The Detroit Pistons entered the offseason as one of the most intriguing teams to watch. Under Stan Van Gundy, the franchise has been impulsive and unpredictable. Anything seemed possible. An Andre Drummond trade? Sure, why not? Maxing out restricted free agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope? He did it with Reggie Jackson. Overpaying a mediocre role player? It’s almost a tradition by this point.
Instead, Detroit mostly stood pat. The Pistons did make a trade and added a couple of free agents, but there were no huge moves this time. It’s still early, but it seems Van Gundy is finally learning to think like an executive.
Van Gundy is widely respected as a coach, but he has a checkered past as president of basketball operations. His decision to hold on to Josh Smith only to waive him later still haunts the franchise. Smith, who is out of the league likely for good, will be on the books until 2020. Van Gundy let Greg Monroe go because he played the same position as his best player, then spent serious money on two backup centers anyway. He also overpaid Jon Leuer to be his stretch power forward after a career year that was a complete anomaly.
Those are just some of his most questionable decisions. There were good moves peppered in — the Tobias Harris trade, the addition of Ish Smith — but not enough of them to mitigate the bad ones. Instead of building slowly and methodically, the Pistons just made moves and signings in the hope of returning to relevancy sooner rather than later. It didn’t seem like there was a concrete plan. Just impulsive reactions to adversity.
Things might be starting to change. The trade that sent Marcus Morris to Boston for Avery Bradley is a perfect example of that. It was a small move, but one that had significant positive repercussions.
The first reason why the deal is smart is obvious. Morris is a decent combo forward on a really good contract, but he shouldn’t be a starter on a playoff team. He’s replaceable. Bradley, meanwhile, is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He should be able to guard point guards so Jackson doesn’t have to fill that role. He’s also a knockdown shooter and crafty cutter who can play off the ball. Essentially, he’s the fully realized version of what they were hoping Caldwell-Pope would become. The Pistons clearly upgraded at the shooting guard position.
The knock on the deal is that it could just be a rental. Bradley will become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. He could leave. If he doesn’t, he’ll become expensive. There’s a decent chance, however, that he’ll be cheaper than the player he’s replacing. Caldwell-Pope was reportedly asking for an exorbitant amount of money for a player of his caliber. Adding Bradley allowed Van Gundy to avoid making such a huge commitment, or at least postpone it to next summer. Detroit has conserved some cap flexibility, which is always a good thing.
There’s even a third positive aspect to the move: It should have a positive impact in the locker room. Neither Drummond nor Jackson are vocal leaders. Morris filled that void. Unfortunately, he was critical of the style of play the roster was built around. He wanted more ball movement and to be more involved on offense instead of giving Jackson the ball in the pick and roll. Bradley, meanwhile, was a positive leader on a team that thrived because of its chemistry. He’s also used to deferring to a high usage point guard after playing with Isaiah Thomas. He should have no problem with the offense.
Van Gundy nailed the biggest move, but he also did well on the edges of the roster. Instead of overpaying for role players, this time the Pistons looked for bargains. Aron Baynes opted out of his contract, so they replaced him with the cheaper Eric Moreland. They also inked Langston Galloway to an adequate contract fresh off his most prolific and efficient season as a 3-point shooter. Those two shouldn’t play big roles, but should be able to contribute if needed.
The same applies to Luke Kennard, the Pistons’ first-round pick. He doesn’t project to be a star, but he has one NBA skill that the team can use: shooting. He shot 48 percent from beyond the arc in summer league, which suggests he won’t struggle that much to adjust to the deeper NBA 3-point line. Former first-round picks Henry Ellenson and Stanley Johnson should get a better chance to show their worth as well, now that Morris is gone. Despite losing KCP, the Pistons still have plenty of young talent.
Van Gundy has simply handled this offseason beautifully so far. Instead of trying to make splashy additions or holding on to an expensive core that has been nothing but mediocre, he was pragmatic. He didn’t overreact to a disappointing season, knowing that injuries played a part in it. Since the East will be terrible, standing pat while others get worse should be enough for the Pistons to make the playoffs. So that’s what they did.
There was nothing particularly interesting or unusual about the Pistons’ offseason. It’s for the best, really. Their bold moves have rarely panned out. In the NBA, it’s better to have a plan and calmly execute, rather than reacting and hoping for the best. It appears that’s what Detroit is doing now.
It might have taken a little longer than many expected, but Van Gundy seems to be learning from his mistakes. Sometimes playing it safe is the right decision.