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Pistons going everywhere, so therefore nowhere – at a high cost

Pistons forward Jerami Grant

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 11: Jerami Grant #9 of the Detroit Pistons looks on during a preseason game against the New York Knicks on December 11, 2020 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)

NBAE via Getty Images

NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski in 2018 to advise in a search for a new general manager.

Two years later, Detroit finally hired one – Troy Weaver.

Say what you want about Stefanski’s time running the front office. The Pistons turned it into a punchline by saying he’d help find a general manager then just putting Stefanski in charge without an announcement. But Stefanski’s mandate was clear: Restore flexibility for his eventual successor after Stan Van Gundy left the roster stuck. It took two years, but Stefanski did it.

Weaver took advantage, making a dizzying set of transactions to nearly completely reshape the team.

Detroit returns just four players from last season – Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Sekou Doumbouya and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Those four accounted for just 24% of the Pistons’ minutes last season.

That ranks among the lowest amount of continuity in NBA history:

pbt pistons offseason grade

After zero playoff-game wins and just three postseason appearances in the last 12 years, a fresh start is welcome in Detroit.

But this overhaul carries significant cost and still doesn’t establish the Pistons as meaningfully better.

Detroit signed Jerami Grant for $60,007,500 over three years. He was worth that much – or more – to the Nuggets. But win-now Denver had him in a narrower role where he shined and didn’t gain much flexibility with his departure. Further from winning, the Pistons lured Grant by promising more opportunities with the ball and signed him with cap space. Though Grant’s work ethic is commendable and he still has room to grow at age 26, paying him more than $20 million annually to become a shot creator is a poor bet.

At least that one has some theoretical upside with Grant’s youth, athleticism and approach.

Mason Plumlee’s three-year $24,662,500 deal looks dead on arrival in terms of holding positive value. Limited backup centers just aren’t worth that much in the modern NBA – even if you start them. And whatever defensive versatility Plumlee brings is likely to fade as he’s now into his 30s.

Those signings even required Detroit to stretch Dewayne Dedmon and Zhaire Smith, incurring a $3,934,867 cap hit each of the next three seasons and a $2,866,666 cap hit the two years after that. That’s right: Just as Josh Smith’s cap hit finally comes off the Pistons’ books, they add more long-term dead money. At least they didn’t have to stretch Rodney McGruder after other moves changed that apparent plan.

Josh Jackson (two years, full room exception) also came more expensive than expected. The 2017 No. 4 pick is a flier, albeit an intriguing flier. Jackson grew up in Detroit. Returning home can be, sometimes extremely, good or bad for a player. We’ll see which is the case for Jackson. But it wasn’t going great for him outside Michigan.

Even Jahlil Okafor on a minimum was surprisingly expensive. How did he get two guaranteed seasons?

There were bargains. Wayne Ellington signed for the minimum, and maybe the 33-year-old isn’t as washed up as he appeared with the Knicks last season. Last year’s No. 37 pick, Deividas Sirvydis, also jumped to the NBA for just a minimum contract.

Flipping Trevor Ariza’s expiring contract for Delon Wright was also solid for the Pistons. A borderline starting-quality guard, Wright is due a reasonable $9 million and $8,526,316 over the next two years. The Mavericks just wanted more 2021 cap space. Wright and Detroit coach Dwane Casey are comfortable with each other from their time with the Raptors.

On the other hand, trading Bruce Brown to the Nets for a second-rounder and Dzanan Musa looks dicier for the Pistons, though at least that’s a low-impact move.

Really, all Detroit’s free-agent signings, trades and stretches are receiving outsized attention relative to the draft.

The Pistons will be just the third team in the last 20 years to open the season playing three players picked in the top 20 of the most-recent draft:*

  • No. 7 pick Killian Hayes
  • No. 16 pick Isaiah Stewart
  • No. 19 pick Saddiq Bey

*2019-20 Pelicans: No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, No. 8 pick Jaxson Hayes, No. 17 pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker

*2016-17 Nuggets: No. 7 pick Jamal Murray, No. 15 pick Juan Hernangomez, No. 19 pick Malik Beasley

Those young players will define Detroit’s offseason. If they pan out, it will override every other move.

Hayes and Bey were solid selections for this relatively weak-looking draft. No. 16 was way too high to pick a potential backup center in Stewart, though Pistons fans will at least appreciate his energy and hustle.

Detroit earned the No. 7 pick with another lousy season. But as much as it mostly matters only how the selected players turn out, the extra two picks came at significant long-term cost. The Pistons surrendered a first-round pick, four second-round picks, Luke Kennard, Christian Wood (sign-and-trade) and took the unwanted contracts of Ariza and McGruder to get Nos. 16 and 19.

The future first-rounder that will go to the Rockets in exchange for No. 16 has the following protections

  • 2021: top-16
  • 2022: top-16
  • 2023: top-18
  • 2024: top-18
  • 2025: top-13
  • 2026: top-11
  • 2027: top-9 (becomes second-rounder if not conveyed)

Look at the projected arc of Detroit, and tell me that’s not heading toward a late lottery pick conveying in 2025, 2026 or 2027. The Pistons getting an extra first-rounder by taking Ariza’s unwanted deal then conveying an even-higher first-rounder in a future year would be such a cursed outcome. It’s also very possible.

Which gets into the biggest issue of Detroit’s offseason.

Weaver deserves a chance to see his plan come to fruition. Maybe this will all look better in a couple years. The too-many-centers jokes were an overreaction while the roster was still in flux. The Pistons wound up with a normal three centers. (The problem is quality, not quantity.) Everything else could fall into place with more time.

Still, this looks scattered. Detroit is spending big on veterans… without becoming good. Detroit is loading up on rookies… by sending out future draft picks.

I am not declaring a verdict on his tenure. Not even close. But the greatest worry for the Pistons, one that could set them back far longer than the length of Grant’s and Plumlee’s contracts – the possibility Weaver is in over his head.

Offseason grade: D