Monday, June 22, 2015

Let's talk about it: Jennings for Hardaway trade

An interesting rumor has hit the internet that the Pistons are engaged in talks with the New York Knicks to trade Brandon Jennings for Tim Hardaway Jr. Since the rumor is coming from someone other than Frank Isola, you can feel confident that it has at least some veracity. There's a lot going on here that should be worked out, though. So let's talk about it.

Brandon Jennings will not finish the season in a Pistons uniform. In fact, it's likely that he won't even start the season in a Pistons jersey. This much was obvious the moment the Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson. People have forgotten just how little Stan Van Gundy trusts or likes Jennings' playstyle. Lost in the trove of horrible games this season was SVG regularly sitting Jennings in the fourth quarter in favor of DJ Augustin. Jennings and SVG butted heads regularly throughout the season and, despite Jennings' improved play before his injury, his time with the Pistons was nearing its end.

This is only emphasized by the play of Spencer Dinwiddie, who wavered between overwhelmed rookie and the lottery pick he was supposed to be before his knee injury at Colorado. Not only does Dinwiddie project to be a notable role player off the Pistons bench next season, but he fits the SVG point guard mold: long, athletic, high basketball IQ. Dinwiddie has far more in common physically with Jackson than he does Jennings, and it's clear what type of team SVG is constructing.

Hardaway for Jennings swap
A one-for-one swap between the Knicks and Pistons is technically possible although highly improbable. Jennings is entering the third year of the contract he signed with the Pistons, earning $8M this season. Hardaway, meanwhile, is still on his rookie contract and making only $1.25M. However, despite the disparity in contracts, the trade can still work if the Knicks utilize a few of their trade exceptions, notably the nearly $6M exception they gained from trading JR Smith to the Cavaliers this season.

From the Pistons' perspective, this is an awful trade. Though Jennings is returning from a knee injury, he had perhaps the best stretch of his career last season and is on an affordable contract. Jennings is the Pistons' best trade chip. Exchanging that for a middling 3-point specialist with upside would be a waste of Jennings' value. Meanwhile, the Knicks have Jose Calderon on the books for two more seasons at $7M each and no other shooting guard prospects beyond Hardaway. Jennings would be a big improvement over Calderon, and the Knicks will probably make a run at Aaron Afflalo who recently opted out of the final year of his contract, as well as other free agents. Overall, this trade benefits the Knicks more than the Pistons (New York is getting a better player for no cost, essentially), and doesn't make a lot of sense for Detroit to pursue.

Trade includes a pick swap as well

There are rumblings that the Pistons and Knicks might swap draft picks in addition to exchanging Hardaway and Jennings. This is really the only way that this deal makes sense for Detroit. The Pistons hold the 8th pick in the draft this year which puts them in line to take an impactful player. By my estimation, of the players that the Pistons can realistically draft, they should value in order: Justise Winslow/Mario Hezonja, Kelly Oubre, and Stanley Johnson. The falloff from Winslow and Hezonja to Oubre and Johnson feels stark, however, and the likelihood of the Pistons being able to draft one of the former drops notably with the 8th pick.

Getting the 4th pick gives the Pistons free rein. With Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor essentially locked into the top two positions, the 76ers, selecting 3rd, would be all that stands between the Pistons and their pick of the litter. With major needs at point guard--and an overload in the frontcourt making Kristaps Porzingis redundant--Russell and Mudiay seem like the most likely selections for Philadelphia. That Porzingis, who many project as a top-flight NBA player, might be available to the Pistons in the 4th position makes the trade even more enticing.

But why would the Knicks trade down for a player of Jennings' mercurial ilk in a draft with these players? Does the Knicks front office really expect Jennings and Carmelo to co-exist with only one ball on the court? New York has needs at almost every position. Jennings could help shore up the backcourt, making the need for Russell or Mudiay less immediate. And if Phil Jackson's comments on three-point shooting and his desire to run the triangle in perpetuity are to be believed, Porzingis is not a player they'd consider even if he were still available.

And herein lies why the Knicks might be willing to trade down: most of the elite players available in this draft are small forwards, of which the Knicks have a pretty good one. The only player anyone consistently projects in the top prospects who could fall to 8th is Willie Cauley-Stein. With the Magic, Kings, and Nuggets drafting in front of the Knicks now, they could upgrade at point guard with Jennings while still getting the kind of prospect that they value and would fit into their system (even Frank Kaminsky or Myles Turner, both of whom the Knicks have worked out, could fit their needs and will be available at 8).

If this trade is going to happen, the pick swap will make it work, barring an unforeseen third team that gets involved.

What does Hardaway do for the Pistons?

In Hardaway, SVG is trading for a three-point specialist, the likes of which he went after last offseason by acquiring Jodie Meeks and Cartier Martin. I have been firmly in favor of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope being the Pistons' shooting guard of the future, and acquiring THJ doesn't necessarily put that in jeopardy. The Pistons are actually thin at all of the wing positions, shooting guard included. KCP, Meeks, and Martin are the only wing players that the Pistons have on the roster for 2015-2016. With the expectation that they draft a small forward, that still leaves the team bereft of wing depth. KCP, Meeks, THJ, and [hypothetical draft pick] is a fine four-man rotation in theory, but an injury to any one of them creates a major gap in the depth chart. Meanwhile, losing Jennings forces Dinwiddie into a major role backing up Reggie Jackson. An injury to either of them could be a major problem, but SVG seems far more willing to play unassuming veteran point guards than sacrifice his wing shooting depth.

But Hardaway would be more than an insurance policy. Hardaway is an exceptional spot-up three-point shooter. His rookie season, he shot 36% from outside. A dip to 34% in his sophomore campaign (slightly worse than KCP in the same season) is troubling, but THJ was asked to do quite a bit more during his second year in the league. For the Pistons, he would be a constant threat to knock down threes from the corner. In other words, the exact kind of player the Pistons need on their roster, his defensive deficiencies notwithstanding.

Does this trade happen?
This seems like a fever dream trade. Trading up to the 4th pick in this draft would be ideal for the Pistons, while having a clear path to that reality seems hard to believe. This draft and the Knicks' investment in Carmelo put the Pistons in a unique situation this year, but you can be sure other teams will be clamoring for the Knicks pick if it really is up for grabs. It has been rumored for weeks that if Okafor and Towns are off the board by the time the Knicks pick, they'll look to trade it. But good things happening for the Pistons in the draft is fantasy. While this seems entirely plausible, this trade exists in a I'll Believe It When I See It state.

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