Currently sitting 18-21 and 10th in the Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons are decidedly not where they anticipated being at the beginning of the season.
Preseason consensus predicted that the Pistons would approach a high playoff seed by an internal improvement. This was a team built around consistency - all five members of last season’s starting lineup would return, and key acquisitions looked to fortify a bench that was among the league’s weakest.
Of course, no matter how solid-sounding Detroit’s plan of action was, it has not worked. Even more troubling is the fact that the team’s struggles cannot be blamed on one individual underperforming or causing strife.
Luckily, the Pistons, along with every other NBA franchise, are given an opportunity to improve themselves at the annual trade deadline. Even with their struggles so far, Detroit shouldn’t be looking to make too many blockbuster deals. They still have a nice young core in place, but that doesn't mean there aren’t moves to be made that would strengthen the team for this season or the years to come.
Trade #1: Marcus Morris for Patrick Patterson + Norman Powell
This is a definite “sell” move on the Pistons’ part, sending out a starter and tertiary scorer and getting an expiring contract and bench player in return. The Raptors are in huge need of a starting-caliber power forward, and although Morris has played mostly on the wing, he has the body and size necessary to slot in at the four. He’s not a perfect fit for the Raptors offense but certainly an upgrade over Pascal Siakam and Patrick Patterson, who the Pistons receive here. Patterson is a traditional stretch four similar to Jon Leuer, but he is on an expiring contract, giving the Pistons more cap room next free agency.
Powell is the main prize in this scenario, a second-year shooting guard on a great contract who shoots 37 percent from three-point range. If the Pistons hold out for more value, they could potentially get Terrence Ross instead, who, like Powell, is a capable three-point shooter on the wing.
This deal provides a short-term boost and long-term flexibility to the Raptors no matter who they give up - Morris is making under $5 million for the next three years, which would allow them to spend max money in retaining star point guard Kyle Lowry. Toronto should be looking to buy, so Van Gundy and company would be foolish not to explore their trade options up north.
Trade #2: Ish Smith for Ben McLemore + Malachi Richardson
The Kings are in a strange place on the fringe of the eight seed in the West where they could become either a buyer or a seller at the deadline. Here, I’m assuming they are making an effort at the playoffs by bolstering their point guard position. Both Darren Collison and Ty Lawson are on one-year deals, so Smith’s reasonable contract is attractive both in its price and length.
In return, the Pistons get a reclamation project in McLemore, who has yet to show potential as a rotational player. Provided the Pistons don’t put up McLemore’s five million dollar qualifying offer, he will become an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Richardson was drafted late in the first round but has played only 32 minutes so far during his rookie season. For the Pistons, both players represent low-risk investments that could potentially become valued assets with time. Should McLemore thrive in a new location, Detroit could bring him back as a restricted free agent next summer simply by putting forth his qualifying offer. Richardson is still in the first year of his rookie contract, meaning the Pistons can control his services for at least the next four seasons.
In giving up Smith, Detroit loses its backup point guard, presumably plugging in Beno Udrih in his place. Udrih played fairly well in backup up Smith while starter Reggie Jackson was injured, which gives the Pistons’ front office confidence in making a move. How interested the Kings are in buying remains to be seen, but if they are, this might be worth a look.
Trade #3: Stanley Johnson for Mario Hezonja
Two struggling teams are exchanging disappointing prospects in this deal. Both Hezonja and Johnson have seen their minutes and production decrease in their second year in the league, as I mentioned last week.
Hezonja was billed as a skilled jump shooter and slasher coming into the league but has struggled with efficiency, shooting just 26 percent from behind the arc and 35 percent overall. In addition to his offensive struggles, he doesn’t have near the defensive abilities of Johnson either, posting a minus-1.9 defensive box plus-minus.
We’ve seen reports that Stan Van Gundy and Johnson have clashed in the past, although we don’t know just how far the rift between the two has gone. In this deal, it’s pretty safe to say that the disconnect would have to be relatively great to get the trade wheels oiled.
Given how little we’ve seen out of Hezonja thus far, it may seem extremely unlikely that any team would come calling for his services, but his price should be low. Teams usually prefer to keep their prospects around for the length of the rookie deals for fear that they find success elsewhere, but if Detroit is looking for another risk-reward play, they might want to check out Orlando.
Even though they aren’t in the best of positions, it’s tough to see a trade scenario that truly makes the Pistons better both in the short term. Most of the ideas mentioned above are most likely a bit of a stretch - the team is probably better off staying put as is. That being said, if they do deal a player, look for Ish Smith or Marcus Morris to hit the road due to their attractive contracts and somewhat expendable role for Detroit.