Niyo: Proactive Pistons trading places

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The Pistons know who they are now — and for the foreseeable future — and that sure beats all the waiting and wondering that had become the franchise’s unfortunate calling card in the recent past.

And while Stan Van Gundy was busy deflecting praise for his team’s latest round of wheeling and dealing before Thursday’s trade deadline — quickly dishing it to general manager Jeff Bower and the rest of his front-office and scouting staff — give him credit, at the very least, for self-awareness.

That’s an underrated strength in this business of professional sports, and particularly in the kind of rebuilding effort the Pistons president and coach signed up for 21 months ago. But it’s one the Pistons have shown again in this week’s surprisingly bold moves, hitting the deadline harder than arguably any NBA team by orchestrating a pair of trades involving six players and a first-round pick.

Those are the seventh and eighth player swaps of Van Gundy’s brief tenure in Detroit, and more than anything that tells you this regime understands the NBA’s changing landscape and its place in it.

The Pistons have transformed their roster in short order largely by avoiding free agency. And Thursday’s big deal — sending reserve center Joel Anthony and a protected first-round pick to the Rockets for shooting guard Marcus Thornton and forward Donatas Motiejunas — certainly suggests it’ll be another quiet July at The Palace this year.

In Thornton, Van Gundy added some veteran scoring punch to a bench that desperately needed it. But in Motiejunas, a 7-foot Lithuanian with plenty of upside despite a wonky back, the Pistons probably have wrapped up most of their offseason shopping for 2016-17 in mid-February.

They’ll still go looking for some veteran backcourt help next summer, in addition to re-signing All-Star center Andre Drummond to a league-maximum extension. But while much of the rest of the league throws good money after bad to a dwindling free-agent pool, the Pistons figure to be mostly bystanders.

Maybe they’ll be forced to match a silly offer for Motiejunas, one of several pending restricted free agents of note around the league and a player whose skill set clearly fits Van Gundy’s offensive philosophy. (They even entertained a draft-day trade offer for him last summer.)

Finding best route

But that’s a calculated risk of a different kind, what with more than half the teams in the NBA able to lavish max deals on the likes of Al Horford, Mike Conley and Nicolas Batum this summer. Ryan Anderson, another stretch four the Pistons had eyes for, might even command something close to that as the salary cap balloons thanks to a new TV contract.

Van Gundy essentially admitted as much Wednesday as the rest of the league hailed the Pistons trade for 23-year-old Tobias Harris, adding the versatile 6-9 forward in exchange for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings.

“There wasn’t a doubt in anybody’s mind on our staff that this was a better player on a better contract than anybody we’d be able to get this coming summer with what’s coming up,” Van Gundy said of Harris, the former first-round pick who’d just signed a four-year, $64 million extension in Orlando last July.

“You’ve got to know who you are. We’re not at the position yet that with 30 teams having money that we’re gonna be at the top of everybody’s list that’s on the free-agent market. So to be able to get good young players who are locked in is the ideal for us.”

Ideally, you’d like to build your roster through the draft, something the Pistons have tried while stuck in lottery limbo, adding Stanley Johnson last summer to a young core that includes handpicked starters in Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

“But mainly what we’ve done has been through trades — that’s what has done it for us,” Van Gundy said. “And we felt coming in, that’s the way it was gonna be, that our best route would be the draft and trades.”

Last summer’s free-agent folly only reaffirmed that feeling, as the top Pistons targets — in addition to extending newly acquired point guard Reggie Jackson — all landed somewhere other than Detroit.

They considered an offer sheet last July for Harris, then a restricted free agent in Orlando. But rather than tying up that money for nothing — the Magic seemed inclined to match — they opted instead to chase forwards DeMarre Carroll and Danny Green. The former ended up in Toronto, while the latter stayed put in San Antonio.

And the Pistons went back to the drawing board, picking up forward Marcus Morris from Phoenix for a song, which, not coincidentally, is the same tune Van Gundy was singing Thursday.

Shunning quick fix

Here’s the sum total of what the Pistons have traded away in the last season and a half: Brandon Jennings, Ilyasova, Will Bynum, Tony Mitchell, D.J.Augustin, Kyle Singler, Gigi Datome, Jonas Jerebko, Caron Butler, Shawne Williams, a protected first-round pick and three future second-rounders.

Jennings is the best player on that list, but he was coming off a torn Achilles and headed elsewhere this summer as an unrestricted free agent. Ilyasova was a starter here, but he, too, had been acquired via trade — for Butler and Williams. And now he’s gone in exchange for Harris, a better, younger player.

The Pistons did give up a first-round pick to the Rockets in Thursday’s trade. But that’s both a sign they intend to keep Motiejunas beyond this season and an acknowledgement of what most around the league consider a weak 2016 draft class. It’s also a nod to their upwardly mobile status, sitting at .500 this season, only a half-game out of the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.

Van Gundy has insisted since he arrived in Detroit he wasn’t going to mortgage the future for a quick playoff fix, something owner Tom Gores has fully endorsed.

“There may be a time where that changes down the road, where that rental may be the guy that puts you over the top,” Van Gundy reiterated. “But we’re not at that point yet. We haven’t built this yet.”

No, for now, they’re still focused on the down payment. Smart money says they’re right, too.