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NBA Daily: Fixing the Detroit Pistons

Zach Dupont continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series, taking a closer look at the Detroit Pistons.

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The Detroit Pistons were one of the NBA’s most competitive franchises at the turn of the century, appearing in six straight Eastern Conference Finals between 2002-2008 and winning the NBA Finals in 2004. But, since that run, the Pistons have been one of the least relevant teams in the league, having not won a playoff game since 2008.

This season has gone about as well as the last few have, with the Pistons sitting last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-8 record. But what led Detroit to this point? And what needs to change for them to regain their status as one of the NBA’s best franchises?

What is Working? 

Not a whole lot, that’s for sure. That said, there have been a few positives to see in an otherwise tough start to the year. 

Offseason acquisition Jermai Grant has been a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, starting the season off with some outrageous scoring stats. Through 10 games Grant is averaging a career-high 36.8 minutes, 25.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on an impressive true shooting percentage of 59.4 percent. Josh Jackson has been another pleasant surprise coming from free agency, as he has managed to turn his career around in the early stages of the season. Jackson is averaging 12.5 points and 3.9 rebounds per game and has even started six games so far.

The Pistons do have some promising young prospects on the books as well. The team has three first-round picks from the 2020 draft on the roster, with Saddiq Bey being the best of the three early on despite being chosen last. Bey is averaging 10.6 points per game while shooting 44 percent from three-point range. Seventh and 16th picks Killian Hayes and Isaiah Stewart have had tough starts to the season, while Hayes is now out indefinitely with a right labral tear. But, with no Summer League and only a few weeks between the draft and the beginning of the season, it would be foolish to write either of them off yet.

Detroit’s 2019 first-round selection Sekou Doumbouya has also shown a lot of promise early on his second NBA season, showing improved shooting as he’s hit 44 percent of his three-pointers and 89 percent of his free throws. Granted, Doumbouya is only playing 11.4 minutes per game, but at only 20-years old – third youngest on the roster – he still has plenty of time to figure it out. Svi Mykhailiuk has shown himself to be a reliable three-point specialist.

Yes, the Pistons have struggled immensely early on in the 2020-21 season. But, with some promising young players on the roster, the future isn’t all doom and gloom.

What Isn’t Working?  

That said, there is certainly a fair share of that doom and gloom going around the organization.

Grant’s start to the season has been encouraging, but it’s not translating to wins. Grant owns the 41st highest usage rate in the NBA and, despite that, he is averaging just 1.9 assists per game. So while Grant is scoring a lot, something the Pistons desperately need to be fair, it’s not making anyone on the team any better and not leading to a good team offense.

A significant reason the Pistons need so much scoring from Grant is because of the play and health of their star forward Blake Griffin. In seven games so far Griffin is averaging just 13.9 points per game, the lowest mark of his entire career. Griffin is obviously not entirely healthy, but, at 31-years-old, it’s not a given that Griffin will ever regain his All-NBA form, which is bad news for Detroit for more than a few reasons. While the Pistons would understandably be happy to have Griffin playing better just because it would make the team better, his poor play also hurts his trade value.

Griffin has one more year on his contract, assuming he accepts his $39 million player option for the 2021-22 season, but his underwhelming play and questions surrounding his health mean that Detroit can’t shop him to other contenders for future assets — more likely, they may even have to attach assets to get rid of him. Of course, the Pistons could just ride out the next two years of his contract, as it’s a safe bet that Griffin will pick up his pricey player option while his career is on a downward trajectory.

Without Griffin playing to his full potential, the Pistons are unsurprisingly bad on both ends of the floor. Detroit owns the seventh-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 112.8 and the sixth-worst offensive rating of 106.4. If it wasn’t obvious, bad offense and bad defense combine to form the worst teams, which is reflected in the Pistons’ net rating of -6.4, the third-worst net rating in the league.

