Pistons going everywhere, so therefore nowhere – at a high cost

Pistons forward Jerami Grant
Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Pistons hired Ed Stefanski in 2018 to advise in a search for a new general manager.

Two years later, Detroit finally hired one – Troy Weaver.

Say what you want about Stefanski’s time running the front office. The Pistons turned it into a punchline by saying he’d help find a general manager then just putting Stefanski in charge without an announcement. But Stefanski’s mandate was clear: Restore flexibility for his eventual successor after Stan Van Gundy left the roster stuck. It took two years, but Stefanski did it.

Weaver took advantage, making a dizzying set of transactions to nearly completely reshape the team.

Detroit returns just four players from last season – Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, Sekou Doumbouya and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk. Those four accounted for just 24% of the Pistons’ minutes last season.

That ranks among the lowest amount of continuity in NBA history:

After zero playoff-game wins and just three postseason appearances in the last 12 years, a fresh start is welcome in Detroit.

But this overhaul carries significant cost and still doesn’t establish the Pistons as meaningfully better.

Detroit signed Jerami Grant for $60,007,500 over three years. He was worth that much – or more – to the Nuggets. But win-now Denver had him in a narrower role where he shined and didn’t gain much flexibility with his departure. Further from winning, the Pistons lured Grant by promising more opportunities with the ball and signed him with cap space. Though Grant’s work ethic is commendable and he still has room to grow at age 26, paying him more than $20 million annually to become a shot creator is a poor bet.

At least that one has some theoretical upside with Grant’s youth, athleticism and approach.

Mason Plumlee‘s three-year $24,662,500 deal looks dead on arrival in terms of holding positive value. Limited backup centers just aren’t worth that much in the modern NBA – even if you start them. And whatever defensive versatility Plumlee brings is likely to fade as he’s now into his 30s.

Those signings even required Detroit to stretch Dewayne Dedmon and Zhaire Smith, incurring a $3,934,867 cap hit each of the next three seasons and a $2,866,666 cap hit the two years after that. That’s right: Just as Josh Smith’s cap hit finally comes off the Pistons’ books, they add more long-term dead money. At least they didn’t have to stretch Rodney McGruder after other moves changed that apparent plan.

Josh Jackson (two years, full room exception) also came more expensive than expected. The 2017 No. 4 pick is a flier, albeit an intriguing flier. Jackson grew up in Detroit. Returning home can be, sometimes extremely, good or bad for a player. We’ll see which is the case for Jackson. But it wasn’t going great for him outside Michigan.

Even Jahlil Okafor on a minimum was surprisingly expensive. How did he get two guaranteed seasons?

There were bargains. Wayne Ellington signed for the minimum, and maybe the 33-year-old isn’t as washed up as he appeared with the Knicks last season. Last year’s No. 37 pick, Deividas Sirvydis, also jumped to the NBA for just a minimum contract.

Flipping Trevor Ariza‘s expiring contract for Delon Wright was also solid for the Pistons. A borderline starting-quality guard, Wright is due a reasonable $9 million and $8,526,316 over the next two years. The Mavericks just wanted more 2021 cap space. Wright and Detroit coach Dwane Casey are comfortable with each other from their time with the Raptors.

On the other hand, trading Bruce Brown to the Nets for a second-rounder and Dzanan Musa looks dicier for the Pistons, though at least that’s a low-impact move.

Really, all Detroit’s free-agent signings, trades and stretches are receiving outsized attention relative to the draft.

The Pistons will be just the third team in the last 20 years to open the season playing three players picked in the top 20 of the most-recent draft:*

*2019-20 Pelicans: No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, No. 8 pick Jaxson Hayes, No. 17 pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker

*2016-17 Nuggets: No. 7 pick Jamal Murray, No. 15 pick Juan Hernangomez, No. 19 pick Malik Beasley

Those young players will define Detroit’s offseason. If they pan out, it will override every other move.

Hayes and Bey were solid selections for this relatively weak-looking draft. No. 16 was way too high to pick a potential backup center in Stewart, though Pistons fans will at least appreciate his energy and hustle.

Detroit earned the No. 7 pick with another lousy season. But as much as it mostly matters only how the selected players turn out, the extra two picks came at significant long-term cost. The Pistons surrendered a first-round pick, four second-round picks, Luke Kennard, Christian Wood (sign-and-trade) and took the unwanted contracts of Ariza and McGruder to get Nos. 16 and 19.

The future first-rounder that will go to the Rockets in exchange for No. 16 has the following protections

  • 2021: top-16
  • 2022: top-16
  • 2023: top-18
  • 2024: top-18
  • 2025: top-13
  • 2026: top-11
  • 2027: top-9 (becomes second-rounder if not conveyed)

Look at the projected arc of Detroit, and tell me that’s not heading toward a late lottery pick conveying in 2025, 2026 or 2027. The Pistons getting an extra first-rounder by taking Ariza’s unwanted deal then conveying an even-higher first-rounder in a future year would be such a cursed outcome. It’s also very possible.

Which gets into the biggest issue of Detroit’s offseason.

Weaver deserves a chance to see his plan come to fruition. Maybe this will all look better in a couple years. The too-many-centers jokes were an overreaction while the roster was still in flux. The Pistons wound up with a normal three centers. (The problem is quality, not quantity.) Everything else could fall into place with more time.

Still, this looks scattered. Detroit is spending big on veterans… without becoming good. Detroit is loading up on rookies… by sending out future draft picks.

I am not declaring a verdict on his tenure. Not even close. But the greatest worry for the Pistons, one that could set them back far longer than the length of Grant’s and Plumlee’s contracts – the possibility Weaver is in over his head.

Offseason grade: D

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.