How can the Detroit Pistons give Blake Griffin more help? It won’t be easy

The Detroit Pistons were the second team eliminated from the NBA Playoffs when the Milwaukee Bucks swept them off their own home floor. In truth, the Pistons never stood a chance. They were outmatched at every position, and their best player didn’t even play the first two games of the series.

Now, Detroit’s focus must shift to a summer where their hands may be tied behind their back. The Pistons have almost zero cap flexibility to add to the roster this summer. Barring a shake-up via trade, they will bring back mostly the same roster that finished a flat .500 this season.

That 41-41 record came with Blake Griffin averaging 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists while shooting a career-best 36.2 percent on seven three-point attempts per game. His incredible, bounce-back season deserved a better ending. But this 41-41 finish also came in just the second season of his five-year, $171 million contract. Griffin isn’t getting any younger. He wants to win now, and the Pistons need to do everything in their power to make that happen.

A dream scenario this season would have been to pull off a deal before February’s trade deadline. They tried to acquire Mike Conley from the Grizzlies via trade, and adding him to the two-big tandem of Griffin and Andre Drummond would have made Detroit a legitimate elite East team. But the Grizzlies declined Detroit’s advances and kept Conley, believing Detroit didn’t have enough pieces to entice them to make a deal.

The Pistons won’t have those pieces next season, either, with $112 million in guaranteed contracts already for the 2019-20 season. That means aside from their own draft pick (No. 15 overall in a top-heavy draft class), their mid-level exception, and the smaller bi-annual exception, the Pistons’ only mechanism of signing free agents is to offer a minimum contract.

Can the Pistons upgrade via trade?

Detroit has explored trading center Andre Drummond in the past, and could do so again. Are there any takers for Drummond, given his contract and production?

Detroit’s 25-year-old big man averaged a career-best 17.3 points, 15.6 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks this season, his first under new coach Dwane Casey. He has one year left on his contract for $27 million, with a $28.7 million player option he is likely to exercise for the 2020-21 season.

Drummond is a great rebounder, athletic pick-and-roll finisher, and an underrated passer out of the low post, but he does not stretch the floor and he does not guard multiple positions. He protects the rim and dominates the glass, but he is not the modern-day five who can check smaller guards and stretch the floor. He’s also prone to listless performances in key games; some Pistons fans booed him during a particularly bad Game 3 against the Bucks.

But if there’s no way to trade Drummond and upgrade the existing team, it isn’t the end of the world. The Pistons outscored opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions in the 1,979 regular-season minutes Drummond and Griffin played together. Griffin and Drummond also outscored the Bucks in the first round by 11.4 points per 100 possessions in the 37 minutes they shared the court.

If Detroit opts against a trade, it will need to get very creative with how it spends its money.

This is what Detroit’s payroll will look like next season before any signings

Year 1 salary included, with payout over the life of the contract in parentheses:

  • Blake Griffin: $34.4 million (3 years, $110 million)
  • Andre Drummond: $27 million (player option worth $28.7 million in 2020)
  • Reggie Jackson: $18 million
  • Jon Leuer: $9.5 million
  • Langston Galloway: $7.3 million
  • Josh Smith: $5.3 million (yes, the Pistons are still paying Josh Smith)
  • Glenn Robinson III: team option for $4.3 million
  • Luke Kennard: $3.8 million (highly likely team option worth $5.2 million in 2020)
  • Thon Maker: $3.6 million (restricted free agency in 2020)
  • Svi Mykhailiuk: non-guaranteed for $1.4 million (team option for $1.6 million in 2020)
  • Bruce Brown: $1.4 million (non-guaranteed for $1.6 million in 2020)
  • Khyri Thomas: $1.4 million (non-guaranteed for $1.6 million in 2020)

That’s about $117.7 million if Detroit opts to keep Robinson and Mykhailiuk next season, plus whatever the slotted salary will be to sign their first-round draft pick. The list doesn’t include solid backup point guard Ish Smith, who is a free agent and appears to be out of Detroit’s price range.

