Auburn Hills — Last weekend’s reported blockbuster trade sending Anthony Davis to the Lakers turned the NBA on its ear, just the start of the anticipated movement of superstar players around the league as the start of free agency looms on June 30.
The Pistons don’t look to be a big-time player in free agency, given their financial commitments and current roster construction. After making the playoffs with a 41-41 record and being swept out of the first-round series against the Bucks, their sights move toward improving the roster for next season.
The problem is the same as it’s been for a couple of years: how to make moves without much wiggle room in the salary cap, and not much in the way of trade assets.
Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski said Monday the team’s overall philosophy of building around Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson hasn’t changed and that with the 15th pick in Thursday’s draft, they’ll look to add a rotation player, possibly at the wing position.
“The philosophy right now is we have those three and we’re going with them, but I have no idea what (else is) going to happen,” Stefanski said.
Griffin had the best production of his career last season, and while trading him might prove difficult, there’s no sense that he could bring in the same haul that Davis did, with four players, plus three first-round draft picks, including No. 4 overall this year.
Could Drummond or Jackson be a target to help reconfigure the roster with more cap-friendly players?
“That’s all fluid,” Stefanski said. “Blake Griffin is pretty darn good. He’s a warrior, what we saw out there. I don’t know what package someone could offer — I don’t shop him.
“Andre Drummond is getting better and better. In the second half of last year, he showed what he could possibly be. Our coaching staff has done a fantastic job with him.”
Jackson, who is entering the final year of his five-year deal worth $80 million, seems to be the most likely candidate to be dealt, but his injury history the previous two seasons, plus his up-and-down play through those maladies muddies the waters of any trade scenario.
His contract becomes more of an asset this season, as teams looking to offload talent for cap relief may be willing to play ball in a trade.
“(Pistons medical consultant) Arnie Kander told me Reggie wouldn’t be ready until the middle of January with his ankle. He was right on; he was terrific in the second half,” Stefanski said. “Our Big Three came on nicely. It happened to be that Blake got hurt at the wrong time.”
Griffin, who had arthroscopic knee surgery after the season, is progressing nicely in his recovery, as he wasn’t expected to miss any of his offseason workout regimen. Stefanski said he spoke with Griffin last week, and the report was that Griffin has been lifting and doing some light work and feels “great.”
The Pistons’ biggest asset in the offseason could be the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, which gives them $9.2 million to acquire another player, but they might have to wait around to find a player at that low salary.
After the big free agents start to go off the board on June 30, the Pistons will have to be patient to see which players are available who could help them. They could split the mid-level exception over multiple players, which seems like a more prudent option than blowing it all on one player.
They could look to add a wing in the draft and fill other needs at backup point guard and backup center in free agency. They’ll also have the biannual exception of about $3.4 million to fill out the roster.
Another unlikely option would be going into the luxury tax to obtain a higher-salary player, but that’s unlikely, though team owner Tom Gores has said in the past he’d be willing if the right opportunity presented itself.
“If we can get a guy who moves the needle to us being top four in the East, Tom will pay the tax,” Stefanski reiterated.
The general plan, though, is to get a player at No. 15 who can crack the playing rotation and grow into a bigger talent. That could entail trading that pick for multiple lower picks, given the depth at the wing position this year. That’s a possibility, but the bigger plan is to address a need for depth in the draft and continue to plug the holes in free agency.
“We have an idea but you’d better be fluid because it changes all the time,” he said. “We have a plan, but when you try to execute that plan and you’re ecstatic and road blocks come up and you have to adjust and what happens with this or that.”