Beard: Pistons' playoff chances hinge on ability to deal

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

New Orleans — As the Pistons near the midpoint of the season, it’s a familiar time of year: NBA trade time.

The rumor mill is churning at full speed and scouts and executives are milling through rosters, figuratively swiping left or right in NBA Tinder to find potential trade targets. Such is the case for Pistons general manager Jeff Bower, who is tasked with helping to improve the roster and salvaging what has been a good first half of the season.

In recent days, reports have linked the Pistons to trade talks for Chicago Bulls big man Nikola Mirotic and Orlando Magic forward Evan Fournier.

The rumor mill is likely to shift to full-scale catty-teenager mode, as the Pistons look to find an ideal match.

They are 21-18 and they’ve not only been bitten — they’ve been attacked — by a swarm of injury bugs. The most concerning are point guard Reggie Jackson and forward Jon Leuer, who both have ankle sprains that are keeping them out for the long term. Andre Drummond is dealing with bruised ribs, Stanley Johnson a hip flexor issue and Avery Bradley is just recovering from a groin strain.

That’s five players in the top eight of their rotation who have missed multiple games.

And now it’s time for Bower and team president/coach Stan Van Gundy to make roster moves to try to salvage the season. Without a trade, the Pistons’ playoff chances will be on shaky ground.

Van Gundy revealed Tuesday that the Pistons have been actively perusing the trade market to find options to replenish the roster with healthy bodies.

“We’ve got Jon down and Reggie down. There’s a lot of need and we’re looking around,” he said. “We don’t have anything going on right now, but we’re looking around for people to fill holes.”

They’re sputtering toward the Feb. 8 trade deadline and after a surprising 14-6 start, they’re 7-12 — and showing no signs of getting better. Jackson isn’t due back until at least mid-February and while Tobias Harris and Drummond shoulder most of the scoring load, there’s a growing need to make changes before the small dip turns into a full-blown nosedive.

Although the Pistons were in a tight spot with the salary cap during free agency in the summer, Van Gundy says they’re better able to make a trade and get a player who can improve the roster. It’s not a full tear-down like on a home-improvement show; it might just be a reasonable room makeover.

“We’ve got enough flexibility to make a deal; it’s just finding something that makes sense,” he said. “We like our guys; we’re looking to supplement more than we’re looking to change, so that makes it tough.”

Van Gundy and Bower seemed to have the roster tweaked the way they wanted before the spate of injuries — but of late, they’ve had having to lean on the likes of two-way player Dwight Buycks from the Grand Rapids Drive and backup center Eric Moreland, who was signed off the squad from summer league.

It’s a delicate dance for Van Gundy, who is in the critical fourth year of his five-year contract. Missing the playoffs for the third time in his tenure wouldn’t bode well for getting an extension. In that way, he could be leaning toward making a bigger splash and push a significant stack of chips in the middle of the table to get a difference-maker in return.

The question is what the Pistons will look to give up in a larger-scale deal and what they could get back in return. One would think that everything is up for conversation, save maybe Drummond, who is having an All-Star-caliber season but with his maximum contract, could be unattractive to other teams.

The Mirotic reports indicated that Bulls could just want a first-round draft pick and the thinking is that could be a protected pick, possibly not even for 2018. There’s a balance between mortgaging the future to try to win now and keeping young players such as Henry Ellenson, Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard.

“There are certain teams out there that want young players; there are others who are looking for more immediate help. It changes and every situation is different,” Van Gundy said. “You’re weighing now and next year and two years down the road. There’s a lot of talk going on but you can see there hasn’t been a lot of activity… “Everything is an individual deal. If you’ve got enough now to make you really good now, would you give up a little bit more for your future.”

That’s the minefield that Van Gundy and Bower are trying to navigate, looking through the NBA’s yard sale, looking to luck up on a treasure. It’s tedious and unpleasant, but it’s what they’ll have to do.

The other option is being back in the draft lottery.

And that’s not a step forward.

Pistons at Nets

Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Barclays Center, Brooklyn, N.Y.

TV/radio: FSD/WXYT

Outlook: The Nets (15-25) are getting a boost from former Piston Spencer Dinwiddie, who is having a breakout season and averaging 25.7 points and 6.7 assists over his last three games.