Beard: Trades give Pistons better shot in future, without completely giving up present

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
The Pistons agreed to deal Stanley Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks for big man Thon Maker.

With the NBA trade deadline approaching Thursday afternoon and a playoff spot within reach, the Pistons are making deals that help them both financially and in stockpiling young assets for the future.

 The Pistons’ two trades within a 24-hour span signify a forward-looking philosophy while also seeking relief with the salary cap. They dealt two expiring contracts for players who could help them in the short term, with the possibility of being longer-term assets.

Sending Reggie Bullock to the Lakers for rookie Svi Mykhailiuk (pronounced Muh-Kye-Luke) and a 2021 second-round pick allowed them to gain a young prospect to develop — in much the same way they did with Bullock after they acquired him from the Phoenix Suns in 2015.  

Adding Thon Maker in the trade for Stanley Johnson is another low-risk move. The Pistons were unlikely to pick up Johnson's qualifying offer for $4.5 million, allowing him to become a free agent. In both trades, they flipped expiring contracts for tangible assets.

Cleaning up the Pistons’ financial situation is the tall task that the new front office, headed by senior adviser Ed Stefanski, inherited from the previous regime. The Pistons had been weighed down by the dual burden of a team owner’s desire to make the playoffs and the financial albatross of being within a sneeze of the luxury tax, with a team that’s just 24-29 and currently outside the playoff picture.

While some in the front office have been hesitant to include first-round picks in any deal — notably the cooling trade talks with the Memphis Grizzlies for point guard Mike Conley — it appears that they’ll stand firm in protecting long-term assets.

Reggie Bullock scored 19 in his final game with the Pistons on Tuesday night in New York.

A league source indicated the Pistons had put in significant negotiations on a Conley trade, only to have the two sides not agree on the final pieces. The Utah Jazz also are working to get Conley, which likely has two teams bidding against each other to deploy assets.

If that’s the case, the Pistons are being rightly conservative, if the Grizzlies were seeking Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and a first-round pick as compensation. While the Pistons are dealing with Blake Griffin’s contract terms — he’s signed through 2022 — as their runway to contending, they have to be prudent in not trying to do too much too fast.

By clearing about $2 million in cap space and adding a pair of assets, they are in a better position to tinker and to look around in the final hours before the deadline and try to improve their overall position.  

Here are some thoughts on the Pistons’ two deals and what they mean for this season and beyond:

► 1. Bullock is on the final year of his contract, at $2.5 million this year and he will become an unrestricted free agent in the summer. As their best 3-point shooter and a coveted wing on the open market, the Pistons believed that they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him. Bullock, 27, could project to get a new deal for four years and between $40 million and $48 million wherever he signs.

► 2. The Pistons helped their salary cap situation, by shaving about $1 million from their payroll this year and getting a wing in Mykhailiuk they can develop on a very reasonable rookie contract. That move pulled them to about $1.5 million below the luxury-tax line and the Maker deal adds another $1 million. Mykhailiuk is slated to make $1.4 million next season and has a team option for $1.7 million in 2020-21. Finances aren’t the sole reason for making the trade, but getting a young player and a pick — the Pistons had traded all their second-round picks between 2020 and ’23 — gives them some value back.  

► 3. Losing Bullock from the starting lineup means that Kennard will step into that role. Bullock was solid as a scorer and defender at 6-foot-7, 205 pounds. It might be a bigger challenge for Kennard moving forward, but the first-round pick from 2017 has shown signs of being ready for a bigger role. The trades also mean the reserve group will see more changes, with Mykhailiuk and Maker needing time to jell with an unstable unit.

► 4. The Pistons might not be going all-in on a playoff run this year. Standing pat and keeping Bullock would have indicated that they were going to push for the postseason, trailing the Miami Heat for the No. 8 spot by only 1½ games. They’re obviously better with Bullock, but dealing him is more about gaining assets than being a seller and not making a playoff run. In a vacuum, they want to get something without Bullock just leaving for nothing.

The Pistons have one of the weakest remaining schedules in the league and they can still make the playoffs with some good effort and a decent stretch in the final 29 games.

► 5. They may not be done dealing. They have more expiring contracts in Ish Smith ($6 million), Jose Calderon ($1.5 million) and Zaza Pachulia ($1.5 million). It’s unclear whether they’ll be able to move any of their value contracts — or less likely, the bigger deals for Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer or Langston Galloway that expire after next year.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard