AUBURN HILLS – Trades can but rarely do happen at this time of year. The Pistons and any other team out of the playoffs can swap players today if they see the fit. The Pistons, in fact, pulled off a trade two springs ago during the playoffs for Ersan Ilyasova – though that was June, not April.
But the conversations taking place out at 6 Championship Drive right now are the ones driving whatever personnel changes the Pistons figure to pursue over the off-season, talks gathering steam as the draft nears and then intensifying after the June 22 draft and the first wave of free agency in early July.
As the 2016-17 wound down, Stan Van Gundy made clear that the roster he’s turned over almost completely in his three seasons on the job – Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope the only holdovers – won’t be dumped wholesale but likely will experience a little churning over the summer.
“There has to be some changes,” Van Gundy said. “We have to make good evaluations of the guys who can and are willing to make some of those changes, which means who are the guys we’re going to bet on to make improvements in their game and who are the guys we can bet on their professionalism and commitment on a night-to-night basis. … I don’t think there’s any inconsistency in saying I like the guys but I’ve got to figure out who fits what we want in terms of making those kinds of changes.”
Some years, the roster makes decisions for you with free agency deciding who’s going and narrowing the focus on whom to pursue. But the Pistons have some measure of team control over 13 of the 15 players who made up the 2016-17 roster. Only veterans Aron Baynes and Beno Udrih can become unrestricted free agents, certain in Udrih’s case and all but in that of Baynes, who can and almost surely will exercise his opt-out clause.
Here’s a look at each position and the decisions, where applicable, facing the Pistons:
CENTER – Andre Drummond is the incumbent starter and, at 23, is under contract for three more seasons with a player option for the 2020-21 season. Boban Marjanovic is under contract for two more years and is expected to assume Baynes’ spot as Drummond’s backup.
Van Gundy can and probably will make greater use of Jon Leuer and perhaps Henry Ellenson at center next season for two reasons: It gives the Pistons a more diverse offense with shooting from all five positions and helps them match up better against teams that put out similar units – an increasing trend.
POWER FORWARD – Tobias Harris and Leuer split starts at the position last year with Harris flourishing as the scoring anchor for the second unit when used in that role. Harris is under contract for two more seasons and Leuer for three more. Leuer played well before the All-Star break, then slumped after already exceeding his previous career high in minutes played at that point.
Ellenson, with three more years of his rookie deal ahead of him, could push Leuer for minutes in training camp. Would the prospect of Ellenson’s ascension make Leuer someone the Pistons are willing to consider in trade packages? That’s among the topics likely on the table during the Van Gundy-led staff evaluations ongoing.
SMALL FORWARD – Marcus Morris is the incumbent starter on a team-friendly contract – a fraction over $10 million total – over the next two seasons. While that makes him valuable to the Pistons – and Van Gundy left strong impressions over the course of the season of how highly he valued Morris’ toughness and professionalism – it also makes him attractive to trade suitors. It would be a tough decision for Van Gundy to part with Morris, but there probably is a tough decision coming for him at some point this summer.
It would be an easier call, perhaps, if Stanley Johnson hadn’t plateaued – some would say regressed – over his second season. Van Gundy still has expectations that Johnson can develop into an elite defender and let his offensive game naturally evolve from that footing, but he might not be ready to guarantee him a role beyond his current standing without proving himself first. Johnson has two years left on his rookie contract. Behind him, Michael Gbinije had a rookie season of unfortunate nagging injuries but showed promise as a 3-and-D prospect. In fact, Van Gundy said at mid-season he felt Gbinije could be his best perimeter wing defender.
SHOOTING GUARD – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, as does Reggie Bullock. The unlikeliest option is that Caldwell-Pope goes the route of Greg Monroe in 2014 and signs a qualifying offer to become an unrestricted free agent the following summer. He’ll most likely either sign an offer sheet from another NBA franchise – giving the Pistons 72 hours to match or pass – or come to a long-term agreement with the Pistons directly.
In any case, as Van Gundy has said, the Pistons are guaranteed the right to have Caldwell-Pope in their uniform next season under any of the three scenarios: a matched offer sheet, an extension agreement or a qualifying offer.
Bullock hit 4 of 5 3-point shots in the season finale, giving the Pistons – starved for 3-point efficiency – one last reminder why they’ll have to consider him. He’s been productive at a significantly consistent rate when given regular rotation minutes, but injuries – mostly minor, aside from a knee cartilage procedure that knocked him out for about six weeks last season – have prevented him from staking claim to a more permanent role.
Retaining Caldwell-Pope might make keeping Bullock prohibitively expensive for a team that will be flirting with the luxury tax over the next few seasons. But what offers Bullock might fetch is tough to project given his sketchy career resume over four seasons.
The Pistons hold a team option for Darrun Hilliard’s third season. The prospect of losing Bullock, and the appeal of Hilliard’s ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays, makes it more likely than not they bring him back. A good Summer League showing, assuming he’s a participant, couldn’t hurt. Gbinije’s presence could be another factor.
POINT GUARD – There’s one opening here as Udrih hits the free-agent market. It wouldn’t be a shocker if he comes back behind Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith, with three and two years left, respectively, on their contracts. Van Gundy had utter trust in Udrih’s ability to run the offense effectively even after long bouts of inactivity and Udrih professed his respect for Van Gundy and his comfort with the organization late in the season while saying he hoped to play three or four more seasons and then transition into coaching.
It might come down to another team willing to offer Udrih a multiyear deal or an honest shot at the No. 2 spot.
So – barring trades – the Pistons go into the summer with only two certain job openings and two clear means for filling jobs: their first-round pick, likely to be No. 12, and the mid-level exception, worth $8.4 million, which they can – and, as general manager Jeff Bower said – and likely will split over more than one player.
But about that “barring trades” part – stay tuned.