The Pistons won, 113-104, but it was harder than it needed to be, similar to the loss to the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Auburn Hills — Trade Reggie Jackson. Trade Andre Drummond. Trade Stanley Johnson.
Trade everybody. For anybody.
It’s a familiar refrain from social media and sports-talk radio about the current state of the Pistons’ roster. After a promising 13-7 start they’re now 14-13 after emerging from a six-game losing streak with a win over the Boston Celtics on Saturday night.
What to make of this Pistons team?
The goal for the Pistons seems to be to become a perennial playoff team, as they’re not close to being a contender, even in the Eastern Conference, at this point. They’re currently the No. 6 seed in the East, which is an improvement over 2017-18. But similar to last season’s early success, there are no guarantees for a strong finish.
If change is going to come, it won’t come quickly.
Both Blake Griffin and Drummond are playing at an All-Star level this season, but finding the other pieces to put around them to improve the roster is going to be tough. Ideally, the Pistons would like an upgrade at point guard or on the wing — the two most important positions in today’s NBA — but they don’t have the trade pieces to acquire such a player.
Jackson has little value in the trade market; with his salary of $17 million, the Pistons wouldn’t get an acceptable return. Most likely, they would have to attach an incentive, such as a first-round pick, to entice a team with salary-cap space to absorb Jackson’s contract, which calls for $18 million next season, in addition to the $17 million in 2018-19.
As in previous years under then-president Stan Van Gundy, Jackson’s name popped up in trade rumors recently. Though he’s finally healthy this season, Jackson has struggled to find a niche in coach Dwane Casey’s system and his role in the offense has dwindled significantly.
Drummond is having the best season of his career, but with two more years and about $81 million left on his contract, he’s not easily movable in a trade, either. The Pistons haven’t been anxious to trade Drummond, and most other teams already have the center they desire or a young big man — with a manageable contract — that they’re grooming.
As the Pistons accumulated assets to trade for Griffin — a haul that included Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris, three starters from the previous season — and their 2018 first-round pick, they sapped most of their depth.
The Pistons got the star they wanted, but it came at a high cost. After the Griffin deal, owner Tom Gores said the Pistons needed more star players like Griffin. That’s proving to be more than difficult, especially with limited remaining resources and trade chips.
That was part of the reason for choosing Casey, who is renowned for his player development. Because of their dire salary-cap situation — nearing the luxury-tax line — the Pistons can’t go out and acquire other players, so the answer has to be in internal improvement.
Even that young talent, such as first-round picks Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard, has been slow to develop. Van Gundy limited some of their opportunities as rookies and they haven’t produced at the projected levels.
Johnson, 22, was a starter early in the season but has found a better role with the second unit as a defensive stalwart and open-floor threat. Johnson is set to become a restricted free agent in the summer — likely commanding an eight-figure annual salary. There isn’t equal trade value on the trade market, but like Drummond, Johnson likely is better suited to the Pistons than to other teams.
This week’s news of the Pistons’ doing their due diligence in pursuing a trade for Sixers guard Markelle Fultz was music to the ears of many Pistons fans, but also showed the state of the franchise.
Taking a chance on Fultz would be a huge gamble. He’s out for at least another few weeks and his diagnosed condition — thoracic outlet syndrome — isn’t as simple to treat as an issue with a knee or ankle. Some around the league have concluded that Fultz’s issues are more mental than physical, but the No. 1 pick from the 2017 draft remains a high-potential player.
The Sixers might accept the Pistons’ expiring contracts of Ish Smith and Reggie Bullock for Fultz, as it fills two of the bigger needs on their bench. Missing out on their top pick would sting the Philadelphia front office, but it would give them a better chance of re-signing Jimmy Butler in the offseason.
That’s the type of risk the Pistons might have to take if they’re going improve their roster. They were rumored to be involved in talks with the Suns for Trevor Ariza, but as in many of the trade targets that have several suitors, the Pistons don’t have as many assets to pull off the big deal.
The teams that are taking huge risks, such as the Sixers, Bucks and Raptors, are reaping the benefits. The Pistons won’t be able to get there until they clean up their financial situation and unload some of their large salaries, including Josh Smith’s annual gift of $5.3 million, which is still on the books.
The Pistons aren’t in a position to tank their season for high draft picks, because Griffin’s contract looms over them and his talent will make them too good to lose regularly. But given that timeline — his deal has about $142 million remaining — they have until 2022 to figure out what they’ll be.
The situation with their contracts will improve after next season but they’ll have to be patient until then, not mortgaging the future for the murky present, to speed up the process to become a perennial playoff team.
It’s not a pretty present, but it’s where they are.
Pistons vs. Bucks
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Monday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: The Bucks (19-9) have the second-best record in the East, behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. They won the season’s only meeting by 23 points last week in Milwaukee. The Pistons (14-13) ended their six-game losing streak with Saturday’s win over the Celtics.