Among the Detroit Pistons’ long list of tasks to accomplish this offseason: figuring out the best path forward for Christian Wood, who is both the youngest and most talented of their unrestricted free agents.
Wood, who turned 25 in September, was the biggest bright spot in a Pistons season derailed by injuries. In his final 15 games, he averaged 22.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists and a block on 56/41/76 percent shooting splits. After Andre Drummond was traded to the Cavaliers, Wood showed he could be both a focal point of an NBA offense and a major part of Detroit’s rebuild.
The path for Detroit retaining Wood’s services isn’t straightforward, however. He’s due for a massive raise, which could complicate some of the Pistons’ other free agency goals. And as good as he was at the end of the season, it is a small sample size. The Pistons have to evaluate his potential as a franchise player, and the price they’re willing to pay for that potential.
There are three likely outcomes for Wood’s free agency — he re-signs with the Pistons, he signs elsewhere, or the Pistons sign-and-trade him to a team that lacks the cap space to sign him outright. Let’s take a look at each possibility:
Outcome 1: Christian Wood re-signs with Pistons
Of the three, this is the most straightforward. The Pistons lack a player, aside from a healthy Blake Griffin, who can score at an elite rate. Even if Wood isn’t quite as good as he was during that 15-game stretch, there’s enough evidence to suggest that he has a very bright future as an offensive player.
In 62 games last season, Wood shot 77% at the rim, 39% from behind the arc and recorded an effective field goal percentage (an advanced stat that accounts for the fact that 3-pointers are worth 1.5 more points than 2-pointers) of 61.9%. All of these percentages were above the 80th percentile among bigs, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Wood’s offensive game has few holes, and the team fares better when he's on the court. Of the Pistons who started at least 10 games last season, Wood and Reggie Jackson were the only two with a positive plus-minus. Given that the Pistons have expressed wanting to be competitive next season, keeping Wood is logical.
If Wood wants to return, it could be as simple as putting ink-to-paper. But because the Pistons have Woods’ Early Bird Rights, they have the ability to sign him while preserving most of their $30 million in available cap space. If Detroit signs Wood to a contract worth 105% of the league-average salary, projected to be in the neighborhood of $10 million, they'd still have enough room to pursue a big-name free agent.
Taking advantage of Wood’s Early Bird Rights is a best-case scenario for Detroit. But there are other teams capable of poaching Wood, which could force the Pistons into making some tough decisions.
This time last year, it appeared unlikely that Wood would fetch a contract larger than the $9.3 million mid-level exception. Now? It seems more certain that his contract will start in at eight figures.
Outcome 2: Christian Wood signs elsewhere
The six teams projected to have cap space this summer, in order of most to least, are as follows — Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns. The exact figures for each depends on where next season’s salary cap falls, but the first four teams are all projected to have at least $20 million in space.
The Pistons will have to weigh outside offers for Wood against their own free agency priorities. Any contract bigger than $10 million will eat into their cap space. So if they were to sign Wood to a deal starting at, say $15 million, it would likely eliminate them from signing a free agent such as Fred VanVleet, who is in line to make more than $20 million annually.
A big contract for Wood would also negatively impact the Pistons’ ability to take back a large contract in a trade. For example, the Memphis Grizzlies were able to absorb Andre Iguodala’s $17.5 million contract into a trade exception last summer, and received a 2024 first-round pick from the Warriors in the trade. The Pistons lack a massive trade exception, so preserving their cap space is a must if they want to pursue such deals.
There’s also the possibility that regardless of what the Pistons offer, Wood could simply desire to play elsewhere. None of his comments last season indicated that he wants to leave, but free agency can be alluring.
Outcome 3: Pistons sign-and-trade Christian Wood to contender
The Miami Heat are the only playoff team with cap space this fall. With numerous contending teams looking for avenues to improve their rosters, it’s something worth considering for the Pistons.
Sign-and-trades used to be rare, but 10 such deals took place last summer. Because the Pistons have cap space, they’re in position to take significant salary back (ideally with draft picks/positive assets attached) to complete a deal.
It all boils down to what the Pistons’ expectations are for next season and beyond. There’s upside to locking Wood into a long-term deal. But if Wood wants to play for a team with more-obvious playoff upside, or Detroit simply isn’t willing to commit big money to a free agent at this stage in their retooling, a sign-and-trade could be the happy medium they’re looking for.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Examining Detroit Pistons' options for free agent Christian Wood