Let’s start with the obvious: the Detroit Pistons are bad. They are bad statistically, they are bad when you watch them. They’re just bad.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the future isn’t as dim as it might seem at the moment.
The 2013-14 Pistons are a delightful compilation of mismatched parts. Their three best players can’t play together, they have no shooting, and basically nobody plays defense. Those are bad things, generally. But they can change, at least theoretically, and it starts with the offseason.
We’ll begin at the top, with owner Tom Gores. While Gores hasn’t been the perfect owner to this point — overruling your GM and firing your head coach 50 games into his tenure with your team isn’t a great look, though it is undeniable that Mo Cheeks was bad at his job — he’s shown he wants to win and that he is willing to spend to that end. As a Bulls fan, I can tell you that having an owner who doesn’t really care if the team wins and isn’t willing to spend any more than he has to isn’t much fun.
Gores has a chance to completely redefine his team this summer. Cheeks is gone already, and interim head coach John Loyer hasn’t done anything to distinguish himself, so there’s room for a new coach. Furthermore, long-time GM Joe Dumars seems to be on his way out after several disastrous years following the dissolution of the 2003-04 championship team. So Gores has a chance to build an entirely new front office and an entirely new coaching staff. Granted, he could choose the wrong people, but he could also choose the right ones. I am a little concerned by Gores’ apparent tendency to go after big names, largely because I believe that it’s the unheralded, undervalued coaches/GMs that tend to prosper, but even if he goes after a big name head coach, that’s not all bad. Lionel Hollins or George Karl would be fine choices, depending on how the Pistons choose to re-shape their roster. (More on that shortly.) Just stay away from Mike Woodson, Tom. Nobody wants that.
Now, when it comes to the on-court product, the Pistons’ struggles have worked out for them. They’ve managed to lose their way right into keeping the draft pick they currently owe to the Charlotte Bobcats thanks to the Ben Gordon trade. They would pick 8th overall if the season ended today and the draft order was set strictly by record, and their pick happens to be top-8 protected. Of course, if someone currently set to pick 9-14 had the ping pong balls bounce their way and moved into a top-3 pick, the Pistons would drop to 9th and have to forfeit their pick. But they’re just a game “behind” the Sacramento Kings for the 7th slot and 1.5 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for 6th. They’d need to get to 5th to guarantee they keep the pick, and that’s unrealistic with the Boston Celtics three full games “ahead” of them, but you never know. And the odds of a team in the 9-14 range moving up are relatively low.
The big thing, however, is that despite what has turned out to be an awful 4-year, $54 million contract given to Josh Smith this past summer, the Pistons are in excellent shape cap-wise. They have about $42 million in salary committed for next season, assuming they keep their pick and decline Chauncey Billups’ $2.5 million player option for next season, and that will give them about $21 million in cap room with the cap projected to come in at $62.9 million next year.* About $5 million of that will go to Greg Monroe’s qualifying offer, but that still leaves them with $15+ million to work with.
*That assumes they renounce the cap holds for Billups, Charlie Villanueva and Rodney Stuckey.
Speaking of Monroe, his status as a restricted free agent means that the dilemma of the three bigs — Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond — figures to be resolved one way or another. More on that in a bit.
Granted, there aren’t a ton of great options on the free agent market. Premier guys like Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are likely to stay where they are, which leaves guys like Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson as the best remaining free agents. There’s also some restricted guys like Gordon Hayward and Eric Bledsoe that might be pried from their current teams under the right circumstances. But the fun part about cap space is that you don’t have to use it right when you get it, and you don’t have to use it on free agents.
The Pistons could, if they choose, invest in a few low-cost free agents like Thabo Sefolosha — who would bring much-needed shooting and defense to a wing rotation lacking in either skill — or Jodie Meeks, or Anthony Morrow, just off the top of my head. They could then keep the rest of their cap space open for 2015.
Some of you might protest, saying that the Pistons would have to spend up to the salary floor, which will be set at 90 percent of the salary cap next year, which is, as I mentioned earlier, should be in the neighborhood of $63 million. That would leave the floor at about $56.7 million. However, there’s no real penalty for not spending up to the floor. The only thing that happens is that you have to spend the difference between the floor and the actual team salary and split it up between the players on your roster. So it really doesn’t matter that much.
The other thing you can do with cap space is rent it out, like the Utah Jazz did last summer by taking on Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson and receiving two first round picks for their trouble. The Pistons would be well-served to look into that sort of deal. For instance, maybe the Bulls want to get rid of Carlos Boozer without amnestying him. Maybe they send him up to Detroit* along with their 2015 pick and the pick the Sacramento Kings currently owe them. Or maybe the Pistons take on JJ Barea and the approximately $4.5 million attached to him next year and get a pick out of it. Or maybe they roll the dice on a guy like Marcus Thornton, who will earn $8.5 million in 2014-15 and hasn’t been good, but doesn’t turn 27 until June and fills a need. You get the idea.
*Before you flip out at me, I will say only that Boozer is hated because he’s paid too much damn money and he’s not worth it. He’s still an OK player, he’s just not worth all that money. You could do a lot worse for 15-20 minutes off the bench. That’s all I’m saying.
Now, back to the Greg Monroe thing. As of this moment, I’d expect Monroe to be signed and traded somewhere so the Pistons can at least get something back. But what if there was another way to resolve the logjam?
Before we continue, let’s all agree that Josh Smith is not untradeable. His contract is bad, but it’s not that bad. If Gilbert Arenas can be traded, anyone can be traded. And Josh Smith is only a year removed from nearly making the all-star team in Atlanta and hasn’t suffered a major injury. If someone broke into his head and removed his desire to take terrible jumpers, he’d be worth the money.
So, if I was the new Pistons GM, the first thing I’d do after being hired — before hiring a coach or anything else — would be to call the Lakers and offer them Josh Smith, completely free of charge.
Here’s why: the Lakers have three players under contract for next year in Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre. They’ll have a good pick, so that gives them four players. Nash is old and hurt a lot, and Sacre is not good. They’ll have cap space, but as we previously discussed, there aren’t a ton of premium guys around. And Kobe has said publicly he wants to compete for a title next year. So tell me, who’s a better option for them than Josh Smith?
And if they say they’ll take it, but only if you take Steve Nash back, you say yes without hesitation. Taking back Nash still clears another $5 million off this year’s cap, and you can waive him under the stretch provision to free up another $6.5 million this year, if you want. Or you can hold onto him to fit with that whole “rolling cap space over” thing we mentioned.
Under this scenario you’d re-sign Monroe, probably add another big and a couple of wings, and roll with that into next season. But even if you ditch Monroe and keep Smith, you’re still in good shape. Drummond, Brandon Jennings and one of Monroe/Smith is a decent core, as long as you hire the right coach and find the right pieces around them. So this really comes down to hiring a coach and GM that are good and can work together.
And hey, if they screw that up, at least things can’t get that much worse than they were for most of this year, right?