Detroit’s magic number: 138

That’s the projected tax “apron” for the 2019-20 NBA season, or about $6 million above the luxury tax level of $132 million. The Pistons need to make sure they are below $138 million if they want to use their full mid-level exception.

So long as the Pistons are below that $138 million level, they’ll be able to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception that pays $9.2 million per season, with a max of a four-year deal worth $39.7 million. The taxpayer mid-level exception, on the other hand, only pays $5.7 million, or a three-year, $17.9 million deal. Big difference.

However, using the full non-taxpayers MLE means the Pistons will have a hard cap of $138 million next season. They won’t be able to exceed that number under any circumstances, whereas they could — albeit with escalating financial penalties — if they use the smaller taxpayer mid-level exception.

How could Detroit spend that money?

The Pistons could take a flyer on Isaiah Thomas

Thomas never cracked the rotation in Denver. He only appeared in 12 games and averaged eight points on subpar shooting percentages in his time on the floor.

But desperate times call for desperate measures, and both Thomas and the Pistons can be filed under “desperate.” Thomas signed a minimum contract with the Nuggets and would likely sign another for a chance at legitimate playing time. The Pistons need some help in the backcourt, so he’d have a chance to earn minutes.

If Thomas can revert to anything near his old self — the All-Star guard who averaged 28.9 points in the 2016-17 season — this could be a low-risk, high-reward experiment for both parties.

Detroit could use some (or all) of its mid-level exception on Rodney Hood

The market for Hood is uncertain. He averaged 16.8 points in Utah in his final season before being traded to Cleveland at last year’s deadline, but numbers never reached those heights again and his efficiency has tapered along with it. This season, Hood was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers, where he’s become a useful bench player.

Hood can get hot, though, and has something to prove: that he is that near-17 point per game scorer who can thrive in the right situation. A wise bet would be against Portland re-signing him long-term. He might be the right kind of fit for Detroit.

The Pistons could also use its mid-level exception to replace Ish Smith

The Pistons need a backup point guard in the event they cannot retain Smith. Detroit outscored opponents by 5.5 points per 100 possessions while Smith was on the floor. He was the aggressive facilitator who helped balance Detroit’s attack during his time with the team. Detroit more than likely won’t be able to retain him if they want to stay under the apron.

Two strong options that’ll become free agents this summer: Derrick Rose and Darren Collison. Rose resurrected his career in Minnesota, averaging 18 points and 4.3 assists while shooting a career-best 37 percent from three. Collison is a speedster who consistently shoots 40 percent from three-point range. Last season, he averaged 11.2 points, six assists and 1.4 steals per game as the starter in Indy.

Both could be good backups to Reggie Jackson, or serviceable starters in the event the Pistons deal Jackson.

The books look much cleaner next season

The Pistons cap sheet is ugly this summer, but the only players with guaranteed contracts in 2020 will be Griffin, Drummond, and likely Luke Kennard. They’ll have at least $30 million in cap space, if not more with cap expected to balloon to $119 million. In 2020, Detroit will have more flexibility to find difference maker they won’t been able to afford this summer. That’s why the Pistons should try their hardest to limit the length of any new contracts to just one-year deals this summer.

However, the 2020 free agency pool isn’t nearly as strong as the level of talent available this summer. Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Jeff Teague will be the best unrestricted point guards available, and the majority of restricted free agents will be retained by their current teams. It might be slim pickings by the time the Pistons finally have cap space.

This is the hand Detroit dealt itself when it signed Jackson to a five-year, $80 million extension in 2015 (defensible at the time), then Jon Leuer to a four-year, $42 million deal the summer after (highly questionable even at the time). This is the consequence of waiving and stretching Josh Smith’s four-year, $54 million contract in 2014 — now, they’re paying $5.4 million in dead money every season until 2020. And this is what happens when you sign Drummond to a five-year, $127 million deal, then trade for Griffin in the first year of a five-year, $171 million deal.

The Pistons are in NBA purgatory, and it’ll be hard for them to get out.

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