Should the Detroit Pistons trade down in the NBA draft?

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Khyri Thomas #13 and Bruce Brown #6 of the Detroit Pistons pose for a portrait at media day on September 24, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)
DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 24: Khyri Thomas #13 and Bruce Brown #6 of the Detroit Pistons pose for a portrait at media day on September 24, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images) /

The Detroit Pistons have the 15th pick in this year’s draft. It’s a tough spot to make a pick, given the team’s cap situation, the roster needs and what the board projects to look like according to recent mocks.

Ku Khahil already explained why the Pistons should keep the pick. While Martin Mansour covered the opposite side of the argument. In this piece, I explore a third option. The Detroit Pistons should move down the draft and here’s why.

The cap situation

Assuming Glenn Robinson’s team option is declined, the Detroit Pistons will roughly have 16 million to spend this summer before they go into tax territory. The rookie picked at 15th will earn over 2.7 million dollars, while rookies that will be selected late in the first round will earn closer to 1.6 million.

By trading down the Pistons could kill two birds with one stone, as they could give roughly the same amount of money to two rookies instead of one. Rookie contracts are extremely important these days, especially for teams that lack cap space. The production that young players offer, in combination with the salary control over many years, adds substantial value to the roster.

The roster needs

Right now on the team, there is one point guard, five shooting guards, zero small forwards, and four bigs. Even in the era of position-less basketball, a team must have big wings that can play either forward spot. Most teams have lots of them. The other teams are desperate to get them.

A starting small forward is likely to be added using the MLE and Casey likes to use three-guard bench lineups. Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown and Svi Mykhailiuk will likely get time at that spot. However, all those guys are undersized at the wing compared to the rest of the league. Mykhailiuk is the biggest wing on the roster right now.

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Thon Maker and Jon Leuer as the backup bigs leave a lot to be desired. While both can play either power forward or center, neither can do so reliably. Thon Maker’s frame makes him a liability against stronger players, which is seemingly everybody in the league, while Jon Leuer is a big question mark.

Back up point guard will be addressed in free agency, but we saw what happens when your third guard can’t give you quality minutes. The “Jose effect”, which is the opposite of the “Tolliver effect” was a major reason for the Pistons slump during the season. Third-string point guard is a matter that should be taken seriously.

The board

At 15, most of the draft’s big wings are projected not to be on the board, at least the good ones. Brandon Clarke, Sekou Doumbouya, Cam Reddish and Nassir Little could be good choices if still left but that doesn’t seem like a real possibility.  Bol Bol will be likely gone as well. If any of the guys high on the drafting board fall, then, by all means, make that pick. But what if that doesn’t happen?

The Pistons will probably be left with small wings like Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Romeo Langford, Kevin Porter Jr, Tyler Hero, Keldon Johnson or power forwards like Grant Williams, P.J Washington, Rui Hachimura. Those are the players projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round and the Pistons should not succumb to the pressure to pick one of those guys.

It’d be hard to imagine the Pistons adding another guard. There’s a logjam already. Most of the smaller wings I listed above are primary or secondary options on their team and that’s where their value comes from. Romeo Langford, for example, is projected to be picked at 15 by most recent mocks but I don’t see a role for him right away. He doesn’t space the floor or defend at a high level, so are the Pistons supposed to give the ball to him and let him score? That doesn’t seem like a real possibility.

The forwards I listed above are solid prospects and a pick like that could make sense. The problem is that none of those seem like they could slide into the small forward role or have the size to move up a spot. They’d face the challenge of competing with Blake Griffin for minutes, which means they won’t see the floor much if Griffin stays healthy.

On top of that, Maker and Leuer occupy the same position and, no matter what you think of them, will be competing for minutes. Drafting a pure power forward with the 15th pick and the 2.7 million that the Pistons will owe him seems like a waste of resources.  Not exactly the type of player you would like to add at that range, but one or more of them could slip. Getting Grant Williams, for example, in the 20s seems like solid value when you account for the drop in salary and the extra assets that a “trade-down” move would bring.

KZ Okpala is another candidate to consider. He has more than enough length for the wing, but the lack of strength would make him a project. On top of that, he doesn’t possess an elite skill at the college level that would translate right away. All that suggests that he’ll have trouble seeing the court early in his career and I don’t think the Pistons can afford that if they pick at 15. But, if they get him later in the draft, along with another prospect, a player like Okpala is a worthy bet.

While other teams might prefer to go for the lottery tickets, Ed Stefanski showed in last year’s draft that he’ll pick players with at least one NBA quality. The late first round has some guys that I think can contribute right away.

The trade

The Bostons Celtics have the 14th, the 20th and the 22nd pick in the draft. They’ll certainly be looking to move up the draft and the 15th pick would be intriguing to them. The Pistons can trade down and pick two times in the 20s and add two young players that project to be rotation players right away.

The Brooklyn Nets are another potential trade partner as they have the 27th and the 31st pick in the draft as well as the 17th. The 1st pick of the second round is especially intriguing because it’s not a guaranteed contract. It’s also really cheap.

Lastly, the 76ers have the 24th, 33rd, 34th picks in the draft. The number of teams with multiple picks in that range makes a trade much easier for the Pistons. Those teams wouldn’t necessarily prefer to add three or more rookies to their roster.

The age conundrum

Most teams will pick young guys in the first round, which gives the Pistons the opportunity to add older, but more reliable prospects. Exactly like they did last year when they added Khyri Thomas and Bruce Brown. Those two slipped in the draft because of their age and every year in the draft there are high impact players that teams ignore for the same reason.

