The most likely player that the improving Pistons might trade in the coming months hasn’t stepped on the court this season. For a variety of reasons, point guard Brandon Jennings looms as the best bargaining chip the team possesses without moving one of its building blocks.
Jennings is clearly expendable given the current state of the roster and blueprint that coach and team president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy has outlined to turn the floundering franchise into a perennial contender once again. Jennings has an expiring contract, and it’s sizeable enough at $8,344,497 to attract the interest of clubs seeking salary-cap relief for next season.
It’s also obvious that Jennings isn’t in Van Gundy’s long-term plans. That was readily apparent when the Pistons acquired restricted free agent and point guard Reggie Jackson from the Thunder at the trade deadline last February. Van Gundy swiftly made it known that the move wasn’t a short-term fix and backed up that talk by signing Jackson to a five-year, $80MM contract over the summer.
The Pistons may have taken a different approach if Jennings hadn’t suffered a season-ending injury the month before the Jackson trade. He tore his left Achilles tendon during a game against his former team, the Bucks, and the rehab has been so prolonged that he’s still in recovery mode. Prior to the injury, he was playing his best ball of the season, averaging 20.9 points and 7.2 assists in the month of January.
The Pistons have targeted a Christmastime return for Jennings, and with Steve Blake and Spencer Dinwiddie backing up Jackson, they don’t want him to return until he’s fully recovered. While he has been practicing and scrimmaging, Jennings has to prove he can be effective.
“He doesn’t have his quickness back,” Van Gundy said late last month. “He’s a ways away but he’s getting there. He can do pretty much everything. It’s just getting back into being able to play at that tempo. There’s definitely been progress but he’s still a ways away.”
Naturally, Jennings could pump up his trade value if he jumps into the Pistons’ rotation and shows some of his old form. Jennings realizes that he’s going to have to accept a second-unit role when he puts on the uniform again.
“Always in my head [I am a starter],” Jennings said recently. “But sometimes you’ve got to take the back seat and do what is best for the team.”
As an unrestricted free agent, Jennings has every incentive to make a strong comeback, rather than give potential suitors lingering doubts about his long-term health. It’s significant to note that Jennings is just 26 years old and if he regains that explosion, he’s an above-average player. He’s never had a season PER lower than 15.0, which is the league average rating.
Until he re-establishes his worth, Jennings is likely to stay put until the trade deadline approaches. At that time, as David Mayo of MLive.com points out, the Pistons will have three reserve point guards with trade value. Jennings would have the most value because of his large expiring deal, while Blake — who is making $2.17MM this season — will have a more affordable expiring contract. Dinwiddie, a second-year player, could attract some attention with his size (6’6”) and length but obviously wouldn’t bring back much in return.
The short-term boost that Jennings could provide to the Pistons’ bench might actually sap some of the incentive for Van Gundy to trade him. Detroit doesn’t have much scoring punch off its bench with the loss of shooting guard Jodie Meeks, who is likely out until at least the All-Star break with a foot fracture. For a playoff-starved team that hasn’t seen the postseason since 2008/09, the Pistons might decide to go with Jennings as their sixth man the rest of the way, then add the $8MM-plus on salary savings to their cap next summer.
Using that same thought process, the Pistons are unlikely to trade him for a player who would only help them with this season’s playoff push since they could get the same from Jennings. A more likely scenario would be a trade for a player who is signed for multiple seasons whom Van Gundy views as a rotation piece for years to come.
A struggling team like the Nets would seem a good fit. They could view a player like Jennings from two prisms. First, he could give them some cap relief for next season. They could also turn the second half of this season into an audition to see if they’d want him to re-sign him as their floor leader.
For the Pistons, a versatile forward like Thaddeus Young would seem like an ideal addition to fortify their frontcourt. Young has three years left on his deal — the last being a player option — but could be the type of player who could make the Pistons a much more viable playoff contender.
A team like the Knicks, who have a hole at point guard, would also appear to be a logical trade partner. They could swap a player like Arron Afflalo, who has an $8MM player option on his contract next season, and give themselves some more cap flexibility next summer. They could also give Jennings a long look to see if he fits their long-term needs. In return, the Pistons could replace the injury-prone Meeks.
A team like the Suns, who have enough point guards, might want Jennings’ expiring deal to get rid of a disgruntled player. The Morris brothers were unhappy when Phoenix traded Marcus to the Pistons during the offseason. Marcus Morris has thrived with his new team while Markieff Morris seems eager for a fresh start and teams around the league reportedly believe the Suns are prepared to trade him. The salaries wouldn’t match up, so other pieces would be needed to make that potential deal happen.
All this is pure speculation, of course, but the Jennings situation bears watching, especially after he makes his season debut. If he shows he’s fully recovered from his injury, the Pistons could flip him for another player who brings production in the short and long term.