In November, just ahead of the start of free agency last season, the Pistons had their version of a roster purge, when general manager Troy Weaver remade the roster within a few days, with the draft and the start of free agency. It was a striking turnover, with about half of the roster different from the previous season.
The upheaval continued through the season, with the final pieces, including Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, going to new teams. The last remaining player from the pre-Weaver days is Sekou Doumbouya, the first-round pick in 2019.
As free agency is set to open Monday evening, the Pistons likely won’t have as much activity as last year, but they have some work to do to round out the roster. With four draft picks from last year and the addition of four more in last week’s draft, the Pistons have a foundation for Weaver’s roster restoration, but they have made some moves that could position them to be active in free agency.
The Pistons gave a clue that they’d like to be active in free agency before the draft, when they traded center Mason Plumlee, who started all 56 games he played, to the Charlotte Hornets in an apparent salary dump for his remaining $16.7 million, including $8.1 million next season. On Saturday, they waived Cory Joseph, Tyler Cook and Deividas Sirvydis, opening a few more roster spots and absorbing the $2.4 million Joseph had guaranteed for next year, plus the $1.5 million Sirvydis was guaranteed.
They also extended qualifying offers to Hamidou Diallo, Frank Jackson and Saben Lee, making each of them a restricted free agent. With that move, the Pistons can match any offer sheet that another team offers.
In the draft, the Pistons also selected forward Isaiah Livers and centers Luka Garza and Balsa Koprivica in the second round. It’s not clear if any of those players are slated for the main roster, or if they will be on a two-way contract or start the season in the G League with the Motor City Cruise.
The Pistons have about $16.7 million in cap space to utilize in what isn’t an ideal group of free agents. They won’t be in line to bid for any of the elite players such as Chris Paul or Kawhi Leonard, but they can be in position to look at some mid-level players who could make an impact.
Here’s a rough look at the roster construction entering Monday:
► Guards: Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Hamidou Diallo, Saben Lee, Frank Jackson and Rodney McGruder
► Forwards: Jerami Grant, Saddiq Bey, Josh Jackson and Sekou Doumbouya
► Centers: Isaiah Stewart and Jahlil Okafor
With that breakdown, the roster looks like it could use a few more veterans. Adding another point guard — maybe Joseph, for a lower salary — could be in the cards, and they likely would want another combo forward and a backup center. That would bring the roster to 15.
In a practical sense, the Pistons have a lot of directions they can go with the roster. Only last year’s rookies, plus Grant, Josh Jackson, Doumbouya and Okafor are technically under contract.
There’s no guarantee that other teams won’t make moves to offer the restricted free agents more money. If another team offers Diallo something north of $12 million, would the Pistons be willing to match that? What’s the upper limit for Frank Jackson, who showed that he can be an asset from beyond the 3-point line?
The cap holds for those players aren’t really big enough to make a difference, so in all likelihood, the Pistons would be able to match those without a problem. In McGruder’s case, his salary of $5 million isn’t guaranteed until Aug. 15, so they could decide that they want to use that on a potential upgrade.
The Pistons also have the nontaxpayer mid-level exception, which is about $9.5 million per year, the bi-annual exception ($3.7 million per year), each of which they could use in a two-year contract. They also have a trade exception for $8.1 million from the Plumlee trade and a $2 trade exception from the Rose deal to the Knicks last season.
With their somewhat limited cap space, the Pistons can look at players such as former Michigan star Tim Hardaway Jr., who made $19 million last season, but that’s likely out of their price range without some other big moves to free up more space.
Hardaway Jr. could be the versatile scorer they could plug into the lineup. His 3-point shooting (39% last season) and his veteran savvy would help them immediately. The problem is that there are several teams who will be bidding for Hardaway, which likely will drive up the price and put him out of the Pistons’ range.
At center, the Pistons reportedly will have interest in Nerlens Noel or Kelly Olynyk. Noel, 27, is 6-foot-11 and was on a value contract of $5 million with the Knicks last season. He could be within their salary range, and he has some rim-protection ability, averaging a career-best 2.2 blocks last season. Noel isn’t a high-level rebounder, but he could be a lower-cost option than Plumlee, allowing Stewart to take most of the minutes in the starting lineup.
Olynyk, 30, doesn’t fit the Pistons’ timeline, but he could be a plug for the short term. He brings some perimeter shooting ability, averaging 19 points and hitting 39% on 4.6 attempts in 27 games with the Houston Rockets last season. He also played 43 games with the Miami Heat before being traded at the deadline.