Why Detroit Pistons are unlikely to make big splash in 2022 NBA free agency

Detroit Free Press

The dust has settled for the Detroit Pistons. For now.

After a busy, transaction-filled week, the Pistons enter free agency with an updated roster and a new set of priorities. On Wednesday, they traded Jerami Grant to the Portland Trail Blazers in a salary-cap clearing move that brought back a distant first-round pick from the Milwaukee Bucks. During Thursday’s draft, they selected Jaden Ivey fifth overall and traded the Bucks pick in a multiteam deal that brought back 13th overall pick Jalen Duren, 36th overall pick Gabriele Procida (who will be stashed overseas, per sources) and Kemba Walker, who is expected to be bought out of his expiring $9.2 million contract.

Detroit’s roster is now stacked with young talent. Ivey and Duren were two of the highest-ceiling players in the draft and provide a massive jolt of athleticism for a team that previously lacked it. Along with Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, the future looks bright.

“Yesterday afternoon, our owner Tom Gores called me and said ‘Hey, I want you to be aggressive and go for it,’” Troy Weaver said during Friday’s news conference at Rouge Park.  “I didn’t know what the rest of the day would look like, but this is what the result of being aggressive and going for it is, and we’re thankful and grateful that we landed here. These moments will be inflection points for the restoration.”

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Aggression has been the modus operandi for Weaver since he took over during the 2020 offseason. He’s completely flipped the roster and then some, and the Pistons now have one of the most promising cores in the league. Ivey’s elite first step and leaping ability provides a fun contrast to Cunningham’s patient approach to the game, and Duren’s rim-running, lob-catching and potential as a defensive force should stabilize the frontcourt for the next half-decade, at least.

Attention now turns 6 p.m. Thursday, when teams can begin negotiating with free agents.  Detroit could have close to $45 million in available cap space, the most of any team in the league according to spotrac.com NBA salary cap expert Keith Smith.  Even if they pick up team options on Hamidou Diallo ($5.2 million), Frank Jackson ($3.2 million) and Luka Garza (1.6 million) and re-sign restricted free agent Marvin Bagley III, they will have significant money to spend.

The front office’s primary goal in the Grant trade was to open up additional financial flexibility, which paid off on draft night as they were able to acquire Duren and only had to take on Walker’s contract to get the deal to the finish line. They have maintained that flexibility.

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The Pistons were previously expected to make a run at signing a big free agent this offseason. Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson and Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton were high on their wish list. However, priorities have shifted after Thursday’s draft haul. Detroit didn’t expect to leave the night with two lottery picks, and adding both Ivey and Duren has lessened the incentive to make a free agency splash.

Rather than invest most of their cap space into one player, sources say it’s now more likely that the Pistons will divide their money across multiple smaller targets. With a talented core in place, the focus is now on rounding out the roster and addressing specific needs.

That means it’s less likely we’ll see Ayton or Charlotte Hornets forward (and Flint native and former Michigan State standout) Miles Bridges, both restricted free agents,  in a Pistons uniform next season, unless they’re willing to sign for significantly less than the max deals they’re eligible for.

“We’re looking for young veterans to continue to help build,” Weaver said. “There’s nobody in free agency we can find that are younger than our guys. A 23-year-old’s going to be a veteran on our team. Definitely looking for some guys that can continue to move us forward.”

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Coach Dwane Casey  has his hands full figuring out his rotation next season. Cunningham, Ivey and Hayes will soak up significant minutes in the backcourt, and Duren and Stewart could split time at center along with Kelly Olynyk.

The roster still lacks shooting, and the Pistons will address that need in free agency. Unrestricted free agents Joe Ingles, Malik Monk, and former Spartans Gary Harris and Bryn Forbes are all potential options.

It’s less exciting than adding star power, but the Pistons are committing to their youth movement. Cunningham and Bey were reliable offensive weapons last season, and Cunningham could take another step toward stardom after a promising season, finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting.

Stewart’s rim protection, defensive switchability and upside as a floor spacer should secure his place in the starting lineup next season. Hayes is one of the best perimeter defenders and passers on the roster, and Ivey and Duren were very high on Detroit’s draft board.

Next season is  Year 3 of the rebuild, but they’re sticking with a patient approach. Free agency likely won’t speed their timeline up, even as they continue taking steps to build a contender.

“We have a bunch of young guys, great coaching staff,” Weaver said. “Excited about the way that we’re putting these guys together. We’ll continue to have some veterans around them. Player development is everything. Draft and getting to develop, that’s the name of the game.”

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Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa. Read more on the Detroit Pistons and sign up for our Pistons newsletter.

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