Quietly, the Detroit Pistons have a great summer

Mar 21, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) gets mobbed by forward Marcus Morris (13) forward Tobias Harris (34) and the rest of his teammates after the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 92-91. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (0) gets mobbed by forward Marcus Morris (13) forward Tobias Harris (34) and the rest of his teammates after the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Pistons win 92-91. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Pistons quietly prove to have a great summer as they draft Henry Ellenson, sign Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Boban Marjanovic, and re-sign Andre Drummond.

Over the last few weeks, while the Golden State Warriors were doing their best to become the New York Yankees of the NBA, while the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls were going on wild spending sprees bringing in big-named players of half a decade ago, and while the Indiana Pacers, Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks were engaging in rampant re-tooling, it was easy for Detroit Pistons’ fans to wonder why their team wasn’t doing more. However, if you looked closely, it became clear the Pistons quietly went out and had a great summer.

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Before we dive in, it must be noted that the seeds of a fruitful Pistons summer were planted back in the fall of last year by Andre Drummond and the Pistons front office.  Without great trust and willingness to work together, it would have been impossible to delay Drummond’s formal re-signing until after the season. Yet, this single move gave the Pistons approximately $13 million in additional cap space and options this summer.

For the second year in a row, president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy proved the best way for Detroit to land a big name free agent is to trade for them.  He accomplished this last year with Reggie Jackson and he appears to have struck gold again in Tobias Harris.  A year ago fans complained over missing out on Harris, but six months later Van Gundy got the player he wanted and managed to clear some extra cap space in the process.

Which brings us to, what is the quite possibly, the most fortuitous move Van Gundy made to set up this summer.  This move, or better stated, “Non-Move”, was the decision to rescind the trade for Donatas Motiejūnas.  

It may have been impossible to gauge at the time, but that single action allowed the Pistons to retain the 18th pick in this year’s draft and significant cap space.  As we now know, the pick turned into Henry Ellenson of Marquette University, who may turn out to be the steal of the draft.  

Ellenson appears to be a player much in the same mold as Motiejūnas; a floor spacing big man, with size, and strong fundamentals.  In the Orlando Summer League, where it appeared that Ellenson will need time to add strength and extend his shooting range, he showed flashes of brilliance.  

Unlike Motiejūnas, Ellenson may not be ready to contribute this year, but he is six years younger, has no nagging back injuries, and will cost the Pistons an estimated $25 million dollars less over the next four years.

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports /

Finally, we get to July 1st.  Van Gundy wasted no time in locking up the Pistons top offseason need, an upgrade at the backup point guard position.  He found his man in Ish Smith. Even though the Pistons will be Smith’s 11th team in the last six years, Detroit is destined to be home.  

Smith is a smart, athletic point guard, who is quick off the dribble and can push the offense.  He showed solid composure and leadership last year in his role as the starting point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers.  Although Smith might not have been the flashiest name on the market for the backup point roll, he will prove to be exactly what the Pistons need; a great locker room presence and a spark plug off the bench who can put the ball in the basket.

After a mysterious meeting and a miss on Al Horford, Van Gundy moved on to plan B and within hours he landed Jon Leuer.  Leuer, a mobile big man, with three-point range and solid rebounding, will prove to be an excellent lynch pin in the second unit and a superb compliment to Drummond when playing alongside him.  

His ability to pick and pop, spot up, and hit threes on the kick out, will give the Pistons even better floor spacing ability.  His 8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 38.2 three-point percentage in just 18 minutes per game will translate well and possibly improve when he feels the freedom generated by Drummond’s gravitational pull on defenders.


Last but certainly not least on the free agent front, Van Gundy made a witty move swooping in and making a three-year, $21 million dollar offer on San Antonio Spurs restricted free agent and fan favorite, Boban Marjanovic.  While the move might leave many fans scratching their heads, this deal may prove to be a signature Stan Van Gundy Swipe.  

With a cap situation of use it or lose it, Van Gundy saw an opportunity to steal the “BIG MAN” from the Spurs.  After signing Pau Gasol, Van Gundy understood the Spurs would be in a tough position to retain the big man’s services, and they would be forced to let him walk.

Related Story: Detroit Pistons' bench profile

Towering at 7-foot-3, 290 lbs, he looked like a man among children when on the court for the Spurs last season.  Even though he was used sparingly in his rookie season, he did manage to have the third highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) for players to appear in more than 25 games in the NBA.  At a PER of 27.7, almost double the league average, Marjanovic is sandwiched between Stephen Curry (32.9), Kevin Durant (32.0), Russell Westbrook (27.6), and LeBron James (27.5).

While advanced statistics may not guarantee success, and his numbers are largely a result of great output in very few minutes, his huge frame, excellent footwork, and soft touch around the basket, absolutely suggest he could thrive in an expanded role.  In the end, with the rising salary cap, the structure of his deal, and his potential; this signing has excellent upside and very little risk.

When you factor in the likelihood of Aron Baynes opting out of his contract next season, and the fact that any unspent cap space would have been lost with the resigning of Andre Drummond, this deal was a no brainer.

Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

While we are on the topic of salary cap, landing Ish Smith and Jon Leuer for three years and $18 million and four years and $41 million respectively was a bargain.  At first glance, paying backups between $6 and $10 million per year seems crazy, but before we have anyone committed, we must take into consideration the massive rise in the salary cap, from $70 million in 2015-2016 to $94 million in 2016-2017.  

Essentially, the $6 million Ish Smith will make this year and the $11 million owed to Jon Leuer is equal to $4.5 million and $8.2 million respectively in 2015 salary cap dollars.  To put that in perspective, last year the $4.5 million dollar range would have garnered a Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris or Mario Chalmers level talent at the backup point guard position, and $8.5 million is just a little more than the Pistons paid out to Ersan Ilyasova.  

In fact the player Jon Leuer will replace, Anthony Tolliver, will be making about $8 million per season with the Kings over the next two seasons.  When you adjust for the 34 percent raise in the salary cap this year, as well as an additional 8 percent cap raise next year, combined with age and talent level of Leuer and Smith, it is easy to see the Pistons may have been a little more financially savvy than thought at first glance.

Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

With this offseason, the Pistons managed to lock down one of the youngest and most talented starting cores in the NBA, but the real win may be the significantly improved bench and the future promise of Marjanovic and Ellenson.  One of the Pistons’ greatest struggles last year was the play of the bench.  

From a production standpoint, last year’s Piston starters were fantastic.  Looking at the plus/minus of the roster, you will see that the starters were among the best in the league, while unfortunately, the bench was almost last which led to the regularly surrendered leads and unnecessary losses.  

The added depth, firepower, and athleticism to the second unit should fix the problem.  Moreover, with the plethora of young talent, affordable contracts, and depth, the Pistons have given themselves a rock solid foundation and the future trade flexibility they may need to take the next step towards championship contention.  

Next: Grading the Detroit Pistons' offseason

When the season begins and all the noise has finally subsided, it will be clear that the Pistons, quietly, have had a great summer.