Detroit Pistons set up to strike in 2023 NBA free agency with loads of cap space

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons have kicked the proverbial can down the road another year — a prudent move to be sure.

They’re maintaining financial flexibility for what is potentially a deeper 2023 NBA free agency class, where they will have loads of cap space and a handful of open roster spots.

But there aren’t many matches that make sense for the Pistons and the top free agents: LeBron James? Ha. Kyrie Irving? No thanks. Kristaps Porzingis? Why?

The Pistons hope they already have their ball-handling and playmaking duo of the future with Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, so adding a big wing who can play the “3” or “4” is the obvious need at this point.

The center spot, a position general manager Troy Weaver has poured resources into for three years now, is cluttered but he just traded for Jalen Duren to be their starter of the future. Duren was the youngest player in the draft and turns 19 until November.

LARRY LEGEND: Why Larry Brown believes Jalen Duren is in a ‘perfect situation’ with Pistons

It’s still so early in the development of the young core — Ivey and Duren have yet to even play an NBA minute — which is why making a splash this summer seemed silly without any evaluation of what, specifically, Cunningham and Ivey look like together, as well as the development of Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart, Killian Hayes and Duren. Those are Weaver’s six first-round picks and the foundation of the restoration.

Look for the Pistons to continue mining the trade market to add additional talent, and next summer, to again use their cap space to take on unwanted contracts for draft picks.

When the Pistons look to free agency, who are the wings who could become available and be a potential match?

There will be movement between now and next June. Some teams and players will surprise, others will underperform. The 2022-23 season will tell us a lot, as will trades — and dare we say more trade requests — the draft lottery and of course draft night, which is expected to be extremely fruitful in the top 10.

All of it will shape the outlook entering 2023 free agency.

Pistons’ 2023 cap space

The Pistons could have as few as nine players under contract.

Cunningham, Ivey, Duren, Marvin Bagley III and Kevin Knox II are all contracted.

We can safely assume the Pistons pick up the fourth-year club options this fall on Hayes ($7.4 million), Stewart ($5.3 million) and Bey ($4.6 million), and exercise the cheap option for one of their few wings in Isaiah Livers ($1.8 million).

Kelly Olynyk’s contract is guaranteed for just $3 million, and Nerlens Noel (team option), Alec Burks (team option), Cory Joseph, Hamidou Diallo and Saben Lee (team option) are all expirings.

Dewayne Dedmon’s dead cap number is $2.9 million.

That puts the Pistons’ active salary around $63 million for 2023-24. If they renounce rights on each of those six free agents above, they’ll be an incredible $70 million — though we are excluding the Pistons’ 2023 first-round draft pick salary — below the forecasted $133 million cap. (That number is less concrete than usual because the league could have a new collective bargaining agreement at this time next year — both the league and player’s union have a mutual opt-out after the 2022–23 season.)

Contract info via spotrac.com.

Pistons continue mining for gold strategy under Troy Weaver by adding Kevin Knox ]

2023 free agents

Though the 2023 free agent class lacks star power at the top, it is deeper than the 2022 class, with a number of proven contributors on down the board, and a few restricted free agents who would be an enticing poach.

The development of Ivey — they need him to be a capable defender at the point of attack to open up lineup combinations, and the early returns of his mindset on that end are positive — and sussing Bey’s trajectory are crucial data points, as Weaver and his staff look to identify the next big piece to add.

A positive season of improvement, competing hard and good vibes would also help make Detroit an attractive destination — don’t expect more than 30 wins in the deep Eastern Conference, so get ready to follow “Trauma for Wembanyama” (yes, I’ve coined this year’s tank watch, thank you).

We’ve trimmed the targets to wings who are 3-and-D archetypes, though we included some players known more for scoring and 3-point shooting. Cunningham’s size as a lead ball-handler at 6 feet 6 opens up a number of possibilities because he can guard many types of players.

Here’s the list of potential free agents, followed by analysis. The Pistons can offer up to four years with a maximum salary of either 25%, 30% or 35% of the salary cap — depending on years of service — with 5% annual raises.

Age as of July 31, 2023

Unrestricted:

Restricted:

We won’t list Barrett as a potential target, as the former No. 3 pick is expected to sign a big offer from the New York Knicks as soon as this fall.

Where Pistons roster stands, and what they still need, after quiet 2022 NBA free agency ]

Khris Middleton

Starred as the go-to scorer down the stretch during the Bucks’ 2021 championship run, Middleton remains in a great situation, surrounded by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday with great spacing on offense, and playing for one of the league’s top title contenders. His injury in the first round of the playoffs again cemented his worth, as the Bucks fell in seven games to the Boston Celtics in the second round. Has averaged 20 points per game for three straight seasons, is a career 39.2% 3-point shooter and has improved his playmaking by averaging over five assists each of the past two seasons. The 6-8 forward will be 32 before the start of the 2023-24 season, but his game should age nicely and he’d bring a wealth of successful postseason experience to a team with none. The Pistons can use a veteran contributor to pair with their wealth of young players — you don’t need your best seven players to all be in their early 20s; that’s a team-building fallacy and a good way to cause an awkward locker room dynamic. Recall Middleton was a second-round pick by the Pistons in 2012, where he played one season before being dealt in the Brandon Jennings-Brandon Knight trade.

