The Pistons' salary-cap situation, their roster needs and the path forward

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

After last season, when Pistons owner Tom Gores fired Stan Van Gundy following a four-year tenure, he changed the direction of the franchise.

Van Gundy assembled the roster to suit his style of play, with several large contracts that are still on the books. With the trade for Blake Griffin in January 2018, the Pistons took a huge leap — adding a bona fide superstar with a massive contract — that tied the franchise’s future to the five years of his $171-million deal. That move has far-reaching effects: the Pistons are in salary-cap purgatory, perilously close to the luxury tax but also still searching for key pieces to solidify the roster.

Andre Drummond

At this year’s trade deadline, the Pistons considered a bold move that would have brought another mega-contract with Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, but they balked at the trade package that Memphis was seeking.

More: After strong close, Pistons' Reggie Jackson ready for healthy offseason

Despite the Pistons’ mediocre season, Gores still is willing to go far above the salary cap to improve the roster rather than losing on purpose to gain a better draft pick — a point that he reiterated in the aftermath of the Pistons’ season-ending sweep last week.

“I’m always willing to do (go into the luxury tax). I want to win as much as all of us want to win. If I didn’t want to, it would have been easy not to win and not try to get into the playoffs. Of course, we are,” Gores said. “This has never been about our financial situation; it’s about delivering to Detroit.

"(Tanking) is not the way we function and we’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”

Given their financial constraints, their imperfect roster and their standing in the Eastern Conference, it’ll be an important offseason for Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski, who is performing the duties of a general manager.

Stefanski and his staff are looking for the path forward to improve.

Here’s their situation:

Salary cap

The projected NBA salary cap for teams is $109 million with a luxury-tax line of $132 million. The Pistons have about $114 million committed, unless the exercise their team option on Glenn Robinson III, whose salary would be at $4.3 million with a guarantee date of June 29, plus the deals for two-way players Kalin Lucas and Isaiah Whitehead.

They’ll likely add two draft picks, at No. 15 overall (projected at $3.2 million) and No. 45 overall (non-guaranteed).

More: Pistons' Blake Griffin has successful arthroscopic procedure on knee

The likely path is to add a couple more vet players at the minimum and use the mid-level exception of about $9.2 million and the biannual exception of $3.6 million. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for them to add All-Star talent, without going over the luxury-tax line, but Gores has said that for the right player, he’d be willing to go above the tax line.

Having both Griffin and Andre Drummond using about 47 percent of the available salary under the tax line makes building around them with higher-quality complementary players difficult. Adding Reggie Jackson’s $18.1 million, pushes the numbers jump to $79.6 million for three players and 60 percent of the available space under the tax.

Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond

Roster needs

Given their interest in Conley and others, the Pistons appear to be searching for an upgrade at point guard. Jackson’s role was changed to be more of a combo guard and with Griffin and Drummond’s skill sets, they could benefit from having a pass-first point guard. With Ish Smith and Jose Calderon becoming unrestricted free agents, the Pistons could be looking at replacing all three of their point guards. Depending on the market for Smith, they might be forced to look at less-expensive options.

Getting and grooming a point guard in the draft — even at No. 15 — is a crap shoot and if they choose that route, it will some time to develop a young player into an NBA point guard.

More: 'This season is the foundation': Blake Griffin believes in Pistons, himself

After trading Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock at the deadline, the Pistons lost a lot of size at the wing position and relied on shorter guards to play small forward. They’ll have to look hard at their options in the draft at No. 15 and harder maybe at signing a veteran free agent such as Bullock or other options such as the Celtics’ Marcus Morris.

In the second half, they lacked a physical wing who could guard opponents’ top scorers with size. The Pistons answered with Luke Kennard, Wayne Ellington and Robinson, but they’ll have to look at other options to improve at the position.

With Zaza Pachulia becoming an unrestricted free agent, the Pistons likely will look elsewhere for a backup center — likely for a veteran’s minimum. The hard part is prioritizing which positions should get the biggest chunk of the available space remaining and backup center doesn’t seem to be as high on the list. 

Owner Tom Gores

The path forward

Gores doesn’t seem interested in moving Griffin or Drummond, so there’s no sense in even broaching those as trade options. If they’re looking again at trading Jackson, his deal won’t be easy to move without attaching an asset. They may just keep him this season and again utilize him as a shooter and driver more than a traditional point guard.

With their moves at the deadline, the Pistons avoided big paydays to Johnson and Bullock. They’ll look for internal development for their young players: Kennard, Thon Maker, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk as the balance to their expensive big men.

The contracts for Jackson, Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway — along with the albatross of Josh Smith’s stretched buyout — all come off the books after this season. That’ll provide the Pistons with some relief to remake the roster but unless they’re able to jettison some of those deals this year — either this summer or before the trade deadline, there’s not much maneuvering they can do.

More: Ish Smith will stay in touch with Pistons as free agency nears

Teams will find the contracts more enticing and may be willing to give up assets to take on expiring deals, but the Pistons will have to be shrewd in getting the best offers. With a good start to the season, the value of those deals could increase, making them better trade chips, especially as the deadline gets closer in January and February.

Gores doesn’t seem happy with just making the playoffs but because of the injuries to Griffin and Smith — the Pistons were 8-18 in games he missed — it’s reasonable to surmise that they could be as high as a No. 6 seed.

With a rejuvenated Little Caesars Arena sold out for Game 3 against the Bucks, the fan support is there, but adding to the roster is a must.

“Getting in wasn’t enough,” Gores said. “We’re happy to get in and very happy to have seen this stadium rocking and Detroit get going.”

The next steps will see if that continues.

Salary commitments

►Blake Griffin

2019 salary: $34.4 million

Contract: $110.2 million (player option for 2021)

►Andre Drummond

2019 salary: $27.1 million

Contract: $55.8 million (player option for 2020)

►Reggie Jackson

2019 salary: $18.1 million

Contract: Through 2019

►Jon Leuer

2019 salary: $9.5 million

Contract: Through 2019

►Langston Galloway

2019 salary: $7.3 million

Contract: Through 2019

►Josh Smith

2019 salary: $5.3 million

Contract: Dead-cap money from stretch provision through 2019

►Glenn Robinson III

2019 salary: $4.3 million

Contract: Team option for 2019

►Luke Kennard

2019 salary: $3.8 million

Contract: $9.1 million through 2020 (team option for 2020), restricted free agent in 2021

►Thon Maker

2019 salary: $3.6 million

Contract: Restricted free agent in 2020

►Svi Mykhailiuk

2019 salary: $1.4 million (non-guaranteed)

Contract: Restricted free agent in 2020

►Bruce Brown

2019 salary: $1.4 million

Contract: $3.1 million through 2020, then restricted free agent

►Khyri Thomas

2019 salary: $1.4 million

Contract: $3.1 million through 2020, then restricted free agent

►Unrestricted free agents:

Jose Calderon

Wayne Ellington

Zaza Pachulia

Ish Smith

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard