Two good trades and one disappointing offseason (so far) for the Detroit Pistons

Detroit Bad Boys

The Troy Weaver of the NBA Draft is certainly not the Troy Weaver of NBA Free Agency. The Troy Weaver of the NBA Draft is all quotable lines and talking about swinging for the fences. The Troy Weaver of NBA Free Agency is more prone to not messing up future flexibility and talking about a love of centers.

The draft, Weaver says, is when “you get to show who you are.” Free Agency, it seems, is when your job is to not be your own worst enemy. The selections of Ausar Thompson and Marcus Sasser say a lot about Troy and what he values. As did the previous selections of Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren and Cade Cunningham.

Two consecutive years of essentially opting out of free agency in favor of trades for Alec Burks, Bojan Bogdanovic, Joe Harris and Monte Morris say something too — it is better to wait for your moment than to win a bidding war and get saddled with a mistake.

The issue is, that moment you’re waiting for might never arrive. If that’s the case, Plan B can’t be kicking the can down the road forever. The moves might be prudent, and patience might be a virtue. However, it also leads to a frustrated fan base waiting for that tangible progress and wondering if next year’s cap space bonanza will simply lead to more of the same.

For those fans, however, I think there is a sad reality a franchise as bad as the Pistons face. You can either do exactly what Detroit did — rent out cap space to players with zero financial obligation remaining after the season. Or you can do what Houston did. Spend $250 million in salaries to add players who make your team markedly better — as the Rockets did when signing Fred Van Vleet, Dillon Brooks, Jock Landale and Jeff Green.

There is no in between. The bad team tax is real. You don’t just marginally overpay for an upgrade, you have to massively overpay. Max Strus is happy to sign with a good team like the Cleveland Cavaliers for $63 million. But to sign with Detroit it would likely cost that Dillon Brooks price tag. Maybe there was a number restricted free agent Cam Johnson would have been willing to sign to play in Detroit and the Nets wouldn’t have matched. But that number probably is north of $30 million annually.

Instead, Weaver opted for Plan B — or was it Plan C? Or Plan A? Whatever plan it was, it involved trading very little to add shooting to a team that desperately needed it around cornerstone players Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, and Ausar Thompson.

The trades the past two seasons were all objectively solid wins for Detroit in getting superior players for next to zero cost (Kelly Olynyk coming off an injury-plagued season notwithstanding). So why do all these good moves seem so unfulfilling? Why are fans rightly so frustrated?

Looking for Competency and Reliability

Partly, I think it is a desire from fans to see the Pistons add a bonafide two-way upgrade that can be penciled in the rotation for years to come. A good player who can be counted on, and you can have confidence as a fan will be with the roster for a few years.

The only thing constant since Weaver has taken over has been massive roster turnover. His 2020 team was massively overhauled from the 2019 edition. His 2023 team will feature a new coaching staff and only two incumbent players from 2020 — Killian Hayes, who might still be moved this offseason, and Isaiah Stewart.

It is two-fold — one, this team had the ability to sign a player of consequence if they were willing to (over)pay what it takes. Two, the roster is still plagued by some of the fundamental flaws that were so obvious last season.

Striking Out in Free Agency?

Now let’s strain Weaver’s recent metaphor about his desire to go out and hit home runs in the NBA Draft as we explore how he “struck out” in free agency.

We know that the Pistons had restricted free agent Cameron Johnson high on their target list. Adding Johnson, whether you consider him a high-end role player, or a gem who just needed a larger role and some health on his side would have been the “home run swing” of the offseason.

Obviously, however, Weaver knew any offer he made to Johnson would be matched and there was no way he was going to come out of free agency with Cam in a Pistons uniform. Instead, Weaver pivoted to helping the Nets create the needed financial room for Johnson’s new deal by trading for Joe Harris’ $20 million salary. That’s like stepping up to the plate only to be intentionally walked. Weaver still got on base. He still helped his team. There is no downside to a free pass. But he’s still only on first.

The same can be said of the Morris deal. Another free pass that adds base runners but doesn’t necessarily ensure anyone is crossing home plate.

The Rockets’ Approach

The Pistons could have swung wildly at pitches outside of the zone in a desperate attempt to score, and that would have put them in league with the Houston Rockets. Houston was similarly bad last offseason, but they obviously had a mandate to get better this season no matter the cost.

