Auburn Hills — The Pistons made an early exit from the playoffs, swept out by the Cavaliers in the first round of the Eastern Conference series.
It was a disappointing ending to the season, but a 12-win improvement over last year could portend an upswing in the franchise, after a six-year absence from the playoffs.
With a couple of shrewd deals, team president / coach Stan Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower have helped turn things around and create a buzz in a dormant fan base, which now is looking ahead to next season.
“Generally, we’re happy with the progress we made this year,” Van Gundy said Thursday afternoon at a season-ending press conference at The Palace. “Putting it in terms of the mission that (owner Tom Gores) gave us from Day 1, which is win as much as we can now without sacrificing the future.”
Van Gundy pointed to the strides the team made in acquiring Marcus Morris before last season, drafting Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard, and getting Tobias Harris at the trade deadline, to make them both younger and more talented — without mortgaging their future by giving up key pieces.
But the early playoff exit led to a blueprint for the offseason, which included three points: internal player development, roster improvement and coaching improvement from Van Gundy. With those deals, they’ve assembled a young core that is all under 27 years old and under contract for at least next season.
Keeping that core together — with center Andre Drummond looking to get a max contract for $120 million. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope potentially could be in line for a big raise either this season or next.
“You’ve got to look at that down the line and what that’s going to mean two or three years down the line,” Van Gundy. “We’re reasonably confident we can keep that core together going forward. It will take some things falling in place in terms of future salaries with guys.”
The Pistons could have between $7 million and $14 million in cap space, with a chance to boost to upward of $25 million if they make some more moves. That could lead to some shopping for upgrades in some key areas, including backup point guard.
Veterans Steve Blake and Anthony Tolliver are free agents and likely won’t be the top targets to bring back. Instead, Van Gundy will look at get younger at those positions and try to find more effective scorers to bolster the bench.
“We do go into it in a situation where we’re in better shape than most people because we don’t have huge holes, at least in our starting group,” Van Gundy said. “We go in with pretty good confidence that we’ll be able to fill the spots that we want.”
While Caldwell-Pope improved a bit in his overall game, the Pistons will have to make a decision about whether he’s a long-term fit in the Pistons’ plans. He said Tuesday he isn’t worried about re-signing this summer and will leave those issues to his agent, as he could have a breakout season and increase his value.
“We’ll have to have discussions and see what’s important to Kentavious and have a sense of where they’re at with the whole thing,” Bower said. “(Re-signing) is something that doesn’t have to take place, but what does have to take place is an understanding of what time frames are important, how he understands his place and role here.
“The beginning of that dialog hasn’t taken place yet.”
Caldwell-Pope could demand upward of $13-15 million, especially with an exploding salary cap this offseason.
Catanella to Kings
Although the Pistons don’t expect much attrition in their front-office staff, they are losing assistant general manager Ken Catanella to the Sacramento Kings.
Catanella has been with the Pistons for five seasons, starting as the director of basketball operations and moving up to assistant GM two years ago. His primary focus was analytics and the salary cap, but he could take on a bigger role with the Kings.
“It’s a good move for Ken. We’re happy for him and he’s done a good job here,” Van Gundy said. “It’s good to see your people get recognized and people understand there are good things going on here. I look at that as a positive.”