February 25, 2024

The Pistons had a wild trade deadline, rectifying what they should have done this summer

LOS ANGELES — Well, that wasn’t quiet.

The Detroit Pistons made more trades than any other NBA team during trade deadline week, and at one point had 18 players on their roster. When the dust settled, Detroit got down to 15 by waiving players.

This is who the Pistons acquired and maintained this week: Simone Fontecchio, Quentin Grimes, Troy Brown Jr., Malachi Flynn, Shake Milton and Evan Fournier.

This is who left the team this week: Killian Hayes, Joe Harris, Kevin Knox, Bojan Bogdanović, Alec Burks and Monté Morris.

Since Jan. 14, factoring in the trade with the Washington Wizards that brought Detroit Mike Muscala and Danilo Gallinari for Marvin Bagley III, Isaiah Livers and second-round picks, the Pistons have added eight new players to their roster in-season. That’s not normal. If owner Tom Gores demanded “change,” he did get it, even if there was no move that shook the landscape of the NBA.

Ultimately, Detroit has spent the last few days and weeks rectifying what it didn’t do this summer: Building a roster around the margins with competent, NBA-level rotation players to complement its young core. The Pistons were too nonchalant last summer and it was a big reason for the 28-game losing streak and why this team has the worst record in the NBA.

The Pistons’ roster may not be more valuable today than it was yesterday, but the case can be made that it is better.

Let’s really talk about it using the Pistons’ 23-point loss to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 1 as an example. Detroit played Knox, Isaiah Livers, James Wiseman and Hayes a combined 71 minutes. Those four players have regularly been in the Pistons’ rotation this season, playing a minimum of 15 minutes per night. To put it nicely, they are fringe NBA players at best. They made up 33 percent of the Pistons’ rotation that night. That’s a lot of time and minutes for players who could very well not be on NBA teams next season.

Adding veteran, baseline NBA players Muscala and Gallinari improved the Pistons. Detroit is 4-7 since that trade, which added spacing to the frontcourt. That’s not a mind-blowing record, but it is a pace that would have been acceptable for a group giving a bulk of its minutes to a bunch of 20-somethings had it started that way at the beginning of the season.

Beyond that, adding Muscala and Gallinari to go alongside Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren put their young players in better spots to succeed. Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey have played with more space. Ausar Thompson, who is a poor shooter this early in his career, has been able to be used creatively as a screener in pick-and-rolls because he was often paired with a floor-spacing big. Stewart has been able to log minutes at center because there could be a shooting big next to him.

The additions of Muscala and Gallinari were very elementary on the surface, and they still are, but they were moves that pushed the Pistons toward modern-day basketball. It put the development of the team’s young prospects at the forefront.

Detroit whiffed this summer by being frugal with its $30 million in cap space. It used that to acquire Harris, a veteran who is reaching the end of his NBA career and didn’t contribute really at all on the court this season. Acquiring Morris was a good trade on the surface but the Flint, Mich., native missed 40-plus games due to injuries.

Essentially, the Pistons didn’t have an offseason for half of the season. They relied too much on their young prospects to take significant leaps and for fringe NBA players to turn into something more. Everything that could have went wrong did.

Following the trade deadline, rookie Marcus Sasser, who takes and makes a lot of shots while defending, has a clear pathway to 20-plus minutes a night. Fontecchio, who is shooting 39 percent from 3 this season, was a solid, two-way starter on a Utah Jazz team in the postseason picture. Grimes, 23, is a solid two-way wing who can shoot and defend. The same goes for Brown.

When you lay it out, yes, the Pistons gave up the two best players in any deal they made, but that is because scoring draws eyeballs. Bogdanović and Burks were elite scorers. However, that is really it. Both are 32-and-older and on many nights gave up as many points as they put in the basket. Detroit’s defense has been atrocious for much of this season when Thompson or Stewart weren’t playing, and it has been bad even with them, despite both being good defenders.

In adding the likes of Fontecchio, Grimes and Brown, Detroit gets wings who not only are solid-to-good defenders but also wings who can also make an open 3. For much of this season, the Pistons either had a forward who could defend but not make an open shot or wings who could make an open (or difficult) shot but not defend. The roster is more balanced now. Is it better? Time will tell. However, it certainly has more depth in the areas that it takes to be successful in the NBA.

With all that said, the Pistons’ deadline wasn’t perfect. They sent out a second-round pick to acquire Fontecchio, a pick that likely will be the 31st or 32nd selection in the 2024 NBA Draft.

It always felt like the return for Bogdanović would be more than just a solid young player, some seconds and expiring contracts — although I was never under the impression the Pistons were offered more than just a future first-round pick down the line from a title-contending team for Bogdanović over the last two seasons. Questions do still remain about Detroit’s asset management. All of that is true.

Yet, at the end of the day, the Pistons were never going to go anywhere with this rebuild without their core, young pieces — Cunningham, Duren, Ivey, Stewart, Thompson and Sasser — developing. Detroit wasn’t going to really put those players in the position to develop until it put players around them who best fit their strengths. It is seven months too late, but the Pistons did that this deadline. These aren’t household names, but they are NBA rotation players who can make a shot and stop a guy from scoring. That’s the baseline for most good NBA teams, but Detroit didn’t really have that until now.

The Pistons maintained all of their cap flexibility this summer even though they added so many new bodies. The organization even put itself in position to lock up Fontecchio and Grimes for the future at reasonably good prices.

Detroit had to make such drastic changes now because it didn’t over the summer. With this trade deadline, the Pistons’ decision-maker essentially admitted that the roster it constructed was flawed. Very flawed. You don’t make that many changes if that isn’t the case.

Nothing can restart the Pistons’ season. Nothing from here on out will make anyone forget that Detroit lost an NBA-record 28 straight games. Nothing will change how disastrous this season has been. However, Detroit does feel better positioned to gain momentum down the final stretch of the season because its roster is better balanced and contains, well, solid NBA players. That’s not nothing.

The Pistons still have immense pressure to have a home-run offseason this summer. They need to maximize their cap space, which projects to be the most in the NBA, whether via signings and/or trades. They may need to get creative with their likely top-five pick in this year’s draft. Nothing should be off the table for Detroit at this point beyond putting its prized possessions in the best position to succeed.

Again, it took a while. But at least Detroit did that at the trade deadline.

(Photo of Bogdanovic and Hayes: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)