Andrew Wiggins

The No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft, Wiggins went from one of the most frustrating talents in the league to the second-best player on a championship team in a span of two seasons. He shut down and outplayed Jayson Tatum in the NBA Finals, rebounded like never before and played his role offensively, helping the Golden State Warriors win the final three games of the series to become champions. Has upped his offensive efficiency in two full seasons — Stephen Curry’s value is unquantifiable — and though his 3-point shot comes and goes (35% for his career), he has shot better than 38% than past two seasons on 5.3 attempts per game. It would be surprising to see him leave the comfort of Curry and the Warriors, but he would be a nice fit as a wing, and when motivated, can defend, run in transition and score in the half-court both off the bounce and off the catch. He makes $33.6 million in 2022-23, his age 28 season.

Keldon Johnson

Johnson would seem to be a big piece in the Spurs’ long-term plans, but they just dealt a 25-year-old Dejounte Murray to accelerate the rebuild, so who knows. Johnson turns 23 this October and has been another widely successful Spurs development story as the No. 29 pick in 2019. At 6-6 with a 6-9 wingspan, he split his time last year between small forward (41%) and power forward (56%), according to Cleaning The Glass, and would be a boon as a switchable defender whose offense continues to grow rapidly. He averaged 17 points and 6.1 rebounds last season, and became one of the league’s most accurate distance shooter, making 39.8% on 5.3 3s per game. If he doesn’t sign a rookie extension this fall, he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer, and is exactly the type of young player the Pistons should target with a max or near-max offer — even if it looks like an overpay — to force San Antonio to match. That’s the only way they can steal one of these restricted free agents, and Johnson looks like the type to bet on.

De’Andre Hunter

Hunter was becoming one of the league’s rising young players in the first half of 2020-21 until a knee injury sidetracked his season, and he hasn’t regained that consistent form. He’s a Weaver guy on paper, at nearly 6-8 with a gigantic 7-2 wingspan who plays both ways. He shot 37.9% on 3.7 3s per game last season playing off Trae Young on a team crowded with wings. The Hawks traded up to the fourth pick in 2019 for him, and have traded Kevin Huerter, Danillo Gallinari and Cam Reddish this calendar year, so they seem committed to Hunter and may look to snag him on a fair deal before the deadline in October. A big offer sheet could be too much for them to stomach. He’ll be restricted and turns 25 this December.

Kyle Kuzma

He’s the lone true power forward on our list, but would give the Pistons’ frontline better size, standing over 6-9 with a 7-foot wingspan. Known purely as a scorer in the past, Kuzma has become a better defender and has that Flint swagger, which he brought to Detroit as a visitor last season, engaging with fans. Won a championship with the Lakers in the Orlando Bubble in 2020 and was dealt to Washington in the Russell Westbrook deal a year later. Had a career season in his first with the Wizards, collecting 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Has always had good touch inside the arc, but his 3-point shooting is a tick below average for his career at 33.9% despite good volume at 5.5 attempts per game. Even averaged 0.9 blocks last season. He’ll be 28 next summer.

Dillon Brooks

Brooks brings toughness and showed this postseason he won’t back down from a challenge, contributing to the Grizzlies’ surprise 56-win season — though he was limited to 32 games largely due to an ankle sprain — the No. 2 seed and a competitive playoff run. A “2/3,” Brooks is not the typical Weaver favorite at 6-6 with short arms (6-6 wingspan), but has shown he can score, though his efficiency is below average at 42.1% field-goal shooting in five seasons. He’s about league average on 3s for his career at 34.8%. A big-time success as the No. 45 pick in 2017 after three years at Oregon, he turns 27 in January.

Josh Hart

A quintessential role player who has had success on the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Pelicans and now Portland Trail Blazers as the last pick in the 2017 first round from Villanova. Though he’s smaller and more of a “2/3” than the others mentioned above at 6-5 with a 6-8 wingspan, he can switch 1-4 on the wing. He knows his role on offense having played next to LeBron James, Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, and now Damian Lillard, so he understands how to fit in and possesses a grinder mentality. Hart’s 3-point shooting is less prolific than other targets mentioned, making 34.7% for his career. He turns 28 in March.

Cameron Johnson

Another good role player, Johnson is a prolific 3-point threat, shooting 39% on 5.5 attempts per game mostly off the bench in three seasons with the Phoenix Suns. Has good size as a “3/4” at over 6-8 with a 6-10 wingspan, so he can get his shot off under duress, and has performed well in two playoff stints. The 11th pick in 2019 out of North Carolina, Johnson is older than his experience would suggest and turns 27 in March.

More names to watch: Harrison Barnes, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Will Barton, Gary Trent Jr., Kelly Oubre Jr.

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