As the Detroit Pistons look to take the next step in their franchise restoration, the most important task is finding a worthy running mate to play alongside Cade Cunningham. The rumor mill has been swirling that a name on the top of their list is Jalen Brunson of the Dallas Mavericks, and a new report from ESPN just adds more fuel to the fire.
Tim McMahon has a new piece on the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent who is expected to command a big payday this offseason. He mentions two primary suitors — the New York Knicks and the Detroit Pistons.
The Pistons, according to league sources, see how well Brunson fits with Doncic and envision him similarly enhancing Cade Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft who is also a big-bodied scorer and playmaker.
The odds-on favorite to land Brunson is the Knicks, McMahon reports, due to no large part to close family connections with the Knicks franchise. Brunson’s father, Rick Brunson, was the first player client of Knicks president Leon Rose, and also repped the younger Brunson as a player agent before transitioning to the New York front office.
Rick Brunson also is close to Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau stretching back to his high school playing days and extending to stints as an assistant coach for Thibs in Chicago and Minnesota.
Detroit’s advantage would be having the needed cap space in order to sign Brunson outright. The Pistons are scheduled to have roughly $25 million in cap space to spend. At the trade deadline speculation was Brunson would be seeking a deal that would pay him around $20 million per season.
Brunson’s performance in the playoffs has perhaps even inflated what they will hope to command on the open market. Brunson is scoring nearly 30 points per game and dishing almost 5 assists and turning the ball over less than once per game.
Brunson has been particularly effective as a primary playmaker when Doncic has been off the floor, and been able to drive into the teeth of Utah’s defense and either scoring from the painted area or kicking it out to a teammate for an open look.
Nobody has more drives this postseason than Brunson with Jalen generating 65 points and 7 assists so far. He’s also generating 1.18 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler, which ranks sixth in postseason play.
Signing Brunson would certainly be risky as he’ll be 26 by the time next season rolls around and he stands at just 6-foot-1.
But there is no denying his ability to score at the NBA level and do it efficiently. Despite his lack of height, he’s been elite at finishing at the rim in his four-year career. He’s shot just under 72% from within 3 feet, and this year’s mark of 70.3% actually represents a career low. He’s shot better than 50% from 16 feet and in, and nearly 45% from 16 feet to the 3-point line. He’s also a career 37% 3-point shooter.
A big question would be whether Brunson enjoys sharing the spotlight with a clear lead guard or if he’d rather migrate to a franchise where he can serve as more of a primary playmaker. If it is the former, he might stick with Dallas. If the latter, he would clearly prefer the Knicks over the Pistons.
But the numbers indicate Brunson has been able to flourish when sharing the backcourt with Doncic and when Luka has been on the sidelines. It’s logical to assume he’d see similar success playing alongside Cade, and perhaps even have the ability to control more of the offense to take some of the burden off the young Cunningham as he learns the game and understands how to be effective in the half court and eliminating turnovers.
Would that boost be worth the $20-25 million per season it would cost to sign Brunson? That depends on how quickly the Pistons think they can go from a 20-win franchise to a 45-plus win franchise, and whether they have a way to retain enough flexibility to keep adding pieces to build a true championship contender.