To make room for all those new, expensive additions, the Rockets cut bait on a bunch of young players — KJ Martin, TyTy Washington, Usman Garuba, and Josh Christopher.

To be clear, the Rockets will be better, and probably much better, next season. They also won’t be a playoff team, and everything still hinges on the development of young players like Amen Thompson, Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr, Alperen Sengun, Tari Eason and Cam Whitmore.

Similarly, the Pistons’ fortunes were never going to rest on Cam Johnson or Max Strus. They rest on Cade. And Ivey. And Duren. And Thompson. Cade needs to be HIM, and one of those other guys needs to be a second star or good enough to be the main ingredient for a trade for a second star.

The Pistons are still at the plate, still have no outs. Perhaps at the trade deadline, armed with expiring contracts, or next offseason when they potentially have $60 million in cap space, they can swing away. Maybe they’ll finally make their big move. But it isn’t out of the question that once again, Weaver has nobody willing to take the deals he is offering.

A Potentially Fatally Flawed Rotation

The biggest disappointment in this Pistons offseson stems from the fact that Detroit is coming off a 17-win season and with gigantic question marks at the power forward position. They finished last season ranked 28th in both offensive and defensive efficiency, per basketball reference.

The additions of Monte Morris and Joe Harris will improve the offense. But it does absolutely nothing to address the defense, and has no impact on a power forward position that remains in disarray.

Bojan Bogdanovic doesn’t have the height or strength to play there long term. Isaiah Stewart’s perimeter shot is still more theory than practice. Marvin Bagley is elite within 5 feet of the rim and struggles everywhere else. James Wiseman is nobody’s idea of a power forward, and might not even be an NBA player.

The optimist might say they are all flawed but young power forwards with room to grow, if you’re willing to put Bojan off to the side. A pessimist says, they are actually flawed centers and they might all be much closer to finished projects than anyone is comfortable admitting.

Detroit has one young, growing center it should count on and invest in, and that person is Jalen Duren. They have one young player who might be worth investing in to serve as a backup center in Isaiah Stewart. Investing big money in a backup center is probably unwise, but if he truly does develop into a 40% 3-point shooter with plus defense, he could carve out a long-term future at power forward and be worth an extension. Big if though.

Then you have Bagley who seems to be an odd man out, and Wiseman who is the worst performer of the bunch and with a big $11 million option year after this one. It’s now or never for Wiseman in any role, and I’m not sure how it is ever gonna happen for him in Detroit.

The Offseason Isn’t Over Yet

If the Piston go into this season with the exact lineup they have on July 5, it feels like only a marginal improvement over last season is possible. A win total that starts with a “2” seems like the most likely outcome. But it is important to remember that the offseason isn’t over yet.

The Pistons are reportedly shopping both Bagley and Hayes. The new roster additions might also mean they could sell high on Bojan or Burks and get a respectable, two-way power forward if a team is willing to offload one. The team could also, honestly, use a defensive-minded veteran center as Wiseman insurance and to help Duren grow into his role. Both moves are entirely possible. Detroit still has a $7 million exception and salaries that are easy to toss into a deal.

The potential for Weaver to hit a home run is long gone. But he can get runs across the plate with a little more maneuvering and roster balancing. It doesn’t need to be a big name, it just needs to be a player or players who help Detroit’s defense, and allows players to slot more easily into their assigned roles.

A rotation built on the foundation of Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Jalen Duren, Ausar Thompson, Joe Harris, Monte Morris, and Isaiah Stewart is workable. The offense will be better. Cae will be healthy. The potential for year 2 growth from Jaden and Jalen is exciting. The addition of the speed, defense and passing from Ausar adds a new wrinkle missing on the wing in Detroit for years. And there are a handful of reliable vets who can shoot. But you need more size and more defense. And that means you need something that Bogdanovic, Bagley, and Wiseman just can’t deliver.

Until Detroit addresses those fundamental flaws on the roster, it’s accurate to say this offseason has been a significant disappointment if the goal truly is to take a big step forward next season.

An upgrade at power forward, however, could put Detroit in line to not just be a better, more balanced team on the upswing. They could have the profile of this year’s Indiana Pacers, or look like with another year or two, they could be where the Cavs and Kings find themselves now.

There’s always next offseason!

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