Wojo: Pistons win the trade but take a big risk

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Avery Bradley

Detroit – In a couple of quick, bold moves, the Detroit Pistons balanced their roster, improved their defense, boosted their shooting and gained financial flexibility. They were decisive and shrewd, but make no mistake – they’re taking a gamble.

The Pistons used the Boston Celtics’ salary-cap problem to grab Avery Bradley and a second-round pick Friday in exchange for forward Marcus Morris. They picked up a highly respected 26-year-old combo guard who can shoot the three and plays fierce defense. They did something Stan Van Gundy is pretty adept at doing – they won the trade.

In the process, they lost another asset in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a cost-value assessment fraught with risk. The Pistons didn’t want to pay Caldwell-Pope the reported asking price of $20-million-plus per season, and I don’t blame them. Apparently, they’re not alone. As a restricted free-agent, Caldwell-Pope hadn’t yet drawn an offer. Rather than play the waiting game or negotiating game, the Pistons went out and got a substantial upgrade at a much-lower price, then renounced their rights to Caldwell-Pope.

It’s a good move in the short term, but an incomplete move because Bradley becomes an unrestricted free-agent next summer, putting the Pistons right back in the cost-value conundrum. It only becomes a great move if they sign Bradley long-term, and he’ll command much more than his current $8.8 million salary.

That’s the gamble. It’s not whether the 6-2 Bradley is better than the 6-5 Caldwell-Pope (he is, considerably). It’s that by gaining salary-cap flexibility, the Pistons are surrendering control. They gave up Morris, a decent low-cost player, and set Caldwell-Pope free for nothing in return.

Why would they do that? The Pistons decided it wasn’t worth it to match whatever Caldwell-Pope might receive from another team, and a sign-and-trade wasn’t going to net enough to be a viable option. Basically, they were ready to shake it up and move on from Caldwell-Pope, so they dumped a 24-year-old guard who had shown improvement but hadn’t grown beyond a sketchy shooter, still below the league average.

Much to be determined

Two things are being addressed here, and they’re fairly obvious. The Pistons were woeful at shooting and defending last season, and oddly enough, that’s not a great mix in the NBA. They’re sticking with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond for now because of their contracts, but that doesn’t preclude other moves.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Van Gundy was sick of watching his roster labor to score, whether it was Jackson’s knee issue or the team’s hideous 3-point shooting – 33 percent, 28th in the league. Bradley is a better 3-point shooter than Caldwell-Pope (39-35 percent last year) and a significantly better shooter overall, in his career and last season (46.3-39.9).

Caldwell-Pope is a fine defender, but Bradley is one of the best defensive guards in the league, and a superior rebounder. Van Gundy could gripe all he wanted about his team’s deficiencies, but it was just noise unless he did something about it, and he’s rarely bashful in that regard. So he did something about it, with high-risk, high-reward moves that will determine whether his tenure here will be a success.

The Pistons just added the best pure shooter in the draft, Duke’s Luke Kennard, and they might play him early. They need to find out what they have in recent picks Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson. They need to see if forward Tobias Harris can take on a larger role in Morris’ absence. They need to see if unheralded guard Langston Galloway actually was worth $7 million per season. (OK, that was a head-scratcher).

Time to take a risk

More than anything, the Pistons needed to alter the mix, and a versatile guard like Bradley might make Jackson and Drummond more comfortable. No guarantee, of course. Caldwell-Pope could yet develop into a player the Pistons regret jettisoning. And at some point, Van Gundy must show a consistent plan, not just a knack for moving intriguing pieces around a chess board. If Bradley departs after one season here, Van Gundy had better do something significant with the salary-cap space, or this gamble will have failed.

But this is precisely the time to take a risk, when you plummet from the playoffs to a 37-45 record, with no clear path to recovery. And trust me, the Celtics weren’t eager to unload Bradley. They were forced to make room for free-agent star Gordon Hayward, but many in Boston lamented that Bradley was the choice. The former first-round pick from Texas was well-liked in seven seasons there, considered one of the league’s underrated players and a gritty piece to the Celtics’ rise. The Celtics were in a bind – a nice bind after signing Hayward to a $128-million deal – and the Pistons seized a chance to benefit from it.

The immediate benefit is notable. The Pistons have enough cumbersome contracts and couldn’t afford to mess around with Caldwell-Pope’s. Frankly, I never understood the notion of giving him a max deal, and obviously, the Pistons didn’t either

In a short-term vacuum, Van Gundy made a nice, worthwhile gambit. As always with the Pistons, the long-term view isn’t quite as clear.


Twitter @bobwojnowski