Every NBA team - every team in any sport, for that matter - is constantly striving towards the implementation or development of a “core”, a stock of young, talented players to build around. With a star or two (or four, if you’re the Golden State Warriors) in place, role players are acquired and an organizational philosophy is adopted. All this must be done before a team can be considered a contender; a jumbled mess of directionless moves and assets almost never goes anywhere.
As is widespread knowledge at this point, Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons team has fallen far short of preseason expectations, leaving many confused as to what course of action to pursue next. Luckily for them, at this point in the season, there are perhaps more options to rectify a bad situation than at any other time during the year. The February 23rd trade deadline looms, meaning deals will be made, players will relocate, and the trajectories of several teams will be altered. The opportunity for change is certainly there, but before drastic moves are made, it’s important to step back and consider just what exactly the Detroit’s front office is working with regarding their team.
The first thing to recognize is that the Pistons have starters under contract long-term at every position, with the exception of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who we’ll get to later. In fact, all of Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Jon Leuer, and Ish Smith are locked up through at least 2019, or the next two seasons, with Drummond, Jackson, and Leuer’s deals extending another year after that. This young, specialized personnel grouping is the work of Van Gundy, who is seeking to replicate the same success he had in Orlando with star center Dwight Howard in Detroit with Drummond.
To build around his big man, SVG’s crafted lineup features two combo forwards in Morris and Harris, one three-and-D two-guard in Caldwell-Pope, and one young, speedy point guard in Reggie Jackson. All the pieces should be in place, especially after an offseason in which the Pistons shored up their biggest weakness, the bench, by adding backups Smith and Leuer.
In 2016, the Pistons finished a surprising 44-38, sneaking into the playoffs as an eight seed. All key pieces were returning, the bench had been bolstered, and some growth was to be expected, both on the part of the team’s cohesiveness and among individual players.
Of course, as is the nature of the NBA, even the best-laid plans can go awry. The Pistons have sputtered to a 22-27 start and sit just out of the playoff picture in the East, a far cry from where they were “supposed” to be. An injury to Jackson put the team at a disadvantage to begin the year, but the fact of the matter is things have not gotten better since his return. Aside from going 2-1 in October, the Pistons have yet to post a winning month this season and now possess the league’s 18th-best net rating. Issues have been pointed out in various areas, such as Andre Drummond’s inefficient post-ups or the team’s lackluster performance in hustle stats, but problems extend beyond some simple weaknesses.
Having all the pieces together and yet still not finding success presents a conundrum to Detroit’s front office: do they blow up the roster and rebuild, stand pat with what they’ve got, or look to move and acquire players at key positions?
Although they have been mentioned in the same conversation as a potential Carmelo Anthony deal, it’s very unlikely that a star will find their way to Detroit this season through the trade market, given the Pistons’ already tight cap situation and carefully constructed roster.
Any smaller-scale deal the Pistons can pull off would probably involve Marcus Morris. His positional versatility and incredibly affordable contract (two more years at $5 million per) would make him an attractive asset to a contender seeking help or a franchise in need of cap relief. Although he’s shot 41 percent from the field and takes a large portion of his shots from midrange, he’s averaging over 17 points and six rebounds over his last 10 games. Fellow forward Tobias Harris is also on a friendly deal, making just under $15 million in 2019 on a front-loaded contract. It’s tough to think of any major pieces the Pistons would look to shop, but reports have suggested that either of Aron Baynes or Boban Marjanovic could be moved, which makes sense given that either can really receive adequate playing time behind Drummond as is.
On the issue of Caldwell-Pope, the correct decision is once again to hold form and extend his contract, no matter the cost. It’s likely that he will command close to $20 million per season, similar to the deals signed by Victor Oladipo and Allen Crabbe last summer. With their current salary cap situation, the Pistons could go above the limit to extend KCP, but could not use the money for another player. With only Stanley Johnson slotted behind Caldwell-Pope on the depth chart, Detroit simply cannot afford to let their shooting guard walk.
It’s not an exciting proposition to simply stay the course and focus efforts internally, but at this point, it’s the right way to go for the Pistons. They’ve had success with their current core before, so returning to form will require them to salvage things internally.