Don’t expect Detroit Pistons to be big sellers at 2023 NBA trade deadline. Here’s why

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Pistons have all of the indicators of a team that’ll look to sell before February’s 2023 NBA trade deadline.

They have two veterans on good contracts who could help any contender in Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks. At 8-27, the Pistons have the fewest wins and most losses of any team entering Monday. Still firmly in rebuild mode, it would be logical to assume they’ll look to get an asset — any asset — for their productive vets and continue prioritizing the development of their young players.

But that logic falls apart when you consider the Pistons want to be good sooner, rather than later. The trade deadline is Feb. 9, and, according to sources, the Pistons do not expect to be a major player. That doesn’t mean they won’t make any moves, but the safe bet right now is Bogdanovic and Burks will be Pistons through the rest of this season.

The 2023-24 season may be the right time for the organization to go all-in on a postseason push. This will be the franchise’s 15th straight season without a playoff win. The young players are maturing, and with significant cap space coming up this summer and a potential top-five draft pick to further fortify the roster, general manager Troy Weaver will likely look to turn over a new page in the “restoring” and push the team closer to respectability. To do that, they’ll also need strong veteran play.

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It may be hard to imagine the current iteration of the Pistons, who lost three games by a combined 60 points last week, rising up the Eastern Conference ranks within the next year. But Cade Cunningham’s shin injury and subsequent season-ending surgery changed the tenor of this season. They were 3-9 after he played his final game Nov. 9, and was shut down before bench contributors Burks and Marvin Bagley III made their season debuts. We will never see what a 100% healthy version of this Pistons team could’ve accomplished, though every team deals with injuries in an 82-game season.

The front office can look at the Orlando Magic, who have been bolstered by the strong play of 2022 first overall pick Paolo Banchero and the return from injury of 2017 first overall pick Markelle Fultz, as an example of how quickly a rebuilding team can start winning. The Magic have won eight of their past nine games to get to 13-21 and 2½ games out of the play-in tournament. By the end of January, they could conceivably pass the struggling Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls and Toronto Raptors and be in the top 10.

As Weaver said on media day in September, the Pistons are in the “competing stage.” The long-term goal of becoming a playoff contender remains intact, despite the disappointments of this season. Cunningham should get back to 100% health this offseason. The summer might be the most important of Weaver’s tenure. The best option could be to ride out this season and then make broader decisions afterwards, instead of making pivotal roster decisions in the midst of a season unlikely to decide the fate of the rebuild.

Pistons unlikely to part with Bogdanovic anytime soon

The Pistons were thrilled when the Utah Jazz in September agreed to send Bogdanovic in exchange for veteran big man Kelly Olynyk and former second-round pick Saben Lee.

Bogdanovic arrived with a reputation as one of the NBA’s most efficient scorers. The 33-year-old wing was a proven playoff performer with the Jazz and Indiana Pacers. He filled a need as a primary offensive option who could take pressure off Cunningham, while providing a strong voice on the floor and in the locker room.

He has met, if not exceeded, those expectations, averaging 20.8 points on 48.8% shooting (including 41.6% from 3-point range). The Pistons were so impressed with his first month here they signed him to a two-year, $39.1 million extension toward the end of October. The extension gives Detroit some financial flexibility, as the final season is partially guaranteed at $2 million. The Pistons are unlikely to find a better player for the money.

Sources tell the Free Press the Pistons were initially open to trading Bogdanovic at the February deadline. Before his extension, he was set to enter unrestricted free agency this summer. It made more sense to trade him rather than lose him without receiving assets in return. But his extension is a strong signal those priorities have shifted, and that the front office likes his fit.

Detroit has received offers for Bogdanovic and will continue to take calls through the deadline. Interest from the rest of the league is high, but the Pistons are not shopping him. They could, of course, receive an offer so strong they would be foolish to say no. But the team is showing no urgency to move him.

The same is true for Burks, who arrived in June with Nerlens Noel in a cap-clearing move for the New York Knicks. Burks, 31, is an established and reliable wing shooter, and Detroit’s best bench player. He’s averaging 13 points and shooting 40.2% from 3, and has a team option this summer worth $10.5 million. Like Bogdanovic, the Pistons like his fit with the roster and are unlikely to find a better player for the money. That doesn’t mean he’s untouchable, but it does mean the Pistons have strong incentive to carry him into the offseason, and make a decision then.

2023 offseason will give Pistons more maneuverability

From a fan-interest standpoint, this has been a disastrous Pistons season. Cunningham, the 2021 No. 1 overall pick, won’t play again until next fall, and the teamis on pace for a fourth straight season with fewer than 24 wins. Although there have been encouraging signs — Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart are enjoying their best seasons, for example — this clearly won’t be the season of growth many hoped and expected.

But from an overall rebuilding standpoint, things are still largely fine. That’s not to say the front office is happy the team is losing, but there are much worse fates than being a bad team with a promising young core ahead of a draft that could be transformational. French big man Victor Wembanyama and electric G League guard Scoot Henderson are expected to be the top two picks, and both carry franchise player potential. Wembanyama is considered by many around the league to be one of the best prospects in league history, and Henderson is an elite prospect in his own right.

The Pistons are also in great financial shape, largely thanks to the rebuild. Most of their roster is on rookie or inexpensive deals. Bogdanovic and Burks have team-friendly contracts that can be easily moved. They’ll be among the league leaders in cap space this summer, positioning them to be a significant contender in free agency and the trade market.

Detroit owes a protected first-round pick to the New York Knicks, thanks to their 2020 trade that landed Stewart from the Houston Rockets (the pick has since changed hands a few times). The pick is protected 1-18 in 2023 and 2024, and holds protections through 2027. NBA rules prevents teams from lacking their own first-round picks in consecutive seasons, meaning the Pistons cannot trade their 2023 first-rounder until after the draft. (They would essentially pick a player for another team if a deal was agreed upon before or during the draft.)

If the Pistons were to end up with a less desirable selection outside the top two, they could negotiate a trade for a proven player in June and then execute the trade after the draft, when the new league year begins, therefore bypassing the rule. That flexibility is another reason why it makes more sense for them to hold onto their assets in February and have all of their chips at their disposal this offseason.

Weaver’s 2½ years as GM have been highlighted by his eagerness to make big trades. This time around, he has plenty of reasons not to. There are still smaller deals that make sense. Noel, who has only appeared in six games this season, is one veteran who isn’t factoring into long-term plans.

But to borrow a phrase Weaver used ahead of the 2021 trade deadline: Don’t expect any fireworks.

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