Auburn Hills — Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy has promised his first foray into free agency will be very much unlike the team’s approach in recent years. The word “splash” is being replaced by a more subtle verb:
Van Gundy made no bones about being on the outside looking in when it comes to the free-agent bonanza that will begin Tuesday, when teams with realistic chances and pipe dreams will try to land Miami Heat star LeBron James or New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony.
James and co-stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opted out of their contracts to become unrestricted free agents, ready to be recruited like it’s high school — or the summer of 2010, when they shocked the NBA by joining forces.
Longtime Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, 36, also will hit the market, along with intriguing point guards Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors and the Phoenix Suns’ Eric Bledsoe, although Bledsoe is a restricted free agent.
The Pistons’ top priority is perhaps the No. 1 restricted free agent on the board, 24-year-old forward-center Greg Monroe, who could command a maximum offer from a competitor, forcing Van Gundy to make a decision about perhaps overpaying a consistent but not yet All-Star player.
“I think teams think it’s better, especially with young guys, to have an asset, even that’s overpaid, that can bring value down the road rather than having a guy go for nothing,” Van Gundy said last week in a pre-draft meeting with media.
The Pistons, by virtue of Monroe’s “restricted” tag, control the process, while Monroe’s leverage revolves around what offers he can get from other suitors. The Pistons can match any signed offer sheet from another team, orchestrate a sign-and-trade before an offer sheet is signed or agree to a deal with Monroe before it even gets that far.
“I think Greg Monroe is a very good young big guy,” Van Gundy said. “The fair thing to say is we either want him back or we want good value for him. I’m trying to watch my words a little bit.”
“The only thing I wouldn’t be comfortable with is making a deal because I got forced into it. We’re not doing that. We will not make a trade … we’ll make a trade we like or won’t make a trade.”
Monroe’s cap hold (a salary amount held against the salary cap until his situation is resolved) leaves around $13.5 million in space with which Van Gundy and Pistons general manager Jeff Bower can do some summer shopping.
Van Gundy has “nine or 10 targets” in mind with whom he’ll set up meetings.
“We’re gonna be active,” Van Gundy said. “But with where we are, and the positions we want to fill, we’re not gonna create a big splash in terms of free agency. But it’ll be guys we really like. The splash will be on the court.”
Van Gundy, a huge baseball fan, cited a radio conversation he had with former Tigers manager Jim Leyland in describing the Pistons’ approach.
“(Miguel Cabrera’s) approach at the plate is that of a singles hitter. He’s gonna make solid contact every time, but he’s so powerful and has so much bat speed, he hits some home runs anyways without striking out again.
“We may hit a home run but we’re not swinging for the fences. What you don’t want to do: swing for the fences and strike out.”
In Van Gundy’s mind, they’ve targeted players who’ll command around $7 million to $8 million and others at $5 million to $6 million, players “we want to make a move on early.”
“Media and fans won’t be doing cartwheels,” he said. “We’re not gonna hit home runs, but we can hit singles and doubles and bring some runs in.”
The needs are obvious, trying to find shooters in a league where 3-point shooting has become increasingly important in recent years, a category in which every team was more proficient than the Pistons.
Van Gundy also will target a backup point guard with size, bringing Will Bynum and Peyton Siva’s futures into question, along with an impending decision on veteran Chauncey Billups’ team option.
Help on the wings is also a concern. Perhaps the Pistons can find the shooting and wing help in one package, considering they only have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler at the swingman spots.
Washington small forward Trevor Ariza, New Orleans sharpshooter Anthony Morrow and Los Angeles Lakers guard Jodie Meeks all fit that profile.
“Our team needs an energy infusion. When you get to guys in those salary ranges, you won’t get guys (with big salaries),” said Van Gundy, adding a dose of realism, “99.9 percent of the time the guy takes the best (money) offer.”
Anthony Morrow, G, New Orleans Pelicans: Morrow won’t do much in other areas but he’ll be coveted for shooting 45 percent from 3-point range. His accuracy is eighth all-time in the NBA. The Pistons need that more than any other quality headed into next season.
Trevor Ariza, F, Washington Wizards: Ariza finally proved durable after two injury-riddled seasons, shooting a career-high 41 percent from 3 and spearheading the Wizards’ improved perimeter defense. At age 29, entering year 11, his best days are likely behind him, but he’s a natural small forward and veteran with championship experience.
Shaun Livingston, G, Brooklyn Nets: Livingston recovered from early devastating injuries to become a revelation for the Nets last season as a backup point guard. At 6-foot-7, he would bring size the Pistons lack at the position, and since they’ve openly claimed they don’t expect second-round pick Spencer Dinwiddie to contribute this season, they’ll still want a backup, stable point guard.
Jodie Meeks, G, Los Angeles Lakers: Disregard Meeks’ 15.7 scoring average for the moribund Lakers, since there was nothing but shots to be had. But he’s an accurate shooter (40 percent from 3) capable of scoring in bunches (19 games of 20-plus points). He’s got good size and is young enough for the Pistons to take a look without a huge financial commitment.
Josh McRoberts, F, Charlotte Hornets: Found his niche as an ultimate energy guy and irritant, flying all over the floor and dangerous around the offensive glass. Developed into a decent 3-point shooter at the power forward spot last season (36 percent) and averaged 4.3 assists, being used as a facilitator from the high-post.