Detroit Pistons salary cap haunted by ghost of Blake Griffin’s contract

Blake Griffin (2) is defended by Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9). Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Blake Griffin (2) is defended by Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9). Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports /
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Cory Joseph Detroit Pistons
Detroit Pistons guard Cory Joseph (18) goes to the basket. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports /

Detroit Pistons salary cap problems: How did we get here?

So how is a team filled with rookies, or those still on their rookie contracts, end up being $30 million over the salary cap? Well, it’s complicated.

First, there is $39 million in ‘cap holds’ for players who are free agents. This includes players from rookie Saben Lee, who Detroit almost definitely wants to return, to a Dennis Smith Jr. (at a whopping $17 million hold) who is doubtful to come back. 

The cap holds are merely placeholders. They do not count towards the Luxury Tax and renouncing them does not add any additional cap space, since Detroit is over-the-cap (so weird to write that about a team that went 20-52).

If Lee and others like Wayne Ellington, Frank Jackson and, importantly, Hamidou Diallo do sign new contracts with Detroit, their cap holds will end and their real salary will be counted. When a player signs with another team, the cap hold also terminates.

Related Story. Detroit Pistons: Why Troy Weaver is right about Hamidou Diallo. light

Diallo is expected to have interest from other clubs. It will take a decent offer to retain him. He is coming off a rookie contract that only paid him a little over $1.6 million for this past season. Diallo will get a lot more than that.

The good news is that Diallo is a restricted free agent, so the Pistons can retain him by matching another team’s offer. How high that offer may go is one of the big questions of the off-season.

Players with Pistons optionality

The biggest part of Detroit’s salary cap, unsurprisingly, are the contracts of players actually on the team – about $71 million.

However, of the 12 players on the roster with contracts for the 2021-22 season, three of them are not fully guaranteed.

Tyler Cook has no guaranteed money for next season, and Rodney McGruder and Cory Joseph each have team options that, if not picked up, would cost Detroit very little (McGruder nothing, Joseph $2.4 million).

If all three were let go, Detroit would save about $20 million in cap space. Of course, Weaver and coach Dwane Casey might want to keep all three. Weaver has stated he wants veterans on the team.

Since coming over from Sacramento in the Delon Wright trade, Joseph has played well. Almost too well, as his fine play keyed a late-season win over the Memphis Grizzlies that almost cost Detroit some lottery positioning.

McGruder has been a team leader and a good utility guard for Casey. Cook was impressive after being picked up late in the season for his hustle and grit.

So the Pistons have some optionality with those three. Could keep them all, get rid of them all, or keep a couple. Another thing to watch during the off-season.

Now, when it comes to Dead Money, the ghost of Blake Griffin’s contract looms large.