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The Pistons dealt their longest-tenured player, Andre Drummond, to the Cavaliers for expiring contracts and a 2023 second-round pick. The Detroit News

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Andre Drummond’s response late Wednesday night spoke volumes, if only for the uncertainty it highlighted inside the Pistons’ locker room.

Shortly after the team’s final game before the NBA trade deadline, Drummond, who’d played a starring role in a meaningless win over Phoenix, was asked about the persistent rumors the two-time All-Star center might be dealt.

“I mean, I’ve been hearing that for the past four years,” Drummond said, later adding with a shrug, “Whatever happens, happens.”

But now that it finally happened — the Pistons shipped Drummond off to Cleveland less than an hour before the 3 p.m. buzzer Thursday, in a swap that was little more than a salary dump in the end — fans in Detroit are left with that same feeling of uncertainty. And given what happened — or notably, what else didn’t — at the deadline, that prompts the question: What has changed, really?

The Pistons still have the look and feel of a franchise that’s stuck in no-man’s land, and half-measures or half-hearted hints at a full-on rebuild aren’t going to change anyone’s perception of the direction this team is headed.

Don’t get me wrong here. The error wasn’t in deciding to deal Drummond, who was averaging a career-best 17.8 points per game this season and is well on his way to a fourth NBA rebounding title in the last five years.

No, it’s that they waited so long and got so little in return, trading Drummond to the Cavaliers for a pair of expiring contracts in Brandon Knight — remember him? — and John Henson, as well as a 2023 second-round pick.

Watching the wheels go round

For all of Drummond’s productivity in eight seasons as a pro, there’s a reason he was such a polarizing player in the middle of a poorly-constructed roster. It's because there’s little evidence he’s a winning player in today’s NBA. The Pistons can point to just one season above .500 — and two first-round playoff sweeps as a No. 8 seed — in his time in Detroit.

But it took until this season to convince owner Tom Gores that Drummond wasn’t a cornerstone piece to build a legitimate contender around. He's a traditional center in a league that no longer values them, and an immature player on a team that waited too long to acknowledge as much.

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And, quite frankly, it was the threat of Drummond deciding to stick around for another year — opting in for $28.7 million in 2020-21, rather than walking as a free agent this summer — that ultimately forced the Pistons’ hand.

The paltry return for Drummond also serves as another reminder of how little progress the Pistons have made during Gores’ now-lengthy tenure.

Consider that one of the expiring contracts they got back belongs to Knight, the lottery pick the Pistons selected in Gores’ first month as owner, a year before Drummond fell to Joe Dumars & Co. with the ninth overall pick in 2012. (Henson, meanwhile, went five picks later in that ’12 draft.) Detroit eventually traded Knight along with Khris Middleton to Milwaukee in exchange for Brandon Jennings. Middleton’s now an All-Star on the league’s best team, while Knight is salary filler and Jennings is out of the league.

It’s that kind of wheel-spinning that has been the Pistons’ hallmark for the last decade, and Thursday’s big move isn’t going to change many opinions about their chances of getting out of this rut anytime soon.

Too little, too late

Whereas last year’s deadline deals from senior advisor Ed Stefanski showed some savvy — landing a young prospect like Svi Mykhailiuk in the Reggie Bullock trade — this one feels more like a late foul with the game’s outcome already decided.

The Pistons apparently put absurdly high price tags on their most marketable assets. And while you can make an argument for hanging on to Derrick Rose absent an offer that included a first-round pick — ditto Luke Kennard on the pick protections Phoenix reportedly sought — it’s harder to find one for keeping veterans Markieff Morris and Langston Galloway, even if the marketplace wasn’t exactly buzzing.

Dealing Drummond does, at least, give the Pistons an assurance of the salary-cap flexibility Stefanski has been seeking since he arrived to help Gores reshape the front office and find a new head coach after Gores pulled the plug on Stan Van Gundy.

In addition to the expiring deals they added Thursday, the Pistons have Reggie Jackson’s contract coming off the books this summer, along with Galloway, Thon Maker and possibly Morris, too, with his player option. So they’re now one of only a handful of NBA teams with projected cap space this summer — upwards of $35-40 million — which will allow Stefanski a chance to continue reshaping the roster, both through free agency or via trades, perhaps even taking on a bad contract to acquire more draft assets.   

It also helps them re-sign Christian Wood, an athletic, young big man who has been one of the few bright spots this season after getting claimed off waivers last July. He’ll get a chance to play an even bigger role now that Drummond’s headed to Cleveland, and it’s worth noting the Pistons reportedly rebuffed trade offers for Wood prior to the deadline.

All that said, this team still is nowhere close to digging out of the mess the previous regime — and, yes, the current owner — created by investing so heavily in the Jackson-Drummond tandem and then doubling down on it with the Griffin trade two years ago.

Drummond’s gone now, Jackson is a buyout candidate, and the 30-year-old Griffin, who is still owed $75 million over the next two seasons, is busy rehabbing from a second knee surgery in nine months.

Where exactly that leaves the Pistons depends on your perspective, I guess. But even finding the bright side in Thursday's deadline thud requires a pretty dim view of this franchise's current reality.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com: @JohnNiyo

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