When the Pistons signed Zaza Pachulia in free agency last summer, it was seen as a move to add a veteran with a physical presence who could add some muscle to their reserve group.
In many ways, Pachulia, 35, was exactly that. But as the season wore on, he showed more of his age than physical and veteran prowess, and his minutes dwindled. In some cases — such as in the playoffs against the Bucks — he didn’t play because the matchups weren’t favorable.
Pachulia was on a veteran’s minimum contract of $2.4 million but only $1.5 million counted against the salary cap. It’s unlikely that he’ll return next season, as he’s an unrestricted free agent, but the Pistons will be looking for another veteran to fill the void as Andre Drummond’s backup.
There’s at least a minuscule chance that the Pistons could look to gauge Drummond’s trade value, but unless they get a reasonable return for the two-time All-Star, they’ll move forward. Drummond’s contract is worth $27.1 million next season and he has a player option for $28.8 million in 2020-21.
Finding a good backup on a limited budget will be difficult, at best. The Pistons likely will look to find another vet-minimum option, in order to have more to spend on a sorely needed point guard or wing upgrade.
At their disposal, the Pistons will have the non-taxpayer mid-level exception of about $9.2 million and the biannual exception of about $3.6 million. Either can be divided among multiple players, but the likelihood of them using more than a small amount on a backup center is small.
Here are some options the Pistons could consider at backup center in free agency:
Aron Baynes, 32
The Pistons had Baynes for two years but misjudged his potential market in free agency and let him go, thinking his value would be upwards of $10 million per season. He was the most skilled backup center they had since the start of the Stan Van Gundy era.
Baynes has a player option for $5.5 million next season, but unless he opts out and misjudges the market, it’s unlikely the Pistons will have a chance to get him.
►2018-19 salary: $5.2 million
Salah Mejri, 32
There aren’t many good options with a minimum contract offer, but Mejri could be a consideration. At 7-foot-1, he fits the mold of the bigger, plodding centers the Pistons have had, like Boban Marjanovic and Pachulia. And if he’s the best option available, the Pistons will have to think through whether they want to continue in that path.
Mejri is not an exceptional rebounder but does have some 3-point range.
►2018-19 salary: $1.6 million
Kevon Looney, 23
Looney was the Warriors’ first-round pick in 2015. He’s developed into a very good option for them and has saw his playing time increase each season. This year he averaged career highs with 6.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 18.5 minutes. He’s been the salary balance to their bulky contracts and it’s likely they’ll try to keep him.
The Pistons could benefit from Looney’s energy and small contract as well, but they might have to go a little bit above the minimum to secure him.
►2018-19 salary: $1.6 million
Kyle O’Quinn, 29
He’s developed a reputation as a hard worker and a decent backup in three years each with the Magic and Knicks before moving to the Pacers this season. He had his best year with New York in 2017-18, with career highs of 7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
O’Quinn isn’t a 3-point threat, which would be a plus for a backup center, but at their price point, the Pistons can’t be very picky.
►2018-19 salary: $4.4 million
Eric Moreland, 27
As the backup for the Pistons in 2017-18, Moreland played in 67 games and posted 2.1 points and 4.1 rebounds. In the rest of his injury-riddled career, he’s played in just 16 games in three seasons. He can be effective and provides plenty of energy, which could make a reunion possible for the vet minimum.
Given more playing time and an opportunity to develop under coach Dwane Casey, Moreland could be the best combination of youth, energy, experience and affordability that the Pistons can find.
►2018-19 salary: $239,000