Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton and Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges were likely targets. After three consecutive seasons with fewer than 25 wins, perhaps the Pistons would finally inch closer to playoff contention in 2023.
A week later, Detroit’s cap situation looks drastically different. It has swung two separate trades with the New York Knicks — desperate to clear cap space and offer Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson a hefty contract — and have brought in 2022 No. 13 overall pick Jalen Duren, Kemba Walker, Nerlens Noel, Alec Burks, two future second-round picks and $6 million in cash.
More moves could follow. It’s Troy Weaver’s world, and all we can do is our best to keep pace.
The Pistons no longer have money to offer a max contract, and are less likely to make a big free agency splash. There are significantly more hoops they’d have to jump through to add Ayton or Bridges. The likelihood is they will use their remaining cap space — somewhere in the neighborhood of $21 million before factoring in Marvin Bagley III’s contract — on veterans who can shoot.
The Pistons essentially looked at the 2022 free agency class and said, “Nah.” It may be a disappointing outcome for fans who have followed the rumor mill closely. Bridges and Ayton are talented young players who would raise the team’s floor, and Bridges, a Flint native and former Michigan State basketball star, is understandably popular in Michigan.
Instead, Weaver and his staff are choosing patience. Given that several past rebuilds have been killed by hasty decisions in free agency and the trade market (Blake Griffin, Josh Smith, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva) it’s a refreshing direction to take. The Pistons will have more opportunities to cash in. If they’re not convinced Bridges and Ayton will help them turn the corner immediately, there’s little incentive to risk overpaying them. Both players are good, but it remains to be seen if they’re worth the money the open market could pay them.
Bridges is coming off a breakout season, averaging 20.2 points, seven rebounds and 3.8 assists a game. He’s one of the NBA’s most explosive players when getting to the rim, where he finishes and draws fouls at a high rate. He was a top-three player for the 43-win Hornets and has earned a raise.
But he’s eligible for a contract worth more than $30 million annually. As good as he is, the market has been reluctant to pay that type of money for non-star restricted free agents in recent seasons.
As a point of comparison, the Atlanta Hawks signed John Collins to a five-year contract worth $125 million last August, or $25 million annually. Collins is one of the Hawks’ best players, but like Bridges, is a high-level starter — not a star — for a team in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt. Teams like having players on moveable contracts.
Collins’ max deal would’ve been worth more than $30 million. Atlanta wasn’t convinced he’d live up to that contract, and Collins settled for less.
It would take max money, or close to it, to pry Bridges away from Charlotte. It’s a hefty investment and one Charlotte is reportedly also hesitant to pay. The Pistons are early enough in their rebuild that they don’t need to pay a premium for a free agent who may only nudge them closer to 35 wins, not 50.
There’s a savviness to Detroit’s moves that may not be apparent on the surface. It has maintained financial flexibility and appear all-in on the young core.
Both Burks and Noel, who are making $19.2 million combined this coming season, have team options next summer. The Pistons are set to have even more money to spend in 2023, as both Cory Joseph and Hamidou Diallo’s contracts will expire, and DeAndre Jordan and Zhaire Smith’s combined $8.9 million in dead money will come off of the books.
Couple that with Kelly Olynyk’s partially guaranteed contract (just $3 million of $12.2 million), and the Pistons could clear an additional $47 million for a free agency class currently deeper than this year’s.
This roster won’t be super cheap for much longer.
Killian Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart will all be eligible for extensions next summer that would start in 2024.
A year later, Cade Cunningham could sign a very expensive deal to lock in his future with the Pistons.
So the Pistons have reason to not pay big money for a role player. They received good value from the Knicks. Duren was high on Detroit’s draft board and has the potential to become a steal due his age (18 years old until November) and athleticism.
Burks has shot better than 40% from 3 during his past two seasons, filling a massive need for a roster that shot 32.6% last season. Noel will provide insurance for a crowded frontcourt, which lacked depth for most of 2021-22. Walker won’t be around, but will provide additional cap relief when he agrees to terms on a contract buyout.
As the saying goes, patience is a virtue. Bey, Cunningham, Duren and Jaden Ivey all have potential to be as good, if not better, than the best attainable free agents in this year’s class. The Pistons will develop them in-house, and one day, presumably, pay them what they’re worth. Bey is the only player in that group old enough to buy a beer.
What’s the rush?
The Pistons can afford to play the long game. As this past week has demonstrated, there’s value in having a clean cap sheet. Teams will give you assets and helpful players to get their own finances in order. And in the meantime, the Pistons can get better organically and dip into a 2023 draft expected to be deeper than this most recent class.
They don’t need to act with haste. It’s possible time will reveal they’ve already done everything they need to do to make a deep playoff run.
And if not, they’ll have the finances to speed up their timeline significantly next summer.