Auburn Hills — Call it the curious case of Henry Ellenson.
The Pistons announced Friday that the third-year big man is taking another trip to the Grand Rapids Drive. For Ellenson, the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft, it’s another opportunity to play and get some game action, which has been scarce in his time with the Pistons.
Ellenson, a 6-foot-11 forward with 3-point range, played in 58 NBA games and has been sent to the Drive about 20 times in his short career. This season, Ellenson played in one game and scored seven points; for his career, he’s posting 3.8 points, 2.2 rebounds and hitting 32 percent from 3-point range.
Pistons coach Dwane Casey has trumpeted the virtues of spending time with the Drive, the Pistons’ development league affiliate, as an opportunity for growth and playing time, instead of languishing on the bench. It’s the right philosophy to have about developing young players, but for Ellenson, it has been a regular occurrence, even going back to his first two years under Stan Van Gundy.
Both Van Gundy and Casey, and Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski — who is the de facto general manager — have touted Ellenson’s potential, but it hasn’t translated to ample playing time, even into his third season.
Time is running thin on Ellenson. The Pistons this week reportedly declined their team option on Ellenson, which means he’ll become a free agent this summer.
That doesn’t necessarily mean he’s be gone, though.
Here’s some math: Ellenson was scheduled to make about $2.8 million next season. By declining the option, the Pistons lose control of his contract, but gain the flexibility to re-sign him as a free agent, for the minimum, which would be about $1.6 million. That’s a potential salary-cap savings of $1.2 million — a significant chunk for a team that’s struggling to maneuver within the cap.
For perspective, they’re perilously close to the luxury tax this year and their precarious cap situation prevented them from bringing back 3-point maven Anthony Tolliver this season. They’re trying to find cap relief where they can — and Ellenson’s fourth-year option was a gamble they were willing to take.
When it all shakes out, Ellenson could return to the Pistons as a lower-cost free agent next season or he could find another deal elsewhere. If he leaves, the Pistons could still find another option at the veteran’s minimum of about $1.6 million, as they did with Zaza Pachulia and Jose Calderon last summer. There are options, but they’re taking some bold steps to manage the cap, clearly.
That doesn’t preclude some possible trade scenarios to open more cap space amid a bigger roster overhaul. Casey has made some bold moves in his rotation to get other players involved and the Pistons, though they’ve started 4-3, have some issues with the way the roster is constructed and how that relates to the salary cap.
Ellenson is just one piece of that.