Orlando, Fla. — All roads have been leading toward a tough decision for the Pistons for more than a year. It’s been one of the biggest topics around the team, looking to determine their long-term path, beyond giving Andre Drummond a max contract.
Now, it’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s turn.
Maybe for a max contract, maybe to become the second-highest-paid player on the team — but certainly to get a hefty raise over his salary last season: $3.7 million. How much, though, is the question.
As a restricted free agent, Caldwell-Pope, 24, can field offer sheets from other teams — and the Pistons will have the ability to match any offer and retain him — but that’s where things start to get tricky.
What’s the number? $18 million? $20 million? A max deal?
The free-agent market will dictate that, left to a team with enough available cap space to make a play for Caldwell-Pope, who is a sought-after two-way shooting guard — a coveted commodity in the NBA. In that way, the Pistons will be tested on how much they truly value Caldwell-Pope.
And they’ll have to show how much with their wallet.
“We think KCP is a very, very good young player who has been an important part of our core. He’s 24 years old and still on the upside,” Pistons president Stan Van Gundy said at the season-ending news conference in April. “He’s a guy we really like and we look forward to his continued development.”
Caldwell-Pope was a first-round pick in the 2013 draft, taken eighth overall. In four seasons, he’s averaged 11.7 points, 3 rebounds and 1.6 assists. His best season came in in 2015-16, when he posted career highs of 14.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. Last season, he shot a career-best 35 percent on 3-pointers, the biggest question mark about his development.
All indications are that the Pistons would be willing to match any terms from another team, including a max offer, should that happen. Many reports have the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings as teams potentially looking to make Caldwell-Pope an offer, but it’s not clear whether one would reach the max threshold.
“Since making a jump during his second year, Caldwell-Pope’s production has pretty much leveled off,” The Vertical’s Bobby Marks wrote this week, ranking Caldwell-Pope as No. 10 on his list of top free agents. “But he remains one of the top two-way players in this year’s class. Caldwell-Pope also will have leverage when it comes to contract negotiations.
“With the Pistons right at the salary cap, they would not have a suitable replacement if they don’t match Caldwell-Pope’s offer sheet.”
When free agency begins on Saturday, Caldwell-Pope and his agents can start receiving offer sheets, and the Pistons will have 72 hours to match the terms, if they choose.
In the wings
In some ways, the Pistons have painted themselves into the corner of having to pay Caldwell-Pope, having not groomed a suitable replacement. Stanley Johnson played the reserve minutes behind Caldwell-Pope last season, but he doesn’t appear ready to take on the starting role.
The Pistons picked Luke Kennard with the No. 12 pick in the NBA draft last week, but like the Johnson situation, he’s not prepared for an increased role. At this point, the Pistons already are over the salary cap and would be using their right as his current team to exceed the cap and likely would get near the luxury-tax line.
There are indications that Pistons owner Tom Gores would consider going far over the cap — and into the luxury tax — to retain Caldwell-Pope, as they see him as an integral part of their long-term plan.
But for a team that went 37-45 and missed the playoffs, it’s a tough pill to swallow to have one of the top payrolls in the league and not have the production in the win-loss column to justify it. In addition, the Pistons are moving to downtown Detroit to play in Little Caesars Arena for the start of next season, so they have an added expense there, as well.
In the meanwhile, the Pistons will have to wait and see how big a potential offer would be, before deciding whether they want to match it.
“With the timing of things, you never know for sure until the period begins,” general manager Jeff Bower said in April. “That’s a hand we have to be ready to play, no matter what direction we go. We have a lot of control in the situation, which is something we value and expect to be able to take advantage of.”