brandon Knight would logically be the most patient, except that he’s a lottery pick and represents a major piece of the Pistons’ future. Given their frontcourt needs, a trade seems in order. Trades might be put on the back burner, though, as teams are first forced to address free agency. So there’s a likelihood, perhaps, that the season will open with all five guards on the roster. That might not be a bad thing for Lawrence Frank, who would get to use the early season to tinker with combinations and see who fits best in his system while Joe D works the phones.

5. How to add another big man – How much under the cap the Pistons can remain after determining how they will go about retaining Stuckey and Jerebko while signing rookies Knight and Vernon Macklin will determine how many options they’ll have to address frontcourt needs. The known commodity is Greg Monroe, coming off a remarkable last four months to his rookie season. He’ll play 30-plus minutes a night at center, most likely, though his ability to play power forward will enable the Pistons to approach free-agent possibilities with flexibility. Around him, Villanueva, Jerebko, Jason Maxiell, Ben Wallace (assuming he returns, as seems likely) and Macklin are possibilities. Chris Wilcox, who finished 2010-11 with the best basketball of his two-year stint as a Piston, is a free agent who could return.

There are other details of the new collective bargaining agreement that also could shape thinking and influence how the Pistons and other teams approach the onset of free agency. One thing’s for sure now: After a summer of endless uncertainty, we don’t have long to wait now to see which path the Pistons choose.