The Detroit Pistons returned to the playoffs after a two-year absence behind new head coach Dwane Casey and All-NBA play from Blake Griffin. Their postseason was brief as they were convincingly eliminated by the Milwaukee Bucks in a four-game sweep, but the season as a whole was a moderately successful one. This is especially true when you consider the Pistons have been a franchise stuck in the middle of the NBA.
Griffin returned to his dominant ways with the best season of his career since he finished third in MVP voting in 2014. Griffin has added a three-point shot now, which should allow him to stay productive throughout the remaining three years of his current contract and beyond. As always, injuries are the thing to watch with Griffin.
Griffin paired with Andre Drummond, who led the NBA in rebounding for the third time in the last four years, to give Detroit All-Star play in their frontcourt. Drummond is under contract for the next two years, which gives the Pistons a strong foundation up front with him and Griffin.
Reggie Jackson had a bounce back season, playing in all 82 games and transitioned back to more of a scoring role versus a playmaking one. With Griffin handling the primary ballhandling duties, Jackson was able to play off the ball more and his shooting improved, converting a career-high 36.9% from behind the arc. Jackson has one more year under contract, giving the Pistons three solid starters.
The trio of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson all signed for the coming season is both a blessing and a curse for the Pistons. It’s a blessing because Detroit doesn’t have to worry about three key positions being filled. It's a curse as it makes it difficult to build out a roster around them as they are at a combined $79.6 million. That’s the challenge facing the Pistons this summer: How do you upgrade with limited ability to do so?
First, Detroit has to be hoping for some development of their own young players. Luke Kennard has shown some signs of being a starting-level wing, as his play improved in each month of his second season. He’s a good shooter, solid playmaker and a limited, but improving defender. Kennard is someone the Pistons can reasonably hope makes a leap next year.
Along with Kennard, Detroit may have found another starting wing in Bruce Brown Jr. Brown had a solid, if unspectacular rookie season. He’s a good defender, and shows signs of being a capable secondary or tertiary playmaker on the wing. In Kennard and Brown, the Pistons at least have two rotation wings and maybe even more.
Thon Maker was acquired from the Bucks at the trade deadline in exchange for Stanley Johnson. Maker hasn’t been able to put it all together to consistently earn minutes, but his potential is still fairly high. Maker has size and range, but has to figure out how to show up game to game. Detroit essentially has a one-year evaluation period with Maker as they won’t be giving him a contract extension this offseason.
Detroit is very evidently reliant on those three young players taking a step forward as they are limited in terms of roster building tools. They have one more season and a combined $16.8 million to get through for Langston Galloway and Jon Leuer who were ill-fated additions by the previous front office regime. Neither has had the impact the Pistons hoped for as bench players and they have to ride out their deals, or hope to possibly package their salaries together in a trade.
As for the team’s free agents, there are two of note: guards Wayne Ellington and Ish Smith. Ellington was brought over after he was traded to and then bought out by the Phoenix Suns. As he is known for, Ellington gave the Pistons excellent shooting on the wing. Detroit only has Non-Bird rights for Ellington, making re-signing him a tricky proposition. They’ll likely have to dip into part of their mid-level exception to do so, as wing shooting is always in demand around the NBA.
Smith has developed into one of the NBA’s best backup point guards. He’s great as a backup and can step in as a solid spot starter when needed. As a terrific pick and roll distributor, Smith fits with any team in the NBA. He’ll have offers elsewhere, but may choose to stay in Detroit where he’s found a home and valuable role behind Jackson.
The Pistons primary needs are adding scoring and shooting on the perimeter and depth behind Griffin and Drummond, as Maker’s lack of consistency means someone else has to be brought in to fill that spot. Zaza Pachulia held down that role last year and could return, but Detroit should look for a younger, more dynamic option. They’ll also need to replace Ellington or Smith, should either or both leave.
With only exceptions to work with, and somewhat pushing up against the luxury tax already, it’s not likely to be a very eventful offseason for Detroit. They’ll add pieces around the edges, but they should keep deals focused only for the upcoming season. In the summer of 2020, the cap sheet starts to clear up a little and that’s when the Pistons should be positioned to add a difference-maker alongside Griffin and Drummond.
Guaranteed Contracts (9): Bruce Brown Jr., Andre Drummond, Langston Galloway, Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Jon Leuer, Thon Maker, Khyri Thomas
Partial/Non-Guaranteed Contracts (1): Svi Mykhailiuk
Potential Free Agents (7): Jose Calderon (UFA), Wayne Ellington (UFA), Kalin Lucas (RFA – Two-Way), Zaza Pachula (UFA), Glenn Robinson III (UFA – Team Option), Ish Smith (UFA), Isaiah Whitehead (RFA – Two-Way)
“Dead” Money on Cap ($5,331,729): Josh Smith
First Round Draft Pick(s): #15
Maximum Cap Space: None. $5.7 million over
Projected Cap Space: None. $34.6 million over