Auburn Hills — Ten days. Five games. That could be what decides the direction of the remainder of the Pistons’ season. With that, the next stretch of games could be part of the determination of where the franchise goes in the short term and the longer term beyond this year.
As the NBA’s trade deadline approaches on Feb. 7, the Pistons have five games: home against the Bucks, Mavericks, Clippers and Nuggets and at the Knicks. At 21-27, the Pistons are within three games of the No. 7 spot in the East, but they are only 8-20 since their impressive start.
It’s a middle ground that’s tough to navigate — stay the course and try to make the playoffs or join the ranks of teams that are going for the best possible draft pick. Staying in playoff contention means considering adding another piece, which would be difficult, given their salary-cap situation.
Throwing in the towel likely means dealing the expiring contracts of Reggie Bullock and Ish Smith, if they can find a taker. Senior adviser Ed Stefanski said this week on the Wired Pistons podcast that they’ve looked into the options for Bullock.
“(A trade) is something you weigh as we get closer to the deadline. Reggie is shooting the ball where you thought he would be at the beginning of the season,” Stefanski said. “He’s rounding into form; he complements Blake Griffin very well. They play off each other extremely well and he’s an asset for us.
“We have to make a decision because he is becoming a free agent this summer. There’s a lot of things involved in whether you make a decision on Reggie Bullock. If you’re in the playoff hunt, I’d be very doubtful you move a guy like Reggie Bullock.”
Smith’s case is a little more complicated, as he recovers from a muscle tightness from a torn right adductor. He’s missed 23 of 48 games this season and could be a low-cost consideration for a contending team looking to bolster its bench.
For the Pistons, who have gone 6-17 with Smith out, trading either player would signal that they see more value in what may be second-round picks in return than in making a push for the postseason.
Add Stanley Johnson to that list. The fourth-year wing is set to become a restricted agent in the summer and there’s some question about what Johnson’s future with the Pistons will be.
“The same (trade question) goes with Stanley — it depends where we are to make that decision,” Stefanski said. “We’ll see where we are after those games and hopefully we’re still in the race for a playoff spot.”
To tank or not to tank
The question of tanking has become a big topic in considering the Pistons’ longer-term future. It’s a viable alternative for some teams, but not with this construction of the Pistons, with Griffin and Andre Drummond and some other contracts that will not be easy to get off the books.
Here are five reasons the Pistons likely won’t be going that route anytime soon:
1. Dwane Casey
The veteran coach is on a five-year deal for $35 million. That’s not the price tag of someone who’s going to oversee a tanking strategy. Casey is known for rebuilding the Raptors over the course of years and that’s likely the same task he’ll have here. His other calling card is player development but he’s not going to work miracles in his first season — most of it seems to be assessment and then the front office will start to deal at the deadline or in the summer to shape the roster better.
2. Going for the win
Team owner Tom Gores and Stefanski have said on record that they are committed to trying to make the playoffs. Unless the Pistons are plainly out of it, they’re going to go for it, which flies in the face of tanking.
“I will tell the fans I’m not going to make a deal that could hurt us going forward that could be instant relief but could be only for this season and then we could have issues going forward,” Stefanski said this week on the Wired Pistons podcast. “That makes no sense to me. The word people don’t want to hear is patience. Where we have restrictions, there’s nothing else but to be patient.”
3. Griffin’s contract
There’s no way that the Pistons will decide to tank with a healthy Griffin still on the books. He’s missed just two games this season — both because of rest. He’s rejuvenated his career and looks like he could be a bargain for the remaining three-plus years on his deal, if he maintains this trajectory. Dealing Griffin won’t be easy, but if it happens, it could be the precursor to a change in philosophy.
4. It’s too late
The Pistons have won 21 games. There are five teams — the Cavaliers, Knicks, Suns, Bulls and Hawks — who have fewer than 15 each. The Pistons aren’t catching those teams, who are much better at tanking and seem to have it down to a science. It’s too far in the season to try to tank to that level, but if the objective is to get the best possible draft pick — likely somewhere in the range of 6 to 10, it’s a lot more likely. Given that, though, the Pistons could try for the postseason and still end up in the 10-14 range.
5. Losing culture
The nature of most teams is to learn how to win. With just one playoff appearance in the last decade, the last thing they’d want to do is start instilling a losing mindset in their young players. I don’t know if the fan base fully comprehends what a true tank entails: 60-plus losses and a general malaise about the franchise that hasn’t been seen around here since the 119-loss Tigers. It’s a napalm-level pox on a city that already is full of struggling pro teams.