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The Detroit Pistons are in the worst three-year stretch in 40 years and there's one big reason why: They have six contracts with dead money eating up a gigantic chunk of salary this season.
Due to waiving players whose contracts still had guaranteed money owed, the Pistons' dead money for 2021-22 is an astounding $45.5 million — worst in the NBA — led by the $29.8 million charge for buying out Blake Griffin last March. That deal saved the Pistons $13.3 million over Griffin's final two years, including $9.2 million on this year's cap, helping them create the space to sign Kelly Olynyk in free agency last August.
The Pistons have $79.7 million in active contract money for a total cap number of $125.2 million, meaning their dead money is accounting for 36.3% — just over a third — of their cap spending.
In an Eastern Conference as deep as ever, the inflexibility caused by the cap issues is a major reason why the Pistons lack depth and own one of the worst rosters.
Entering Tuesday's game at Golden State, the Pistons have 40 contests left this season. They are an abysmal 50-130 over the past two-and-a-half seasons for a .278 winning percentage. The franchise's worst three-year run before this came in 1978-81, when they went 67-179 (.272 win percentage).
The Griffin catastrophe, of course, is not on Weaver. Executed nearly four years ago, it was a misguided Hail Mary attempt by owner Tom Gores and then-president and head coach Stan Van Gundy.
But Weaver's cap management outside of Griffin can be scrutinized.
Fifteen teams have less than $2 million dead money on their cap this season, according to sports database spotrac.com. Five teams have more than $10 million in dead money, and the only other team besides the Pistons with more than $19 million in dead money is the Oklahoma City Thunder, also in a rebuild, with $32.3 million.
The good news is Griffin's albatross contract disappears after this season.
Yet the Pistons' dead money figure comes in at $11.8 million next season — second-worst in the league. That's because the Pistons have used the waive-and-stretch provision on three players, whose contracts will again be on the books in 2022-23: DeAndre Jordan (acquired along with four second-round picks for Sekou Doumbouya), Dewayne Dedmon and Zhaire Smith. The provision allows the players' cap hits to be spread over multiple years to lessen the dead money on each year, and was used by the Pistons on Josh Smith in December of 2014.
Dedmon, now the backup center for Miami, was acquired from Atlanta during free agency in November of 2020 in a salary dump of Tony Snell and Khyri Thomas. At the time, Dedmon had two years and $26.6 million remaining on his contract.
Days earlier, Weaver obtained Zhaire Smith in a deal with Philadelphia for Tony Bradley, now a backup center in Chicago. The Pistons had acquired Bradley and the rights to Vanderbilt point guard Saben Lee on draft night from Utah, sending cash in return.
The Pistons' dead cap charge craters to $2.9 million for 2023-24 and 2024-25.
The Pistons are bad by design this season, and after winning the lottery and drafting Cade Cunningham No. 1 overall in November, are again set up for a top pick.
If they stay put with the second-worst record, as they did last year, they would enter this spring's 2022 NBA draft lottery with a 14% chance at No. 1 and guaranteed to pick no worse than sixth. (An assistant GM in the league was, according to Bleacher Report, recently quoted saying, "When I talk to Detroit, they just want one of the top three picks.")
The Pistons are scheduled to be one of just a few teams with large cap space this summer, currently projected to have more than $30 million. They have no guaranteed money on the books after 2022-23, with only club options for rookie contracts, so their cap sheet is about to be in the best shape in decades — though their draft pick situation restricts their ability to make trades and is cause for concern.
The freedom and flexibility from finally escaping cap hell will be welcomed as Weaver tries to rebuild a franchise that has not won a postseason game since 2008, worst in the East, with an NBA-record 14-game playoff losing streak.
In a twisted way, Pistons fans can be thankful for the blockbuster Griffin trade because it ended up setting in motion the current rebuild, which some fans and media alike had been calling on for years.
The Pistons missed the playoffs in the half-season after trading for Griffin in January of 2018. Van Gundy was eventually fired, and the following season, Griffin was magnificent in dragging them to the eighth seed — and a swift four-game sweep vs. Milwaukee — but suffered knee damage, and the core of Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson was a clear road to nowhere. After multiple surgeries over the following year, Griffin was diminished and the Pistons' plight was clear.
Gores had no choice and was finally forced into a rebuild, eventually leading him to hire Weaver, who earned rave reviews after his first season, and has remade the entire 15-man roster he inherited 19 months ago.
Pistons' dead money, 2021-22
Blake Griffin: $29.8 million — playing for Brooklyn Nets
DeAndre Jordan: $7.9 million — playing for Los Angeles Lakers
Dewayne Dedmon: $2.9 million — playing for Miami Heat
Cory Joseph: $2.4 million — playing for Pistons
Deividas Sirvydis: $1.5 million — playing for Motor City Cruise (G League)
Zhaire Smith: $1.1 million — no team
Pistons' dead money, 2022-23
Jordan: $7.9 million
Dedmon: $2.9 million
Smith: $1.1 million
Pistons' dead money, 2023-24 and 2024-25
Dedmon: $2.9 million
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Pistons dead cap: They have $45 million wasting away