AUBURN HILLS – It was easy to love Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a rookie contract. Played hard, played big minutes, defended, cared about winning, shot the 3-pointer without fear. Those are all the reasons Stan Van Gundy liked him and never came off his position that he wanted to retain him.
But it had to give him a little pause to consider the consequences of signing him for five years and $100 million.
There’s no guarantee Caldwell-Pope’s side would have taken a deal that averaged $20 million, mind you, with rumblings they expected to come out of free agency with a maximum contract. Why not? Otto Porter eventually got that from the Nets, an offer sheet of four years and $106 million – a tidy $26.5 million average. That’s the stratosphere the KCP side anticipated their rocket ship to free agency would explore, right there with Porter.
The Pistons made their best offer to Caldwell-Pope’s team last fall, when he was eligible to sign an extension, and they’re still waiting to hear a counter. In retrospect, it’s clear the Caldwell-Pope side anticipated another team was going to do the Pistons’ negotiating for them. But the offer sheet never came and, in fact, when Brooklyn came to terms with Porter on an offer sheet it eliminated Caldwell-Pope’s last best chance to land one.
So Washington – which has a four-year, $170 million “supermax” extension on the table that John Wall, somehow, is still contemplating – faces the prospect of paying nearly $100 million annually starting in 2019-20 for three players: Porter, Wall and Bradley Beal.
That’s a fine core, potentially a core poised to contend for the top of the East whenever Father Time catches up to – or wanderlust again wins the heart of – LeBron James.
But it’s also Washington’s team, for better or worse, for the foreseeable future.
And that’s what a max deal – or anything approaching an offer his side would’ve found satisfactory – would have done to the Pistons in retaining Caldwell-Pope. Land-locked them.
That would’ve been their tipping-point deal. After locking up Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson to market-rate deals, trading for Tobias Harris and using cap space last summer to sign Ish Smith, Jon Leuer and Boban Marjanovic to three- and four-year contracts, this would have been the roster that Van Gundy and Jeff Bower would’ve had to feel comfortable carrying into the decisive years of their administration.
It was the deal that was taking them into luxury tax, triggering certain limitations under the salary cap. Oh, the Pistons still could have made tweaks and even cobbled together significant trades, but there’s no more room for error. You have to be right about those big contracts because moving off of them is painful.
Example: Buzz around the league is that Houston, trying to clear cap space, would need to attach two No. 1 picks to the contract the Rockets handed out last summer to Ryan Anderson for four years and $80 million. If the Rockets stall out as a No. 4 seed in the West, that’s probably a pretty good place to start looking for reasons.
The Drummond-Jackson-Harris-Morris-KCP core surely hadn’t exhausted its potential here. They won 44 games two years ago – 16-9 after Harris was added and joined the starting lineup for the home stretch of ’16. They’re all either in or not yet to have entered their prime years, mostly the latter. Last year’s dip to 37 wins was mostly about Jackson’s dropoff in productivity after struggling to return from injury.
But Van Gundy never proclaimed the building over even at 44 wins and four tough, down-to-the-wire games with Cleveland in the playoffs. He firmly believed they could’ve gotten back to the 44-win level with room for growth if they’d signed Caldwell-Pope.
But how much room?
So the Avery Bradley possibility comes along – driven by Boston’s need to shed salary – and suddenly the Pistons don’t have to make a tipping-point decision. Bradley, two years older than Caldwell-Pope, was a cinch All-Star last season if he hadn’t gotten hurt. He’s an immediate upgrade, a legitimate All-Defense guy who averaged 16.3 and shot 39 percent from the 3-point arc.
It buys the Pistons another year to make critical assessments of key players, including Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard. It’s conceivable Bradley has a terrific year and the Pistons still don’t feel pressured to retain him in free agency if Kennard builds off his extremely encouraging Summer League and Van Gundy and Bower are right about Langston Galloway – a player who comes with Bradley’s attributes and, at 25, could be poised to skip a few rungs on the ladder.
There aren’t many what-ifs to count to get to the Pistons being back in the playoffs next season. It’s not a given, even in a conference where at least Chicago and Indiana among last year’s playoff teams are diminished, but it’s a reasonable bet.
But, more than that, Van Gundy and Bower played this one so that the Pistons will put a playoff-worthy team on the court for their first season at Little Caesars Arena while keeping open the door to making further changes down the line. That door would’ve been shut – or barely ajar, at least – had the bidding for KCP gone where it appeared to be headed a few weeks ago.