You won’t find their names anywhere on the lengthy transactions list that Thursday’s NBA trade deadline produced, but the one trade Troy Weaver executed absolutely was made with Killian Hayes, Saben Lee and Dennis Smith Jr. in mind.
It was going to be more than challenging for Dwane Casey to find enough minutes for all of the young point guards the Pistons hope to evaluate and develop over the season’s final seven weeks – especially once Hayes returns, close to imminently, from the hip injury that has sidelined him since Jan. 4.
So the Delon Wright-for-Corey Joseph deal was motivated in part by that consideration, in part by adding draft assets and in part by the chance to do even more maneuvering in a few months.
The exchange of former Toronto point guards under Dwane Casey - Wright and Joseph spent two seasons as teammates – also reeled in two second-round picks and a contract that could be a tool to add even more draft capital over the off-season.
The immediate impact, though, is a clearer path to playing time for Smith and Lee with Hayes not far behind. And without a G League team, getting Hayes and Lee minutes in games to augment their practice and individual drill work was of paramount importance.
Over a seven-game stretch that began in late February when Wright was hurt, Lee played at least 20 minutes in each game and made an impression with his ability to get in the paint and make plays and wreak havoc on the ball defensively. For all the value of practice time and drills with coaches, getting to put it to the test helped Lee immeasurably.
“Just being out there, game reps are way different than individual reps or practice reps,” Lee said Thursday. “Just getting different scenarios, more read and react, not necessarily so much scripted but just kind of playing off the defense. It’s way more beneficial, I would say.”
“There’s nothing that replaces a game,” Casey said. “We were kind of put behind the eight ball (without a G League season), but playing time for Saben in games is very valuable. We’re in the same situation as far as who gets the job done, deciding who gets to play between he, Dennis and Killian. Make sure we see what combinations work together and who can play with who. Can Killian play off the ball as the secondary ballhandler? Can he play as the primary ballhandler? Those things we want to see and give him time.”
Joseph, 29, played under Casey for two seasons in Toronto before the emergence of Wright and Fred VanVleet made him expendable. In 44 games with Sacramento this season, Joseph averaged 6.6 points and 2.5 assists in 21 minutes a game.
The two second-round picks the Pistons acquired are reportedly the 2021 Lakers pick and the 2024 Kings pick. Adding the Los Angeles pick gives the Pistons three 2021 second-rounders – they don’t have their own, now in the hands of the Knicks, but do have Toronto’s and Charlotte’s.
There isn’t much likelihood the Pistons will keep all three – and even less of a likelihood that they’d choose to keep four more rookies on next season’s roster. But those additional second-rounders could be dealt for future years when the Pistons – who traded four second-rounders to the Clippers in the deal that netted them the pick they used on Saddiq Bey – don’t have any. Or they could possibly be combined to help the Pistons acquire another first-round pick if Weaver – who picked up additional first-rounders he turned into Bey and Isaiah Stewart in the 2020 draft – sees value in that draft range.
Wright has another year at a reported $8.5 million left on his contract, while Joseph has a reported $12.6 million left in the final year of his deal for 2021-22 – but only $2.4 million of that is guaranteed. That makes his contract one that could be attractive in trade around the draft for teams looking to shed salary by trading a guaranteed deal – sweetened with draft assets – for Joseph and then waiving him to incur only the small guaranteed portion of his contract on the salary cap for 2021-22.
For the rest of this season, at least, Joseph’s experience and familiarity with Casey will allow him to slide into the Wright role as a stabilizing influence. His durability over his career has been remarkable, missing a total of seven games over the past seven seasons. In 2016-17, his last in Toronto, Joseph averaged a career-high 9.3 points.
But the big takeaway from the trade was more about the Pistons clearing the decks to find out as much as they can about the three young point guards they’ve added over the last few months and how they fit into their future.