Beard: Pistons stick with ‘Stan Plan’ in free agency
Orlando, Fla. — It’s just not time yet.
The Pistons approached the first weekend of free agency as cautious shoppers and looked to be in the market for some of the bigger free agents. But after seeing some of the deals after the market opened, they might have gotten sticker shock.
In the end, the Pistons ended up making two financially prudent agreements through the weekend, improving their roster by bolstering the bench instead of blowing up the budget.
Point guard Ish Smith and big man Jon Leuer aren’t names that are going to electrify many fans, but they’ll energize a bench that lacked the quality depth to keep up in many games last season.
The Pistons were rumored to be involved in the quest for one of the free-agent big fish in versatile big man Al Horford, but when the music stopped, they — along with the Hawks and Wizards — were left without a seat in the game of musical chairs when Horford opted to go to the Celtics.
That the Pistons even were in those discussions with a top-tier target is progress from their struggles of just a couple of years ago.
They’re almost where they need to be — but not yet.
Since Pistons president Stan Van Gundy took over two years ago, he’s overhauled the roster, with shrewd trades and smart-money deals that have given him roster flexibility and depth that can make the Pistons formidable for the next few years.
Within the first 48 hours of free agency, the Pistons addressed all their major needs — agreeing with center Andre Drummond on a five-year max deal and getting a young, up-tempo point guard in Smith and a durable, perimeter-shooting big man in Leuer — Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower used only about $16 million of their available $21 million of cap space, with flexibility to add another minor piece or keep some available for next season.
While many teams have jockeyed for Horford, Kevin Durant, Joakim Noah, Dwight Howard and others, the Pistons shopped in the sale section and made sensible selections. One of their rumored targets, stretch forward Ryan Anderson, went to the Rockets for a reported four years, $80 million. Horford was four years, $113 million.
The Pistons did some browsing, but they likely weren’t ready to commit to one of the bigger names because it could have torn away one of their core pieces, such as backup center Aron Baynes, in addition to starters Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris to create enough cap space. Making such a bold gamble would have been a brash push of all their chips to the middle of the table to go for it all — right now.
They’re not ready to do that yet.
Sticking to the plan
The Pistons got to the playoffs for the first time in seven years and they are making gradual strides toward becoming a perennial contender. Baynes, 29, is the only rotation player over 28 and he can opt out after next season. With Drummond’s deal, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the only other player in the top eight or nine who isn’t under contract for the next three years — and he’ll earn a hefty payday after next season.
For the first time in about a decade, there’s a plan in place — the Stan Plan — in building the roster for the long term, with flexibility and reasonable contracts. The days of Charlie Villanueva and Ben Gordon and albatross contracts are gone — though they’re still paying the price for Joe Dumars’ Josh Smith deal.
Van Gundy has been budget-conscious and jumping at an elite player such as Horford would have signaled the Pistons think they’re ready to be one of the top two or three contenders in the East.
They’re not there yet, but with patience, they could have several shots at getting there, with a roster that’s not yet entered its prime.
After all the free agent frenzy, the Pistons got what they needed, just at a lower cost than most would have projected. But whether they got the right players remains to be seen.
Players know other players and Pistons forward Marcus Morris glowed about both Smith and Leuer.
“He can play; I’ve been playing against Leuer since college. “That’s a great pickup for us,” Morris said Saturday. “They’re both good veterans, two good team guys. I think they’ll come in and buy in. We have a great core with a mixture of younger and middle-older guys and I think it’s going to be good for us.”
There’s no guarantee either player will be a slam dunk acquisition, but even if they’re not, they didn’t put the Pistons in dire financial straits — and they’re still both cap-friendly deals that can be moved.
In Leuer’s case, it seems to be more protection for rookie Henry Ellenson, who now gets the luxury to learn slowly and not be rushed to try to produce, as most first-round picks are. They’re similar perimeter plays, but at just 19, Ellenson can add some muscle and learn his craft from Leuer.
Smith started 50 games for the76ers last season and instantly changes the dynamic of the bench group.
“He’s a guy who’s going to push and bring some youth to the team,” Pistons wing Stanley Johnson said. “He’s going to be able to create for others. With these guys we have, it should be (easy to improve).”
How much improvement they can make is the question. It might not be to the Eastern Conference finals and likely won’t supplant the Cavaliers next season.
It’s just not time yet.
But if the Pistons stay with the Van Gundy plan, their time could be coming sooner than later.