When news of Jerami Grant’s trade broke, resulting in the Detroit Pistons creating an additional $ 20 million in cap space, everybody’s focus shifted to free agency and the franchise’s supposed interest in Phoenix Suns’ restricted free agent DeAndre Ayton.
The fit made sense as the Pistons are looking for more beef up front to complement the skilled but undersized Isaiah Stewart. It also helps that Ayton is a former No. 1 pick who is looking for an opportunity for a bigger role. He is only 23 and brings exactly what the Pistons are looking for out of a complementary big man to Isaiah Stewart, even if it comes at a steep, post-rookie max price point.
The Pistons, armed with droves of cap space, could certainly swing it, so went the conventional wisdom. That conventional wisdom lasted all of about 24 hours, and now things are much less clear.
As the dust has settled on the NBA draft and the realization came that the Pistons walked away with two lottery picks in Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren that also might be the two athletic players at their positions, the addition of Duren should spell the end of the Pistons DeAndre Ayton pursuit.
For starters, teams winning championships are not investing heavily in the center position. Look at the starting centers on the last few championship teams. Kevon Looney, Brook Lopez, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol (he is an outlier as he has a bigger salary, but was playing a lesser role with the Raptors), the list goes on.
This is not to say you shouldn’t have a big man star. But unless that big man star has a skillset like a Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, it is better to go the cheaper route at the center position.
This is not to say that DeAndre Ayton is not worth the salary he is going to receive. He is a good player who provides value on both ends of the court. He might be a bit overpaid, but it wouldn’t be like overpaying a role player.
However, the Pistons now have an opportunity to go the way of the contenders and invest more in other positions while having two cost-controlled centers that complement each other’s skillsets.
In Isaiah Stewart, the Pistons have a ferocious rebounder who can switch on defense and potentially step out and shoot from range. In Duren, the Pistons have an athletic freak who brings a ton of gravity as a pick and roll finisher as well as being a ferocious shot blocker. He brings the height the Isaiah Stewart lacks while Stewart brings the floor spacing that Duren will lack.
The combined skills of Stewart and Duren can come close to what you are hoping to get out of Ayton for like a third of the price. This allows you to invest in solid wing players, which are usually the key to Championship winning teams.
You may not be as high on Isaiah Stewart or Duren as prospects, and that is fine. Maybe the Pistons ultimately need to upgrade the center position down the line. But for where they are currently after draft night, investing a ton of money in DeAndre Ayton doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Even if you propose moving Isaiah Stewart in a potential sign-and-trade for Ayton, what Ayton brings in terms of skillset will overlap quite a bit with Duren. There is a world where you could play Duren and Stewart together given Stewart’s theoretical ability to shoot, which you wouldn’t be able to do with Duren and Ayton. It is likely not a lineup you can play for long stretches, but there are certain matchups where it could be beneficial.
It just makes more sense to ride with Stewart and Duren (and Kelly Olynyk?) Then it does to invest heavily in a center like Ayton.
I am sure the Pistons did have interest in Ayton at the time of the Jerami Grant trade. But it was always a secondary plan if they were not able to move up for Duren in the draft, who was supposedly a huge Troy Weaver draft crush.
The pursuit of Ayton was always going to be difficult being that he is a Restricted Free Agent. Phoenix can say all that they want about not wanting to give him the max, but they are a team that is already capped out and in a short window of title contention with the aging Chris Paul. Letting somebody like Ayton walk without receiving anything back would be catastrophic to their roster building.
A sign-and-trade was always going to be the likely route to acquiring Ayton, and the Pistons would not be able to compete with an offer from a team like the Hawks unless they dip into their prospect pool, which it is probably too early to do at this point.
The idea of Ayton and making a huge splash in free agency is fun, but the best path forward is to ride it out with the young guys and use the cap space for veterans on short deals.