Entering free agency, the Detroit Pistons were reportedly ready to match any offer sheet tendered to restricted free-agent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — up to and including the maximum salary the four-year shooting guard could receive.
“We can’t lose him,” a team source told Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press.
Evidently, a lot’s changed since the end of the season. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday afternoon that the Pistons have chosen to renounce their rights to Caldwell-Pope, pulling their qualifying offer of just under $5 million and moving the 24-year-old swingman to the unrestricted market — where he now profiles as the best free agent still available.
The decision comes on the heels of Detroit agreeing to terms on a three-year, $21 million deal with free-agent guard Langston Galloway and making a trade with the Boston Celtics to import guard Avery Bradley. Giving Galloway a deal larger than the taxpayer midlevel exception of $5.192 million “hard-capped” the Pistons, meaning that they were not allowed to exceed the “apron” — the mark $6 million above the luxury tax line, or a total team salary of $125.3 million — under any circumstances this season.
Adding Galloway put the Pistons over the salary cap, at $101.7 million in guaranteed contracts. Adding Bradley (in exchange for forward Marcus Morris) brought Detroit’s total up to about $110.8 million, only $8.5 million below the tax line and $14.5 million below the apron. There was no way they’d be able to bring Caldwell-Pope back without going over that line, which they’re not able to do without offloading major-league money; and so, KCP hits the market.
Detroit clearly decided it didn't want to pay KCP a max deal. Every move it made this summer backs that theory up.
— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) July 7, 2017
Caldwell-Pope’s not a star-caliber performer, but moving on from him represents a real risk for the Pistons. Bradley is the better player right now — the more versatile offensive player, the more dogged (if smaller) defender — but Detroit has sacrificed the chance to pay arguably its steadiest contributor for the next four seasons to bring in a replacement who’s two years older and who’ll hit unrestricted free agency next summer, and who could command an even higher pay day.
Pistons have more $100 committed for 2018-19 already. How much are they willing to pay Avery Bradley next summer?
— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) July 7, 2017
Given the possibility of Bradley bolting in 12 months, this is a pretty significant vote of confidence in a crop of swingmen that includes combo guard Galloway, 2015 first-rounder Stanley Johnson (who struggled in his second season), 2016 second-round choice Michael Gbinije and 2017 first-round pick Luke Kennard. Time will tell whether head coach/president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy made the right call on which wings to value.
The big question now: what kind of market will there really be for the services of Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game in Detroit last season?
In a vacuum, Caldwell-Pope looks like a catch — a 6-foot-5 shooting guard capable of defending both backcourt positions well, a reliable enough 3-point shooter who hit a just-below-league-average 35 percent of his long ball tries last season on five attempts per game (and whose accuracy might tick up playing in an offense with better spacing surrounded by more weapons) and a 24-year-old for who should be about to enter his prime. He hasn’t developed into much of a ball-handler or playmaker in Detroit, he doesn’t get to the foul line much, and he’s just a 40.5 percent career shooter from the field, but in today’s NBA, none of that’s a death knell for a perimeter player’s financial hopes. D up and hit threes, and you’ll get paid. (Heck, even if you can’t do the latter, you can still get eight figures a year. Just ask Andre Roberson.)
In context, though, many NBA teams have already done the bulk of their free-agent shopping, including a pair of teams that might have looked like prospective suitors — the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks — before tying up their available salary cap space by signing other restricted free agent wings to offer sheets. The Nets just offered Washington Wizards forward Otto Porter a four-year max deal, and will likely be unable to make a big bid for KCP for six days. The Knicks, meanwhile, gave Tim Hardaway Jr. a four-year, $71 million offer, and won’t have any money to spend unless the Atlanta Hawks decide to match that sheet.
With few teams remaining flush with cash, Caldwell-Pope might have to take a short-term deal — the Los Angeles Lakers might be interested in such an arrangement — or hope that a team with prior engagements decides to change course to make a move on a player they might not previously have thought available. Atlanta, for instance, could let Hardaway walk to New York and take a run at KCP; Philadelphia, too, might benefit from pushing for another defensive-minded wing who can shoot to slot in along the wing. (Any teams looking to add Caldwell-Pope will do so knowing that he’s going to miss the first two games of next season serving a suspension “for pleading guilty to operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, in violation of the law of the State of Michigan.”)
In a league that’s thin at shooting guard and in which it’s more important than ever to find young players who can shoot from outside and dampen high-octane perimeter scorers, a player like Caldwell-Pope seems like a perfect fit for a lot of teams. A Pistons team with one playoff appearance in eight years decided he wasn’t one for them, though, so he’s on the outside looking in. The NBA gets weird in the first couple of weeks of July; now, Caldwell-Pope sets out in search of a new normal, and a new home.
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