The Detroit Pistons had an understated but important summer in their quest to build upon last year’s playoffs appearance.
Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond will still lead the line, at least for now, with the remaining role players filling in around them. It’s relatively rare in the modern NBA that a team’s two best players are their big men, as the league has moved further and further toward the perimeter.
And there lies Detroit’s biggest problem, as they’ve churned through 3-and-D wings and don’t have a dynamic point guard who can make things happen.
Tony Snell is the Pistons’ latest attempt to put a two-way wing next to Griffin and Drummond. Stanley Johnson (drafted in 2015) and Glenn Robinson III (signed in 2018) were both shipped out in the last few months, with Johnson traded at the deadline and Robinson’s option declined ahead of July. Snell is likely the best of these three, though it’s far from a sure thing that he’ll be a useful piece for a Detroit team that hopes to be competitive next season.
Snell fell out of the rotation in the playoffs for the Milwaukee Bucks last season before being traded to Detroit, but he featured in a majority of Milwaukee’s regular-season games and was firmly in their rotation for much of their 60-win campaign. A similar thing happened to Snell just a couple years earlier with the Chicago Bulls.
When it came down to it, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer didn’t trust Snell’s inconsistencies shooting the ball, but given where the Pistons are in the league’s hierarchy and the rest of their roster, Snell should immediately step into their starting lineup and play significant minutes.
Detroit has a number of options at the point guard position, but none who inspire a ton of confidence.
Reggie Jackson has his foibles—he’s not an efficient scorer or shooter, nor has he turned into a consistent playmaker for others—and has been overpaid since the moment he signed the five-year, $80 million contract he’ll finish this year. Detroit got him after a generally productive backup stint to start his career with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it’s become apparent that he’s a low-tier starter at best and a rotation guard at worst rather than a core guy worth “big three” money.
With all that said,t he’s still the team’s best choice at that spot. Newly arrived Derrick Rose may push Jackson, however, after the club signed the former MVP to a two-year deal this offseason. From a tactical perspective, Rose plays similarly to Jackson as a score-first guard with questions about his ability to space the floor. But Rose also appeared to take sizeable mental steps with the Minnesota Timberwolves last year, understanding his limitations and playing to this strengths and role.
It’s possible he simply wins more minutes by making more “winning plays”—if the transformation was real and lasting.
Rose and Jackson will undoubtedly see time together in certain lineups as well, which will give the Pistons quite a bit of off-the-bounce scoring ability and should be a strong option against bench units.
The team already has 15 players under contract after claiming Christian Wood off waivers from the New Orleans Pelicans. They’re right up against the luxury tax threshold as well, with $223,669 separating them from going over the line, so they likely will not be making any further additions without a clear plan to duck back under the tax at a later date.
Development from some of the club’s younger players will be paramount to their long-term success.
At nearly every position, the Pistons have a young guy (or two) they’d like to see make a leap in 2019-20 in order to sustain and build upon what the team did last season. Luke Kennard is the best of the group as a high-level shooter and growing playmaker. He’s nothing special (to say the least) as a defensive prospect, but in a league that heavily skews toward offense, he’s a starting-level wing for a Detroit squad starving for spacers.
2019 first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya has the highest ceiling among the team’s youngsters. He’s an incredibly raw player who may not be ready to compete at an NBA level at all in 2019-20. Still, his talent alone is enough to have pushed him up to the middle of the first round; the upside of a player with his potential 5-tool skillset and lanky, spring profile is nearly endless.
Head coach Dwane Casey has experience developing another youngster to whom Doumbouya drew pre-draft comparisons: Toronto’s Pascal Siakam. Just as it took the latter a few years to develop, Detroit will likely have to wait on Doumbouya to polish his game’s rough edges. The wait could be worth it if the Pistons give him the time.
While nothing has come out about his future to this point, the dark cloud hanging over the Pistons as they move into the 2019-20 season is Griffin’s future and whether he will ask out of Detroit.
With two years left on a max contract signed with the Clippers in 2017 (plus an option year at nearly $39 million), it’s perhaps too soon to be thinking about a Griffin trade, but if the Pistons sputter out of the gate and another team starts to make some noise about adding him to a high-end playoff contender, he may reconsider his future and ask for a move. As we found out with Paul George this summer, it’s never too early for a team to consider asking for a trade as a possibility with their star player if they’re not in true title contention.
Griffin’s frontcourt partner could be on the move as well, though the market for Drummond should be much, much tamer. Drummond can opt out of his contract next summer to become perhaps the best free agent on the 2020 market, particularly if he can have a strong 2019-20 campaign.
Still, opting out of more than $28.5 million is a tough ask for a player in his position throughout the league. The center spot is notoriously fickle these days and the market has devalued players like Drummond (i.e. dominant rebounders and defenders with no range and questionable back-to-the-basket skills) so significantly that unless he has a massive breakout year, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be a free agent in 2020.
The Pistons will mostly run back last year’s team with a few key improvements in the rotation. With improved health at key moments, a bit more luck, and a worse Eastern Conference, they could push forward into the higher reaches of the playoff picture and avoid a drubbing at the hands of Milwaukee or Philadelphia in the first round.
On the other hand, the alternative path is that things never get better than they were in 2018-19 and Griffin asks to be moved ahead of the 2020 trade deadline, which would truly hit the reset button on a Pistons team that has few chances at superstar talent elsewhere on the roster.