Niyo: Pistons spend sensibly amid free-agent madness

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Ish Smith, right, agreed to a three-year, $18 million deal to be the Pistons' backup point guard.

At first blush, the Pistons’ offseason moves might seem a bit fool-Ish.

Spending $18 million on a 6-foot backup point guard, Ish Smith, who’ll be playing for his 10th team in seven NBA seasons? Doling out $41 million on a four-year deal for a reserve forward, Jon Leuer, who has averaged less than 14 minutes per game his first five years in the league? Handing a maximum-contract offer (five years, $130 million) for a first-time All-Star center, Andre Drummond, who, according to his own coach, struggles to give maximum effort on a nightly basis?

But that’s the going rate in today’s NBA. And to get where the upwardly mobile Pistons hope they’re going, this kind of discretionary spending was a necessary evil this summer.

As was the courtship of another top-dollar free agent in Al Horford, who granted Detroit — and his former agent, Arn Tellem, now a Palace Sports executive — an audience before ultimately deciding to sign a max deal with the Celtics.

The Pistons aren’t quite done shopping yet. They’ll likely add another big body to the roster before the week is done. (Re-signing Joel Anthony is one option, among others.) But it probably won’t be another big contract.

And that qualifies as restraint in this summer’s free-agency free-for-all, which saw NBA teams commit more than $1.7 billion in new contracts for fewer than 30 players in the first 24 hours of business.

TV deal sprouts money

That spending spree sparked a rather predictable outcry this weekend, with basketball fans and football players alike mocking all the manic money-laundering.

The NFL labor force certainly can gripe — “Looks like I chose the wrong sport,” Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders posted on Twitter — but they should probably address those grievances to their own union and employers.

Meanwhile, the fans probably should be reminded those player salaries don’t dictate the ticket prices at their NBA arenas. That’s a different supply-and-demand model at work there. All this new money actually is the result of a nine-year, $24 billion media rights deal taking effect next season, prompting the NBA salary cap to jump by more than 34 percent this summer, from $70 million to $94 million.

That didn’t catch anybody in the league off-guard, but we are seeing some of the “unintended consequences” NBA commissioner Adam Silver warned about back in February.

“I just don’t know what those consequences will be,” Silver said.

Or whether any of them will be enough to cause another work stoppage a year from now. The current collective bargaining agreement — ratified after a lockout shortened the 2011-12 season — runs through 2021. But either side can decide to opt-out next June, provided they notify the other party by Dec. 15 of this year.

An argument certainly can be made that the system is broken. But not in the way most are wailing about. The only real issue here is that the league’s true superstars — Steph Curry and LeBron James and others — aren’t raking in their fair share of this jackpot.

Everybody wanted to watch Curry and James in the NBA playoffs. An average of 20 million viewers – the highest-rated NBA Finals since 1998 — tuned in to see the Splash Brothers and the Big Three, not Harrison Barnes and Timofey Mozgov.

But this week, those last two are getting paid, with Barnes getting a max-deal offer sheet from the Mavericks — $94 million over four years — and Mozgov tipping off the free-agent frenzy with a four-year, $64 million contract from the Lakers. James is a free agent, too, flexing what leverage he has under the current CBA with short-term deals. But his starting salary on a new deal is limited to 35 percent of the cap, meaning he’ll play for about $33 million next season. With no limits on the open market, he’d probably make $50 million or more.

And Curry, playing out the final year of a four-year extension of his rookie contract, will make a relative pittance at $12 million next season — less than Evan Turner or Jordan Clarkson, to name just a couple of the league’s lesser lights. But Curra, the two-time league MVP, will be a free agent next summer, when the cap will grow by another 10-15 percent.

Room for growth

How much will Pistons grow, though? That’s the more pertinent question in Detroit, as Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ president and head coach, along with general manager Jeff Bower, have tried to build a bonafide contender here. They’ve done it largely through trades rather than free agency, partly because Detroit wasn’t such a desirable destination — Horford’s interest is a hopeful sign on that front — and also because they knew things were “gonna get crazy,” as Van Gundy put it, with the skyrocketing cap.

Indeed, the swaps for starters in Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris look like obvious winners in retrospect. Morris is locked up for $5 million annually — chicken scratch, by today’s standards — for three more seasons. Harris, who signed a four-year, $64 million deal in Orlando last summer, will make $30 million less on that contract than a similar player in Barnes will on his new deal. And the five-year, $80 million extension that point guard Reggie Jackson signed last summer already is falling in line, just as Van Gundy promised.

If Stanley Johnson’s learning curve is as steep as the Pistons’ brass expects, the bench that was a weakness last season — brutally exposed in that first-round playoff series against Cleveland — could become a strength. With Smith pushing the pace in place of departed vet Steve Blake, and Leuer offering more size and similar shooting to Anthony Tolliver, that’s certainly the hope. The addition of rookie first-round pick Henry Ellenson to the rotation could help as well.

The Drummond signing brings inherent risks, of course — piling questions about motivation on top of those maddening free-throw mechanics — but the Pistons already were committed to the notion this core group, built around their 7-foot center, could develop into something more than just a playoff team in the Eastern Conference.

And with everyone on the roster under the age of 30, and Jackson the oldest starter at 26, “We’re in better shape than most people,” Van Gundy said.

If only because most of their shopping is done.

Twitter: @John_Niyo