Drafting juniors and seniors means that they’ll get players that are closer to their prime, making their four-year rookie contract that much more valuable. In addition, such players have the obvious experience advantage that allows them to fit in more easily and contribute right away. Brogdon, Bell and Siakam come to mind as recent examples and I’m sure you can add more to the list in the comments.

Some players take longer to develop and are punished in the draft because of it. Others show up early but flame out later on. It seems like a good strategy for the Pistons, a team that has few ways to add talent to the roster, to aim for the more experienced players that will be able to find a place on the floor and fit in a small role.

It’s a strategy most good teams, like the Bucks, the Raptors and the Warriors follow to add rotation players to complement their primary options. With players like Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson, Andre Drummond and Luke Kennard taking up the minutes and the usage the Pistons need to add low-to-mid usage players and make perimeter defense a priority. God knows they need more perimeter defense.

The sleepers

Matisse Thybulle
Arguably the best defender in the draft and a capable set shooter. Thybulle has been a 36 percent shooter from 3-point range in 4 years of college on a very solid volume. His perimeter defense is what intrigues me though. Combine his physical tools (7′ wingspan) with elite awareness and you get a unique ability to contest shots and guard the passing lanes at the wing. His otherworldly steal and block numbers are strong indicators of elite defensive ability and compare him with elite NBA defenders as Ben Rubin of the Stepien notes.  In Thybulle the Pistons could find an Andre Roberson type of defender that can do all the little things on offense to contribute as a fourth or fifth option. If his shooting translates we could be looking at Robert Covington kind of value. At the very least, he’s Thabo Sefolosha who has had a long career as an NBA role player.

Cameron Johnson
Another 3&D option emphasis on the 3. Many describe Johsnon as the best shooter of the draft and deservedly so. It’s not often for a college player to shoot 45.7 percent on over ten attempts per 100 possessions. Over his college career, he’s made 40 percent of his 3-point shots, 80 percent of his free throws and he’s been very efficient overall with a 60 percent true shooting percentage. On top of that, he’s improved his defense to a point where you can feel comfortable about him defending NBA players. Measured at 6’8″ at the Combine with a 6’10” wingspan he possesses prototypical tools for the small forward position and has the size and strength to play power forward in small ball lineups. There’s no reason to believe Cam Johnson won’t immediately be a good NBA shooter, which combined with his size and feel for the game suggest he’ll be able to find a role right away.  That’s great value late in the first round.

Talen Horton-Tucker
This pick kind of goes against my logic so far. That’s because Tucker hasn’t proved he can contribute in an off-ball role. But if we trade down and have two picks in the same draft, I would very much like this pick. Tucker has elite physical tools (over 7’1″ wingspan) as Givony notes below.

His inability to shoot efficiently is definitely a roadblock but the potential is too great to pass up if he’s still left late in the first or early in the second. The defensive versatility alone could keep him on the floor and taking the ball away from him could actually help his efficiency. We know he can defend, we know that he can get to the rim and finish efficiently. Those are traits that could help the 18-year old (!) prospect get minutes while he develops his shooting ability to pair with his advanced ball handling.

Goga Bitadze
While Bitadze doesn’t offer the positional versatility the other guys offer, he is projected to be a great prospect at center. While he won’t turn 20 until June, he’s already proven that he can compete with the pros. He played more than 23 minutes per game in the Euroleague, an impressive feat on its own for a player his age, and he produced. He has the touch and footwork to finish efficiently around the rim, even against length and through contact. On defense, Bidadze is projected to be a good shot blocker in the NBA and has improved his ability to show/hedge on pick&rolls. He is fluid for his size, 6’11” height and 7’2″ wingspan, and a capable passer at his position. However, his potential comes from his shooting ability. At a young age, he’s shown great shooting mechanics and rhythm. Teams will have an opportunity to see his development during workouts which will drive up his draft stock. Bidadze may not be a sleeper for long. If not, the Pistons can get a solid back up big man prospect, with starter potential in the 20s of the draft.

Ignas Brazdeikis
Another 3&D prospect that can fit into an off-ball role immediately. Brazdeikis may not possess the length of Thybulle and Johnson, but he would be a great prospect to add early in the second round. He’s a player that has a great feel for the game, like everybody else on the list, he is a 39 percent 3-point shooter on a decent volume and can score on all three levels.  The Detroit Pistons already seem to be interested.

Jontay Porter
The definition of a stretch five prospect. Porter projects to be an excellent spot-up threat at the NBA level. He is a great pick&pop threat and combined with his excellent passing ability he could become a really dangerous offensive player in a small role. On defense, he has displayed really good instincts. I really like his footwork and anticipation on that end. He is a big body with solid length. An excellent post defender and a good rebounder. I like Porter for the Pistons because he offers qualities at the center position that Thon Maker lacks. He could see situational minutes right away, especially besides Blake Griffin.

Luka Samanic

A 6’11” forward with solid perimeter skills and a great feel for the game. Samanic is really fluid for his size and can either shoot or attack from the perimeter. There’s potential for him to even play small forward in the NBA. The most impressive thing about him is the way he moves of the ball which results in lots of opportunistic buckets. He can fit in seamlessly with the Pistons and contribute in a small role. This is what Givony had to say about him during the NBA Draft Combine.

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To conclude, the situation this year allows the Detroit Pistons to trade down in the draft and add two players for the price of one. There are multiple teams with the incentive to make that trade. The Pistons need to add as many valuable contracts as they can. The players around the 15 range are mostly guards and power forwards anyway, so a move to trade down some spots could still get them the player they want. Plus they get to add another promising prospect.