Forward Josh Smith had a tough first year with the Pistons, making 26.4 percent of his 3-pointers. (Clarence Tabb Jr. / Detroit News)
Auburn Hills — They’ll get a usable player, or maybe not. They could move into the bottom of the first round, but probably not.
Not to ruin your NBA draft party Thursday night, but the focus of the Pistons under new leader Stan Van Gundy changed the moment they lost the No. 9 pick and were left with one faint hope at No. 38. That pick won’t alter the makeup of the Pistons, and with an underwhelming free-agent list — outside of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, of course — a big signing isn’t likely either.
That’s why Van Gundy’s first huge move must be to trade one of his big guys — Josh Smith (preferably) or Greg Monroe (realistically).
Can the Pistons play another season with the painfully cumbersome trio of Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond? I suppose. Does Van Gundy want to do it? No way.
He admitted the Monroe scenarios have dominated his conversations with owner Tom Gores. As a restricted free agent, Monroe can’t leave on his own, but if he finds an interested team, such as New Orleans, he can nudge Detroit toward a sign-and-trade.
That’s not Van Gundy’s preferred option, but he’d do it. The better, and tougher, option it to deal Smith, who has three years and $40.5 million left on his contract. It sounds impossible after a horrible season in which Smith played out of position and responded by shooting a preposterous 26.4 percent on 3-pointers.
Maybe Van Gundy is a strong enough coach to fix that. But it would require a lot of delicate prodding, such as convincing Smith to come off the bench, and Van Gundy doesn’t strike me as a delicate prodder.
It only takes one buyer to complete a trade (see: Prince Fielder), and one rumor involves Sacramento, which might be willing to acquire Smith partly to get Boston point guard Rajon Rondo, who’s buddies with Smith. The reported return for Detroit isn’t exactly enticing — a pair of underachieving forwards in Derrick Williams (No. 2 overall pick in 2011) and Jason Thompson.
When it comes to a high-priced enigma like Smith, I know the general response — “Great trade! Who’d we get?” The subtraction is more important than the addition.
But dumping damaged assets isn’t that simple, and isn’t always wise at any cost. While we know about Van Gundy’s impressive credentials as a coach, we’re about to find out how he can maneuver as president of basketball operations, along with general manager Jeff Bower.
Ideally, he’d trade Smith or Monroe, get much-needed shooters and start reshaping the team immediately. The Pistons don’t have a chip to play in the draft but they have decent salary-cap space, and they have the trade chip.
“We’re comfortable that we’ll be OK, no matter what,” Van Gundy said regarding Monroe. “The only thing I wouldn’t be comfortable with is making a deal because I feel I got forced into it. If we make a trade, we’re gonna get something we like, or we will not make a trade.”
In other words, if Monroe gets an offer sheet from another team, the Pistons will match it, unless it’s a maximum offer, in which case they’ll grind their teeth and match it. They can’t let a 24-year-old 6-foot-11 forward who averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds walk.
Before it gets to that, a prospective suitor could discuss a sign-and-trade for Monroe. That’s the more likely scenario, and the Pelicans are rumored to be interested, although the possible trade pieces — Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon — have flaws.
It’s clear the Pistons like Monroe, a good citizen and solid player. They have to like him more than Smith. They also have to be careful liking him too much.
“I think Greg Monroe is a very good, young, big guy,” Van Gundy said. “I think the fair thing to say is, we either want him back or we want good value for him.”
The Pistons must wait to see what type of offers Monroe receives. There are no such restrictions with Smith, and while trading him would be difficult, they have to try. It’s not just about correcting the lineup imbalance, but also the salary-cap imbalance, paying three frontcourt players so much.
Van Gundy craves shooters, and talks passionately about what he had in Orlando, with a big guy (Dwight Howard) creating space for three-point specialists. He looks at Detroit’s roster and sees two wing players — Kyle Singler and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Rodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva surely will depart as free agents. Brandon Jennings is a pseudo-point guard, and Van Gundy raves about Jonas Jerebko, but a whole lot of improvement is needed.
Don’t expect a miracle Thursday night, although clever teams have plucked gems in the second round. And don’t expect free agency July 1 to solve everything. The Pistons will have about $13.5 million to spread among a few under-the-radar players.
“Oh, we’re gonna be active,” Van Gundy said. “With where we are in cap space, and the number of positions we want to fill, I don’t think we’re gonna create a big splash. The analogy I’ve used is, we’re not gonna hit a home run, but if we can get three singles, or two singles and a double and drive in a couple runs, we’ll be OK.”
Van Gundy isn’t looking for raw athletes lacking defined skills. He talks about the Pistons need for an “energy infusion,” more effort on defense, more ball movement to generate shots for guys that, you know, can actually shoot.
They’ll pluck some free agents, maybe even a couple you recognize. But the bolder move will be to trade Smith or Monroe, and this is no time to be timid.