The off-season ahead, already uncertain for Pistons, faces an additional layer of mystery
The world was a very different place in the first days of 2020. We now know the coronavirus was already on the radar of public health and intelligence officials, but it had yet to penetrate mainstream consciousness – or transform the world as we know it.
The Pistons were in a different place then, too. The season had taken a hard wrong turn a few months before that when a wave of injuries washed over them, but as an organization they’d not yet made any hard calls on their future.
But they knew that day was staring them down.
“I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate in the next couple of weeks,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said on Jan. 2 at Staples Center when the Pistons played the Clippers. “We have to, as an organization, take a look at things – what makes sense and what doesn’t and evaluate the injuries and how that’s impacted us. I think we have to evaluate. When you’re not winning, you have to evaluate.”
That was a little more than a month ahead of the trade deadline, at which time the Pistons beat the clock by less than 30 minutes before dealing Andre Drummond to Cleveland for a future second-round pick. That pick wasn’t the carrot for the Pistons so much as the opportunity to rebuild enabled by clearing Drummond’s 2020-21 salary of nearly $29 million.
But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season another month later, throwing into disarray the planning for the future that the Pistons and their peers around the NBA had begun.
The salary cap for 2020-21 was projected to be $115 million but no one is certain what it might ultimately be set at. If the NBA can resume the 2019-20 season, it is most likely to be without fans. In any case, a significant amount of revenue that informed the $115 million projection figures to be missing. If there is a negotiated adjustment to the cap, then all the usual unknowns of a typical NBA free agency season will be a degree of magnitude greater.
The Pistons were projected to have somewhere around $35 million in cap space, more than all but New York ($48 million) and Atlanta ($38 million). Only five other teams were expected to have cap space above the anticipated mid-level exception amount of $9.7 million, so eight of the league’s 30 teams – 27 percent – would go into free agency with a decided advantage.
If the NBA and its Players Association negotiate a new deal within the collective bargaining agreement to cover the seasons made aberrant by the pandemic, then what are the ripple effects for the Pistons?
If the cap is lowered, are salaries commensurately lowered so that the Pistons are still one of the few teams with enough cap room to sign someone to a maximum contract – and would the caps on maximum contracts be similarly affected? If the cap is lowered without a commensurate adjustment to contracts in place, then fewer teams – perhaps no teams – would have tools beyond cap exceptions to offer in free agency.
The Pistons resisted the course of bottoming out in an attempt to build a powerhouse contender more quickly – a course with a spotty track record of success – at various low points over the past decade. The self-evaluation that took place between their January visit to Los Angeles and the trade deadline sent them down another path. Now the coronavirus has strewn that path with obstacles whose challenges remain unfathomable.
To be sure, the analytics departments for all 30 teams will go into overdrive studying the ramifications of whatever the NBA and players decide upon if the pandemic means that it won’t be business as usual in the 2020-21 season. The Pistons are as committed to analytics as any organization under Gores’ stewardship – something he brought with him from his business empire, Platinum Equity, built on a devotion to analytics to spot business inefficiencies – and he’s armed them amply in that area. It will serve them well in perhaps the most uncertain days the NBA has ever faced.