The Detroit Pistons agreed to trade Stanley Johnson to the Milwaukee Bucks for Thon Maker on Wednesday, their second deal in less than a day. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
Detroit — For a moment at least, the Pistons stopped chasing flimsy dreams and bad deals. That’s a positive start, although only a start.
This isn’t about what the Pistons did at the trade deadline — adding raw, interesting talents in 7-foot-1 Thon Maker and rookie Svi Mykhailiuk, who have been underwhelming pros so far. It’s about what they didn’t do. They didn’t fall for the Memphis Grizzlies’ attempted fleecing and didn’t take on another big-name player with a bloated contract in Mike Conley Jr. They didn’t further wreck their salary cap structure.
All of that is fine, although nothing to celebrate. The Pistons still have major issues, still don’t look like a playoff team, despite Blake Griffin’s terrific season, and still haven’t found a way to break through the Andre Drummond-Reggie Jackson wall. They’re still stuck between borderline contention and blow-it-up necessity, and big decisions must be revisited in the offseason.
Tom Gores said last week the playoffs remained a priority, the luxury tax wasn’t an issue and this team, 24-29 and 1.5 games out of the eighth and final spot, still had a shot. Maybe he was just repeating broad platitudes. More likely, the new front office politely explained the ramifications, and senior advisor Ed Stefanski wisely advised not to give up a first-round pick and/or Luke Kennard, along with Jackson, for the Grizzlies’ respected point guard.
Conley, 31, is due to make $67 million the next two seasons, and while he would be a better play-making and shooting fit, his presence would prevent the Pistons from improving virtually any other way. It also would box the franchise’s future into a confined window, with Griffin, who turns 30 next month and is due $110 million for three more seasons, and Drummond, 25, owed $56 million for two more seasons.
Signs of progress?
This isn’t necessarily an indication the Pistons have experienced some sort of epiphany, but it is encouraging. It’s an indication they aren’t blind to the future, or completely bound to the present. Acquiring Griffin last year, under Stan Van Gandy, was a desperate move, and while Griffin certainly has delivered individually, it hasn’t provided a boost in the standings. Passing on a similar deal this time, under Stefanski, assistant GM Malik Rose and coach Dwane Casey, was a prudent move.
Does it mean the Pistons are bailing on this season? Not completely. It’s more like hitting the pause button — not going for it, not tearing it up (yet). Barring a sudden turnaround, they must be more urgent to deal Drummond or Jackson in the summer and add a true point guard. Jackson should be a viable trade chip entering the final year of his contract, as should Langston Galloway. With a dynamic centerpiece in Griffin, a full rebuild isn’t likely or sensible, unless a team made a too-good-to-turn-down offer.
In the immediate short term, the Pistons got slightly worse. They surrendered their best 3-point shooter, Reggie Bullock, who was going to be expensive to re-sign. They dealt away Stanley Johnson, a shooting disaster since the Pistons plucked him at No. 8 in the 2015 draft, but a defensive specialist.
I don’t think the Pistons came that close to getting Conley, although it probably was tempting. With him, they likely would’ve made the playoffs, pushing their No. 1 pick out of the lottery, and it would’ve freed them from Jackson’s expensive struggles. Jackson has been better lately after two injury-plagued seasons, but is a career 32.5 percent 3-point shooter (Conley is 37.6). Problem is, the Grizzlies reportedly also wanted Kennard, who’s young and unsteady, but is the only other deep shooter on the roster.
Not worth it, especially not when you realize how far the Pistons remain from the league’s top teams. They’re 28th in 3-point shooting — worse now with Bullock headed to the Lakers — but they did pick up some unpolished nuggets.
Mykhailiuk only played 10.7 minutes per game with the dysfunctional Lakers, but he’s a 6-8 wing who flashed a pure shot in four seasons at Kansas and was drafted in the second round. Maker is equally intriguing and unproven, Milwaukee’s 10th overall pick in 2016. He’s averaged 4.5 points per game in two-and-a-half seasons, and requested a trade when he fell out of the first-place Bucks’ rotation.
Like Mykhailiuk, Maker brings ingredients the Pistons are trying to build around — length, shooting, versatility, energy. Maker is 7-1 and about to turn 22, and shoots 33.3 percent on 3-pointers, in limited action. Neither are expected to be difference-makers, but they’re younger, cheaper and possibly better fits.
Good enough, for now
With no wiggle room in the salary cap, the Pistons grabbed what they could. If it matters, Milwaukee didn’t even want Johnson, and flipped him in a trade with New Orleans. Bullock is a loss, but it was believed he’d draw about a $10 million salary this summer.
You shouldn’t be dazzled by what the Pistons did, but you shouldn’t be dazed either. If Stefanski and his staff aren’t in rebuild mode, they’re in cleanup mode, trying to sweep out bad contracts and bad picks from the Van Gundy regime.
“Svi is an accomplished player, played big-time basketball in college,” Casey said. “He still has to learn the system, but he and Thon both will have the opportunity to come in and help us compete for a playoff spot.”
In that sense, not much has changed. The Pistons are skirting the edges of contention, but instead of marginally improving their chances now, they rightly opted to wait for a better opportunity. They didn’t fully buy or sell, but instead window-shopped, and realized they couldn’t afford the purchase, either in salary or draft assets. There will be big moves to make in the near future, but now was not the time.