On the eve of the 15-16 season, Sports Illustrated reported that Stan Van Gundy was going to run the Detroit Pistons like no other NBA team had ever been run. A massive, 18-person front office was going to diligently scout all 1,230 NBA games each season to uncover the hidden gems buried deep across the league’s benches.

Sure enough, the Pistons have been nabbing all sorts of players who are only recognized by true League Pass-heads. Plus, these guys are having career years in Detroit: in 16-17, his first year with the Pistons, Jon Leuer set new career highs in games played, minutes per game, points per game -- just about everything. Ish Smith produced more Win Shares last year in Detroit (3.1) than he did in his first six seasons combined (2.9). After Reggie Jackson started just 20% of his games during his tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he’s shown in Detroit that he deserves his role as an every-game starting point guard. Add in a heap of 24-and-under draft picks -- Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard, Andre Drummond (still that young!) -- and this is a recipe for a budding contender, right?

Well, no.

Detroit fell from 44 wins in 15-16 to 37 wins in 16-17, slipping below .500 and out of the weak Eastern Conference playoff picture along the way. It doesn’t look like 17-18 is going to go much better, either: the team’s biggest addition was first-rounder Kennard, and they have to replace departed free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's production in the starting lineup. How could such a diligent, unprecedented team-building approach bring in so few results?

The problem is that, while Van Gundy & Co. are correctly identifying role players who do help make a difference, the Pistons are way overpaying for their services. Last season, the Pistons had six free agents on their roster. Five of those players -- deep-bench point guard Beno Udrih is the exception -- were playing on deals with Detroit that paid out exponentially more than their previous NBA contract.

None of these players saw a decrease in their efficiency once they moved to Detroit. But those huge paychecks mean that the Pistons aren’t getting any surplus value, at least before this season started, from this group of rotation players:


AAV Salary Jump*

$ Per Win Share On Before Pistons

$ Per Win Share With Pistons





















None of these contracts are backbreaking overpays or obviously toxic assets on their own. A truly inefficient deal will cost a team way, way above $5 million per Win Share. Last year, the Chicago Bulls could only manage to get to .500 while paying Rajon Rondo $6.02 million per Win Share, and Dwyane Wade $6.82 million. The 16-17 New York Knicks were weighed down by their oversized deals to Derrick Rose ($7.07 million per Win Share) and Joakim Noah ($7.72 million). And the Los Angeles Lakers had little hope of getting out of the lottery last year while paying Timofey Mozgov $14.54 million per Win Share, and an even $20 million per to Luol Deng. Chandler Parsons’ 16-17 season was basically lost due to injury: in 34 hobbled games, he cost the Memphis Grizzlies a mighty $110.58 million per Win Share.

If you want to win 50 or more games in the NBA, you basically need one of two things to happen. One: your owner is able and willing to pay the luxury tax -- not the case for Detroit. Or, two, you need to have multiple players in your nightly rotation producing at under $1 million per Win Share. None of the Pistons’ main free agent acquisitions got close to producing at that level. Although Udrih managed the feat in 34 limited appearances off the bench, Caldwell-Pope was the only Pistons regular to do this in 16-17, at $815,000 per Win Share.  

Meantime, check out how much cheap production last year’s eight 50-game winners got from all parts of their roster -- especially the six out of those eight teams that did not pay the luxury tax. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that the league’s two 60-game winners, the Spurs and the Warriors, had about half of their rotation on an ultra-efficient price tag:


16-17 Wins

Luxury Tax?

Rotation Players Under $1M Per Win Share




Lucas Nogueira, Norman Powell








Rudy Gobert, Joe Ingles, Rodney Hood




Marreese Speights, Luc Mbah a Moute




Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder




Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, Nene, Sam Dekker




David Lee, Dewayne Dedmon, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, Jonathon Simmons




Stephen Curry, Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee, David West, Ian Clark, Patrick McCaw, Kevon Looney

There’s an additional fee on top of the steep price tags the Pistons have bestowed to their rotation players: opportunity cost. If all these small salaries didn’t clutter up the Pistons’ cap sheet, it’s possible that the team could have really taken a big swing at a huge free agent this summer.

