When Joe D shipped Chauncey Billups to Denver for Allen Iverson, the fact that the Pistons got A.I.’s services on the court for the rest of the season was just an added bonus. Whether A.I. actually meshed with the Pistons was irrelevant. The main reason—and likely only reason—Joe D made the trade was because of the insane amount of cap space it freed up for the Pistons. With the expiring contracts of Iverson and Rasheed Wallace alone, the Pistons will shed roughly $35.5 million at the end of this season which translates to roughly $22 million in spending money since teams can't go over the cap through free agency. That combined with the money that comes off the books next season could give the Pistons close to $30 million to burn during the “Summer of Lebron.” Trading Rip Hamilton and his incredibly reasonable contract would free up close to $40 million.
Joe D has put the Pistons in great shape cap-wise. However, it’s not going to be easy to turn that money into elite production. While the 2010 NBA free agent class has to be considered one of the greatest free agent classes in sports history, the 2009 class is putrid. It’s so bad that Jon Koncak could probably come out of retirement in July and sign a max contract. I’m not even going to try to put the available unrestricted free agents in order of importance but the list goes a little something like this: Ben Gordon, Jason Kidd, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion, Andre Miller, and Anthony Parker. None are worthy of a max contract. Clearly, these guys are quality players but the fact that they are the best available is what makes 2009 “The Year Before The Year of LeBron.” The ‘09 class will almost certainly be joined by Carlos Boozer who has made it clear that he’s considering a nasty ending to a second NBA marriage. Al Harrington also has a Player Option. Jamal Crawford, Hedo Turkoglu, Mehmet Okur, and Kobe Bryant all have ETOs (Early Termination Option). All but Kobe are set to make under $10 million next year and—by exercising their ETOs—they can avoid the headache that would come with being second-tier free agents in the "Summer of LeBron."
There is no doubt that there are a number of players listed above who could help the Pistons next season and beyond. However, I’m sure Joe D will tell you that he’d rather spend his money on the massive haul of elite players in the 2010 free agent class. Joe D finds himself in the unenviable position of having $35.5 million coming off the books a year early. He is too smart and savvy to blow his unique financial position on a long-term contract to someone like Lamar Odom or Andre Miller. He does face a few roadblocks, though. First, the NBA has a salary floor. This season, the floor is roughly $44 million. The Pistons only have $33 million attributed to next year’s cap. It the floor doesn’t change, Joe D will have to spend over $10 million to get above the floor. The second problem is that NBA players rarely, if ever, sign one-year contracts. To get over the floor he’ll have to sign a free agent. To sign a free agent he’ll likely have to sign someone for more than one year. Signing someone for more than one year would seriously hamper the “Summer of LeBron” from the Pistons perspective.
Before I delve further into this, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the possibility of signing Carlos Boozer this summer. Boozer will likely be the most sought after free agent in the ’09 class. Like Elton Brand last season, Boozer’s injury will not keep teams from throwing max contracts at him. When healthy, Boozer is a force in the paint. Over the last three years, he has averaged 21 points and 11 boards while shooting over 55% from the field. The problem is that Boozer is rarely healthy. He has only averaged 60 games per year throughout his career. There is no question that Boozer’s prowess in the paint would be a welcome change from Rasheed’s paint allergies. The inside/outside game of Rodney Stuckey and Carlos Boozer would be a potent combination to go along with the addition of a max player in 2010. The first thing Joe has to do is decide if Boozer’s injury history merits a max contract. Even if he thinks it does, convincing Boozer to come to Detroit will not be easy. I’m leery of Boozer’s injury history and attitude but I also realize that the best scenario for the Pistons is to add a max contract in 2009 and then another in 2010. That would be best for the cap and it would guarantee that the Pistons don’t come away with nothing if nobody wants to sign with Detroit in 2010. So, I’m OK with looking into Boozer.
If the Pistons can grab Boozer this summer, then great. However, if Joe D takes the risk on going after Boozer and then comes up empty, there could be some problems. Intentionally being under the salary cap floor to preserve the money for 2010 might be a consideration. The penalty for not reaching the salary cap floor is a surcharge that is given to the players. Asking Rasheed and Iverson to take one-year contract extensions might be a consideration. I realize nobody wants to watch this team for another year but it’s better than signing Lamar Odom for five years; also A.I. and Rasheed are unlikely to make more next year with another team than what they make this year so a one-year extenseion might interest them. The other option is a trade. Amare Stoudemire and Chris Bosh are both 2010 free agents and they are both unlikely to re-sign with their current teams. Joe might want to find out if Phoenix would trade Amare for Rasheed and some change. Rasheed would be the perfect big-man compliment to Shaq. Both Amare and the Suns are frustrated with the situation in Phoenix. The Suns are an aging franchise. Steve Kerr has to know that his team lacks chemistry. Obviously, Joe D would have to be convinced that he could get Amare to sign a long-term contract with the Pistons. I highly doubt this last scenario would happen. However, it is a way to avoid wasting money on second-tier players 2009 and the possibility of getting shutout in 2010. Getting someone like Amare now should still give the Pistons the opportunity to go shopping for a max contract in 2010.
I realize Joe D could simply go after Shawn Marion or Lamar Odom this summer and then try to bring in a max player next summer. He would probably even end up with a decent team; but “decent” isn’t good enough. His goal needs to be what Danny Ainge was able to accomplish with the Celtics. In the NBA, you need great—not good—players to win championships. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen are superstars because they can score inside and outside and play great defense. They score tough baskets and routinely make big shots. Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom are nowhere near that level. In fact, none of the 2009 free agents with the exception of Carlos Boozer fit that category. It is incredibly rare for a franchise to have as much cap space as the Pistons in a year with as much talent as the “Summer of LeBron.” Having the money to spend is the easy part. Making the right moves is where it gets difficult—especially in a market like Detroit. I just have two requests: 1) I hope Joe D maximizes the talent he chooses to spend his money on and 2) I hope Joe D has been thinking about this as much as me (preferably more).