New York — With a couple weeks still remaining in the season, Pistons president-coach Stan Van Gundy hasn’t started to think about the summer quite yet.
The Pistons still are in the thick of the race for a playoff spot, but whenever the season ends, the thoughts will turn to minor tweaks — or an overhaul — to the roster. One of the bigger questions will be how the Pistons will deal with the pending free agency of shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
In his fourth season, Caldwell-Pope is having the best year, averaging career bests of 14 points and 2.7 assists and hitting 37 percent on 3-pointers. As one of the better two-way guards in the league, Caldwell-Pope, 24, will be a hot commodity when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.
If the Pistons want to keep Caldwell-Pope, the price could be around $20 million or more, with several reports indicating the Brooklyn Nets —among other teams — are willing to make a max offer to get him.
Having gone through similar situations with Greg Monroe a few years ago and Andre Drummond two years ago, the Pistons understand the risk of letting players test the market and trying to decide which players to maintain, with the consideration of payroll implications.
“We have a pretty good idea of what’s coming and it’s going to be our decision to make, at least for next year,” Van Gundy said Monday. “A few years ago, Greg signed a qualifying offer, so we had him that year. We only don’t have (Caldwell-Pope) next year if we decide we don’t want him next year.
“There’s no team out there that can decide they’re going to have KCP next year — it’s on us. It will be our decision this summer whether he’s in Detroit next year. Other people can want him but they need us to acquiesce if they’re going to have him.”
The Pistons gave Drummond a max contract last season, paying him more than $125 million. Whether they’ll choose to have another player near that threshold, plus a few in the range of $15-18 million, isn’t clear. But trying to keep Caldwell-Pope, they’d almost certainly get near the luxury tax without some other moves to clear space in the salary cap.
That’s a decision that ultimate will fall to Van Gundy and Pistons owner Tom Gores, who has spoken glowingly of the prospects of keeping Caldwell-Pope and his steady development over his career.
“He should be a Piston — that’s just the bottom line. He has what it takes to be a Piston,” Gores said in January. “He was a shy kid when I met him and he’s become a leader.”
When the Pistons played at Brooklyn last week, Nets coach Kenny Atkinson gushed over Caldwell-Pope’s defensive prowess — as an opposing player — and dealing with his speed and quickness.
“I’m impressed; I love how he competes on the defensive end. That’s the essence of what I’ve seen,” Atkinson said. “He plays with force on the defensive end and on a given night, he can get 35 on you easily.”
As a restricted free agent, the Pistons would have the option to match the terms of any offer sheet that another team gives Caldwell-Pope.
In a matter of a week or two, the East race has tightened — both at the top and bottom. The Celtics moved into a virtual tie with the Cavaliers for the top seed and the Bucks, Pacers and Hawks are tied for fifth.
And through all their struggles in the past two weeks, the Pistons entered Monday just a game behind the Heat for the eighth spot and three games behind three teams for the potential seventh spot. The Bulls are sandwiched between, but there’s still plenty for the Pistons to play for.
“I told our guys (Sunday) that our goal is obviously to get in the playoffs but right now we’re in a different situation with the way we’ve played,” Van Gundy said. “I’m more concerned with the way we come out and play than the result.
“I just want to see a lot better energy and spirit than what we’ve had the last half-dozen games. If that happens, the result takes care of itself.”
Heat at Pistons
Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, The Palace of Auburn Hills
Outlook: The Pistons are trying to break their streak of two straight losses on the second night of a back-to-back. With a win, the Pistons could gain an important tiebreaker, having won two of three from the Heat this season.