Sure, the salary cap has jumped an unprecedented amount in recent years, and player salaries have rose along with it. But still: the 16-17 salary cap is about 150% of what it was a decade earlier in 2006-07. The Pistons’ pay raises have been incredibly generous even after you factor in the new cap landscape. What if, instead of the pay raises that free agents have actually received from Detroit, each player had received a 300% raise in the Average Annual Value from their previous contract, with stud point guard Reggie Jackson earning a 750% raise? We’ll call these Still-Pretty-Generous Deals. Plus, big man Baynes mysteriously turned down his $6.5 million player option with Detroit this summer only to sign for $4.3 million with the Boston Celtics -- gifting the Pistons even more additional cap space:


AAV Salary Jump

AAV on Real-Life Pistons Deal

AAV on Still-Pretty-

Generous Deal

2017-18 Hypothetical Pistons Savings

Reggie Jackson


$16 million

$11 million

$5 million

Jon Leuer


$10.5 million

$3 million

$7.5 million

Boban Marjanovic


$7 million

$3.6 million

$3.4 million

Ish Smith


$6 million

$3.3 million

$2.7 million


Baynes Bonus

$6.5 million


Total Savings

$25.1 million

This is all very hypothetical, but: with these savings, the Pistons would have been very well-positioned this summer to pursue free agents like Serge Ibaka (who signed for an AAV of $21.66 million with the Toronto Raptors) or Danilo Gallinari ($21.58 million per year with the Los Angeles Clippers). And, hey, if Van Gundy is looking to re-create his 2008-09 NBA Finalist Orlando Magic team -- with four trusty shooters around the rebound-gobbling Drummond/Dwight Howard center -- then Ibaka and Gallinari are darned good facsimiles of Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu.

But the Pistons didn’t have these savings. Instead, they could only afford to take a few more nibbles at a couple more back-end rotation guys: the team brought on Langston “The Poet” Galloway (3 years, $21 million), Anthony Tolliver (1 year, $3.29 million), and Reggie Bullock, who the team resigned (1 year, $2.5 million, with a second-year team option for the same price).

Once again, there is little to complain about with each individual deal. Galloway set the best three-point percentage of his career last year while shooting deep balls nearly twice as often as he did in his first two seasons -- plus he will now be with at least a plausible playoff team for the first time in his young career. Block-charge black belt Tolliver has already played 124 games for Van Gundy and the Pistons, and his established three-point range means he’s a perfect logistical fit as a back-up stretch-4 in Van Gundy’s rotation. After never appearing in more than 43 games in any of his first four seasons, Bullock is still a bit of an unknown quantity -- except to Van Gundy and the Pistons, who have seen him in practice every day for two years now. His contract is small enough that it’s a reasonable flyer to take on a young player, especially a young player the team is familiar with.  

Still, if you look at all these deals together, and how they fit into the Pistons’ overall cap sheet, it feels like the Pistons are ensuring a relatively low ceiling on their win total for years to come. Galloway would have to basically double his career-best production if he is going to create one Win Share per $1 million.  Tolliver would likely need about 20 MPG in order to tally up enough Win Shares to provide the Pistons with that equally efficient payout. Tolliver actually averaged 20.2 MPG in his first stint with the Pistons -- but back then, the team didn’t have Leuer or Henry Ellenson to also back up Tobias Harris at power forward. Unless Stanley Johnson, Ellenson, or Kennard have sudden breakout years -- all are still on their inexpensive rookie contracts -- it’s mighty unlikely that anybody else on the Pistons roster is going to produce that crucial amount of bang for the buck.

Investing the manpower into scouting every NBA game sounds like an admirable idea. Honestly, since League Pass has already been around for forever, I’m surprised it took until a few years ago for any one team to do it. But it turns out it’s not enough. It’s a genuinely good move for the Pistons to notice that big guys Aron Baynes and Boban Marjanovic are surprisingly deft ball-movers in their limited minutes as Spurs back-ups. But the elite move is to do what the Spurs did, and notice these skills when Baynes was playing in Slovenia, when Marjanovic was playing in Serbia, when both players could be signed on the cheap. You can’t just look to the NCAA to find the next generation of your team, as the Pistons have done -- they haven’t drafted an international player since Jonas Jerebko since the second round in 2009. You need to scour the world to find Rudy Gobert in Cholet, to find Clint Capela in Chalon-Sur-Saone, to find Davis Bertans in Union Olimpija.

This is how fast the NBA moves these days: if you focus on mastering the NBA, you’re already too late.


*Baynes played on a one-year, $2.07 million deal with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014-15 before signing a three-year, $19.5 million deal with Detroit in the summer of 2015.

Jackson played on a four-year, $5.82 rookie salary with the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2011-2015, and was traded to Detroit in the fourth and final year of that deal, in 2014-15, with his production for the Pistons in that half-season included in the “$ Per Win Share Before Pistons” column. Jackson re-signed with Detroit as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2015 on a five-year, $80 million deal.

Leuer played on a three-year, $2.9 million deal from 2013-2016 that he originally signed with the Memphis Grizzlies, and was traded to the Phoenix Suns before the end of the contract. Detroit signed Leuer in the summer of 2016 to a four-year, $42 million deal.

Marjanovic played with the Spurs on a one-year, $1.2 million deal in 2015-16 before signing a three-year, $21 million deal with the Pistons in the summer of 2016.

Smith played the 2015-16 season on a one-year, $1.1 million deal, and was traded from the New Orleans Pelicans to the Philadelphia 76ers mid-season. In the summer of 2016, Smith signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Detroit.