The Pistons likely lack anyone that could become an All-NBA level player and, in the modern NBA, teams need at least one if not two of those types to become serious contenders. Guys like Hayes and Doumbouya are still early on in their careers and time will tell if they can reach those heights, but early indications aren’t promising. Detroit will have to look elsewhere for the top-end talent needed to be competitive in this league.  

There is no quick way out of this hole in Detroit, and the current roster won’t be capable of being a real playoff contender without a massive overhaul, so what needs to be done in Detroit?

Focus Area: Free Agency

The Pistons are currently under their first season with new general manager Troy Weaver and it’s still too early to tell what the direction of the franchise will be moving forward. However, Detroit’s free-agency will be less about who they should sign and more about not making poor free agency decisions. 

In years past, the Pistons have had a bad habit of signing up players to improve the team to the fringes of the playoffs, but never pushing them over the edge. This habit could be seen again this past offseason, with the acquisitions of Grant and Mason Plumlee on deals that were, at least initially, thought to be over-pays.

Detroit’s plan in the coming offseason needs to be not to lock themselves into more long-term money while remaining uncompetitive. Unless the Pistons miraculously find themselves in the running for Kawhi Leonard, it’s best for them to look towards the future and keep their money in the short-term rather than the long-term. 

If the luck out and, for some reason, Griffin decides to decline his lucrative player option for 2021-22, he will be the team’s top outgoing free agent. If not, that role falls to Derrick Rose. Entering his age 32 season, Rose has revived his career as a sixth man and has some value for the Pistons both as a player and a potential trade asset. Rose is averaging 13.9 points per game off the bench this year, but he has also missed time due to injury.

Even if he’s still on the team come the end of the season, it’s likely Rose won’t be coming back. The only other unrestricted free agents on the team for 2021 are Frank Jackson and Wayne Ellington, so there aren’t many pressing internal decisions to be made by Detroit in the coming offseason.  

The best way for Detroit to improve their roster in the 2021 offseason is with more low-risk, high reward contracts — like the one they gave Jackson this offseason — and by moving Rose and Griffin before the deadline for any value the team might be able to get.

Focus Area: Draft

There aren’t many ways for Detroit to rapidly improve its team in free agency, but there are ways they can in the draft.

If the season ended today, the Pistons would be tied for the best odds in the lottery at the first overall pick and would at least be drafting in the top six. The Houston Rockets technically own the Pistons pick if it isn’t in the lottery but, barring a significant turnaround, it’s safe to assume that Detroit will keep its first-round pick.

So, with the Pistons sure to be in for an excellent draft pick in the upcoming 2021 NBA Draft, they need to capitalize on a loaded group of prospects. The 2021 draft looks like it may have some of the best top-end talents to choose from in recent years, with guys like Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Green and Jalen Suggs all having the potential to be some of the best players in the NBA. Detroit will have the benefit of being able to take the best player available wherever they draft, but they can’t afford to swing and miss as management has in the past with selections such as Stanley Johnson, Brandon Knight, Austin Daye and, of course, Darko Miličić.

The Pistons don’t own their second-round selection as they traded it to the 76ers before eventually becoming the property of the New York Knicks, but they do have the Toronto Raptors second-round pick via the Luke Kennard trade earlier in the offseason. In fact, if the down season in Toronto continues, Detroit might earn a solid, early second rounder. And, if they ever want to see the lofty heights of the Bad Boys era or the early 2000s teams again, the Pistons will seriously have to take advantage of those high picks.

We are only a few months into Weaver’s tenure with the team and it’s far too early to judge the roster moves he’s made thus far. That said, it’s rather bleak in Detroit right now and, with no immediate help on the way, it may be time for the Pistons to fully commit to the rebuild they’ve been avoiding for years.

Zach Dupont is a staff writer with Basketball Insiders currently living in Chicago. Zach's work has been previously featured in The Boston Globe, Boston.com and The Basketball Tournament.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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