Niyo: Summer sizzle will be a fizzle for cap-strapped Pistons

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — They’re right where we left them, in case anyone was wondering. Right where they left themselves, too, though that’s an argument that Ed Stefanski, the Pistons’ senior executive entering his second offseason in charge of the team’s personnel plan, doesn’t really have to make anymore.

Everyone knows the roster he inherited a year ago and the contracts that came with it. And everyone knows the position that puts him in going forward, at least as long as ownership insists on continuing in that same direction. In a game where flexibility means so much, the Pistons have so little at the moment.

And that’s hard to ignore at moments like this, what with the NBA’s annual summer carnival about to get underway and the Pistons sitting here as bystanders again, like a kid denied an amusement park ride by a height-requirement sign.

More: Pistons’ roster is ‘fluid’ but Ed Stefanski not unhappy with ‘big three’

What promises to be the NBA’s wildest offseason yet — between Golden State’s dynasty crumbling, the Lakers’ blockbuster trade for Anthony Davis, and so many of the league’s biggest stars eligible for free agency — doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement here in Detroit.

“I mean, we’re not a player, obviously,” Stefanski admitted, when the subject came up Monday in his final pre-draft press conference at the Pistons’ practice facility.

And lest anyone get any ideas about that, Stefanski all but turned out his pockets to prove his point: “We have $9 million in cap space.” 

Left stargazing

That won’t get you very far in a marketplace littered with teams flush with max-salary slots and pending free agents like Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler, not to mention the Warriors’ wounded stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.

Neither will trade talks involving Reggie Jackson or even Andre Drummond, as we’ve learned by now. And while Blake Griffin’s offseason rehab from minor knee surgery is going well, Stefanski was quick to dismiss the notion the Pistons’ All-Star forward could be on the move this summer, either. (“I don’t shop him,” he said.)

“The philosophy right now is we have those three, we’re going with ’em,” Stefanski said, before adding the necessary — if empty — caveat. “But I have no idea what’s gonna happen.”

Pistons exec Ed Stefanski dismissed any notion of moving All-Star forward Blake Griffin, right, this offseason.

The same can be said for this week’s NBA Draft, where the Pistons, fresh off a mediocre regular season (41-41) and a hasty playoff exit as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, hold the 15th and 45th picks heading into Thursday.

The first three picks in this draft seem fairly clear-cut, with Zion Williamson going No. 1 to New Orleans, Memphis selecting Ja Morant with the second pick and RJ Barrett likely going third to the Knicks. After that, though, it’s really anyone’s guess.

Stefanski thinks he has a pretty good idea about a group of eight players, give or take, that “shouldn’t be there at 15.” And that’s undoubtedly a scenario that’s playing out as he and his scouting staff game out mock-draft scenarios this week. What if one of those players slides within range of the Pistons’ pick just outside the lottery? Do they trade up to grab a prospect they covet? Or what if another team comes calling for similar reasons?

“We’ve been investigating moving up, we’ve been investigating moving back, doing our homework out there,” Stefanski said. “I think there could be volatility in this draft. Because I don’t think anyone has a real grasp of it.”

Waiting game

That said, Stefanski doesn’t sound all that inclined to reach very far for a player to try and fill the Pistons’ needs for a big wing or another point guard or a backup big man. There’s a decent pool of players that’d fit the Pistons’ profile, including a couple more who were in town for pre-draft workouts Monday. Both Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson and Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke check the boxes that Stefanski keeps mentioning, talking about “coachable” players with a strong work ethic and “grit.”

"To build a team the right way, you need the right person,” Stefanski said. “It may outweigh some of the talent.”

Whether that tips the scales away from some prospects that carry more risk and upside — a player like USC’s Kevin Porter Jr., perhaps? — I don’t know. Either way, Stefanski sure didn’t sound like a GM expecting to find an immediate starter in Thursday’s draft. 

More: Brandon Clarke, Keldon Johnson could be tempting options for Pistons

Whatever volatility we see Thursday probably will pale in comparison to what we see next week at the start of free agency on June 30. But again, don’t expect the Pistons to be in the middle of it.

“There’s a couple ways to look at it,” Stefanski said. “Do you want to be aggressive early with not a lot of money? Or do you have the patience to sit there and wait? And I mean, you better have patience, because you’re gonna have to sit there and wait until the second week or so to see what falls through the cracks. We’ll see what happens.”

Wait and see? For Pistons fans, that may be about all there is to do. But keep in mind, there aren't enough Kawhis and Kyries for all the money that’s out there, which means some lesser stars are going to get wildly overpaid. (Think back to the summer of 2016 when the Pistons were among the teams that made that mistake.) Likewise, the wide-open West might ratchet up the trade market for some players the Pistons might've pursued. (Will Utah up its ante for the Grizzlies' Mike Conley, for instance?)

And while Thursday's draft will set the stage for all this, when the curtain goes up next week, here's your first cue: The Pistons probably won't have many lines to remember.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo