Detroit Pistons are constricted in trade flexibility and it may cost them for years

Detroit Free Press

With the Detroit Pistons and Philadelphia 76ers having talked, at some point, about a Ben Simmons trade that would involve Jerami Grant, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer — though no deal is imminent and it remains an unlikely match for multiple reasons — let’s take a look at the Pistons’ draft capital.

We’ll explain why a big swing this season for an All-Star-caliber player is difficult for the Pistons, especially if the opposing team wants first-round draft picks in return.

In fact, any trade where a team wants a future first-round pick from the Pistons is impossible right now.

ANALYSIS: Why Pistons are an unlikely trade destination for Sixers All-Star Ben Simmons

Protecting the future

When the Pistons made a trade to acquire a first-round pick just an hour before the 2020 NBA draft, the move was celebrated as it gave general manager Troy Weaver the 16th overall selection.

The Pistons used the pick acquired from the Houston Rockets to take Washington power forward/center Isaiah Stewart.

The full terms of the deal were tweaked during free agency to include a sign-and-trade of Christian Wood, expanding the final deal to this:

Pistons acquired: *Trevor Ariza, Isaiah Stewart, $4.1 million, Houston’s 2027 second-round pick.

Rockets acquired: Christian Wood, conditional first-round pick from Detroit (protected through 2027), **2021 second-round pick (via L.A. Lakers).

*Ariza, acquired for contract purposes, was moved a few days later to Oklahoma City in a three-team deal that brought back Delon Wright.

**The Pistons ended up getting this pick back in the Delon Wright for Cory Joseph trade with Sacramento, and took Luka Garza at No. 52).

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The Pistons set heavy protections on the future first-round pick, which is now owed to the Thunder: 1-16 in 2021 and 2022, 1-18 in 2023-24, 1-13 in 2025, 1-11 in 2016 and 1-9 in 2027. If Detroit has not conveyed a first-rounder to OKC by 2027, it will instead convey its 2027 second-round pick to OKC.

With the 14 teams that miss the playoff each year entering the lottery, the Pistons protected the pick to make sure they wouldn’t lose the asset unless they reach the playoffs by 2024 — and even then, they could finish as a low-seeded playoff team and keep the pick.

In 2025, the Pistons only lose the pick if they finish with the best record among non-playoff teams (unless during the lottery they jump from No. 14 into the top four) or make the playoffs. The 2024-25 season would be five years of the “restoration” completed under Weaver, and it would be a huge disappointment if they have yet to become a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

Here’s where it gets tricky

The NBA’s Stepien Rule and Seven Year Rule mean currently, the Pistons: A) cannot trade a first-round pick in consecutive years, so with their 2022 pick protected 1-16, and with protections extending to 2027, the Pistons’ 2023-2028 first-round picks are off limits until two years after the pick is conveyed to OKC; and B) they cannot trade picks more than seven years in advance, so they can’t trade their 2029 pick until the 2022 draft.

Using the Pistons-Rockets trade as the example of the seven-year rule, that deal was conducted during the 2020 draft, so seven years took them to 2027, the last year they could involve draft picks. That’s exactly what they did, stringing the protected picks out to that last year.

Why is the Stepien Rule in place? Ted Stepien owned the Cleveland Cavaliers from 1980-83, and made a handful of deals that cost the Cavs several years’ of future first-round picks. Many of those ended up being at or near the top of the draft (including the 1982 pick to the Lakers, that become No. 1 overall and James Worthy). As a result of the owner’s ineptitude, the NBA instituted a rule to save teams from themselves, and they are now prevented from making trades which could leave them without a first-round pick in consecutive future years.

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The exceptions

There are two exceptions that would help the Pistons move a pick, one in-season and one during the offseason.

1. If the Pistons were to acquire a first-round pick in a separate deal, they could trade that pick to Philadelphia, or anyone else, and evade the Stepien Rule because it isn’t their own pick.

2. We see it all the time during drafts when a team picks a player for another team due to a previously agreed upon trade. The process is made fun of, as the newly minted NBA player puts on the hat of the team that picks him, but that he won’t be playing for. An example is Stewart being announced as Portland’s pick at No. 16 a year ago, then being traded to Houston and then onto Detroit.

During the 2022 draft this summer, the Pistons — assuming they keep the pick by failing to finish in the top half of the league — will have the flexibility to trade their 2022 first-round pick.

They’d have to agree on a deal, and then make the selection with their own pick for the opposing team. The deal would become official after the new league year begins ahead of free agency, sending the picked player to his new team.

Pistons’ future picks owed/incoming

Looking at the Pistons’ collection of assets, they are plus-one in second-round picks and out a first-rounder.

Here is a look at their future draft cupboard (data from RealGM).

Future picks owed:

• 2022 first-round pick to OKC (protected 1-16, 1-18 in 2023-24, 1-13 in 2025, 1-11 in 2016 and 1-9 in 2027; if Detroit has not conveyed a first-rounder to OKC by 2027, it will instead give its 2027 second-round pick to OKC).

• 2022 second-rounder to San Antonio or Sacramento.

• 2023 second-rounder to New York.

• 2024 second-rounder to New York.

• 2025 second-rounder to L.A. Clippers.

• 2026 second-rounder to Orlando.

Incoming future picks: 

• 2022 second-rounder from Brooklyn.

• 2023 second-rounder from Cleveland or Golden State (less favorable).

• 2024 second-rounder from Washington or Memphis (more favorable).

2024 second-rounder from Sacramento.

2025 second round draft pick from Golden State or Washington (more favorable).

• 2027 second round draft pick from Brooklyn.

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