NBA Draft: The cost of the No. 1 pick and how it impacts Detroit’s coming roster decisions

Detroit Bad Boys

On Tuesday, everyone’s favourite deputy commissioner Mark Tatum sent shockwaves through the NBA when he revealed that the Detroit Pistons, yes you read that right, won the NBA Draft Lottery. With that, the Pistons also presumably have the chance to add Cade Cunningham.

As an appetiser, let’s look at the Pistons’ salary cap table not including Cade Cunningham (or whoever the top pick will be) and his assumed contract sum on the books.

As you can see, the Pistons are set to have four restricted free agents in Dennis Smith Jr, Saben Lee, Frank Jackson and Hamidou Diallo, along with unrestricted free agent Wayne Ellington.

Now let’s add the salary for the No. 1 pick into the mix, regardless of who it is (Cade).

Just a note on the rookie-scale salaries. They are set amounts that fluctuate with the cap every year, rising or dropping at the same percentage value. However, the number isn’t a rigid amount that a rookie is assigned. Rookies can sign for as little as 80% or as much as 120% of the rookie scale value.

Let’s use Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 overall pick from last year. According to Real GM, the first year of the No. 1 pick’s rookie scale contract last year was $8.13 million. According to Spotrac, Edwards earned $9.76 million last season, 120% of the value of the set rookie scale amount.

I think it’s safe to say Cade will sign for 120% of the rookie value as well, so let’s see what that looks like.

Cade’s rookie-scale deal will have roughly $20.5 million guaranteed over the first two years with options bringing the potential commitment to just over $44 million over four years.

The immediate thing to consider when you bring in a high draft pick, irrespective of if it is Cade, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or someone else, is their timeline. With a team as young as the Pistons, they’re loaded up with guys that they’ll eventually have to make the tough call on whether to pay or send away (see: Kennard, Luke and Brown, Bruce).

In a three-year period, the team will make decisions on five rookie extensions — Sekou Doumbouya, Killian Hayes, Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and [speak it into existence] Cade Cunningham. Effectively, the next two seasons transform into an extended tryout to see who fits into this long-term vision. This draft pick could, in theory, cost the team one or more of these young promising rookies down the line through nothing more than sheer financial brutality.

As we can clearly see, as of right now assuming a 120% rookie deal, the Pistons will be just over the expected cap figure of $112.4 million, by about $2.5 million.

Right off the bat, we can probably trim away the $5 million owed to Rodney McGruder. McGruder was a steadying veteran presence who provided some surprising competency when pressed into action through injury in the dog days of midseason, but as an unguaranteed number for a young team pressing against the soft cap, he’s expendable.

The big decision, at least for me, is Cory Joseph. Many see that big chunk of unguaranteed money and make him an easy cut, but I don’t think the decision is as clear cut for a couple of reasons.

For starters, while you preach player development and getting minutes into your young guys, having a lead guard rotation of Killian Hayes, Saben Lee (assuming he’s re-signed) and Cade Cunningham with a combined 74 NBA appearances is developmentally irresponsible. The benefit of having guys like Delon Wright, Cory Joseph and Derrick Rose around last season was that mentoring role, which sounds cliche but to a group of 19-20 year old kids makes all the difference.

How many times did the camera cut to Killian on the sideline late in the season after he’d just come out of the game. Did you notice who he was always sitting next to? Cory Joseph. Having that 10-year veteran with championship experience was beneficial to Hayes, and why would it be any different for Cunningham?

The other reason is the expected losses for the Pistons. With Cunningham likely coming in, that spells the end, you’d think, of Dennis Smith Jr in Detroit. DSJ was a flier acquisition who missed a lot of time with injury. While he’s a restricted free agent, I doubt the team places a tremendous amount of effort into retaining him given the suddenly stacked backcourt rotation.

Frank Jackson may have also priced himself out of a return with the Pistons. As a restricted free agent, the Pistons can keep him regardless, if they think the cost is worth it. The question will be whether the team thinks it’s worth spending the money on a guy who enters a minutes and positional crunch in a now-crowded backcourt, assuming the return o Saben Lee. Dennis Smith Jr’s expected exit evens out the imbalance, and Jackson has shown the ability and versatility to be a key off-ball scorer, so the team may see that value there.

It may come down to a decision between Jackson and Joseph. You assume the team will try and re-sign Saben Lee after a strong rookie season for a second-round pick, and Hamidou Diallo is also likely to be part of this new athletic rebuild after a promising stint post-trade.

With expected contract values for those two you begin to creep into danger territory. The Pistons will definitely not want to pay tax for this team this season, so the choice may well come down to Cory Joseph’s mentorship vs. Frank Jackson’s scoring ability.

In short, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only thing the Pistons do in free agency is waive Joseph and McGruder, to be able to comfortably re-sign Diallo, Lee and Frank Jackson, but I’ll save those thoughts for a separate day.

The Pistons do have more financial flexibility than at first glance, it will just be a question of who of their holdovers they’ll prioritise for this exciting new era.

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