The Detroit Pistons entered Monday on an eight-game losing streak, on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and looking to deal an underwhelming shooting guard because they were worried he might not deign to stick around this summer. They’ll enter Tuesday with a five-time All-Star starting at power forward. So, um, problem solved?
Since taking the reins in Detroit back in 2014, head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy has proven plenty willing to take big swings at solving problems. He cut bait on Josh Smith despite knowing he’d have to pay top dollar just to make the dude go away. (Owner Tom Gores is still paying Smoove to be elsewhere, to the tune of $5.3 million this year, next year and in 2019-20. The stretch provision’s a heck of a thing.) He tried to solve his point guard problem by importing, and then going all-in on, Reggie Jackson. He tried to form a more flexible frontcourt of the future by swinging deals for Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris. He tried to solidify Detroit’s porous perimeter defense by jettisoning Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and replacing him with Avery Bradley.
And now, with the Pistons having cratered following a promising start to the season — Detroit’s gone 8-20 since Dec. 1, the NBA’s second-worst record in that span — Van Gundy’s come back to the table and pushed all his chips to the middle again. On Monday, he flipped Harris, Bradley and center Boban Marjanovic, along with a protected 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder, to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for Blake Griffin and reserve big men Willie Reed and Brice Johnson. It’s a bold move: one that gives the Pistons a top-flight offensive option to pair with glass-eating, rim-running monster Andre Drummond, and that also brings a bona fide, face-of-the-franchise-caliber star to Detroit for the first time in years.
But adding a player of Griffin’s gifts and wattage comes at a cost, and a dear one. Harris had developed into a dependable top scorer and supplementary creator owed a team-friendly $14.8 million next season. That first-rounder could wind up being a lottery pick in five months (or a year from now, or a year after that, and so on, through 2021). And while we just got definitive proof that Blake’s contract is not untradeable, Van Gundy has now assumed the Clippers’ downside risk. The Pistons are now on the hook for $141.7 million through 2022 for a player who hasn’t played 70 games since 2014, who comes bearing a bracing history of left knee issues, and who by himself doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything more than your team being pretty good.
Of course, “pretty good” probably sounds pretty great to Detroit fans right about now. The Pistons have lost 12 of 15 since Jackson went down with a severely sprained ankle, plunging from a battle for home-court advantage to sitting 2 1/2 games south of the conference’s last playoff spot. The season was slipping away — again — and the knives were starting to come out as the Pistons sputtered toward a ninth losing season in 10 years, giving fans precious little reason to pack that brand new downtown arena.
Hence the big bet on Blake. SVG (still yet to win a playoff game in Detroit, by the way) gambled that a high-scoring, playmaking four capable of initiating offense out of the post and the pick-and-roll — and one with plenty of experience making the most out of a partnership with a paint-bound finisher — was just what the doctor ordered.
When healthy, Griffin remains a matchup nightmare. He’s a back-to-the-basket bully who can draw double teams on the block and spray passes over the top of scrambled defenses to weak-side shooters. He’s agile enough to face up, blow past slower marks off the bounce and finish with authority on the interior. He’s not a stretch big — just 23.6 percent on midrange jumpers (though that could bounce back, as he’s been significantly better than that from out there for years) and 34.2 percent from deep — but he’s a credible enough threat to stick jumpers to make defenders honor him outside.
Few big men can claim to be Griffin’s equal as a passer — not just today, but ever. Blake’s on pace to post an assist percentage north of 25 percent for the third time in his career, which would trail only Magic Johnson (13 such seasons) and Larry Bird (eight) for most in NBA history among players 6-foot-9 or taller. Until Jackson’s return, Griffin’s instantly Detroit’s best playmaker; from the second he arrives, he’ll be the focal point of the Pistons’ attack, expected to create offense for himself and others.
That includes Drummond, with whom he’ll need to get up to speed quickly. The hope is they’ll develop the same kind of short-roll, high-low chemistry that Griffin and DeAndre Jordan flashed so often during their years together in L.A. Jordan’s a better defensive player than Drummond is (whether Detroit can reman on the fringes of the top 10 in defensive efficiency remains to be seen) but Andre’s become a much better passer and secondary playmaker as Van Gundy has expanded his game out to the elbows. That could help squeeze the most out of some tight windows in the paint.
While Griffin will slide into Harris’ spot in the lineup once everyone clears physicals — which, we remind you, isn’t always a sure thing when you’re dealing with players who’ve got injury histories — Van Gundy will have some other decisions to make as he reimagines his starting five. Granted, Bradley’s been no great shakes this season, but Detroit’s still going to need bigger contributions from somebody at the two-guard who’s not exactly a proven playoff-caliber quantity. (We’re looking at you, Luke Kennard.)
If Stan’s looking to give Griffin as much space as possible to operate offensively, he’s got to at least consider starting combo guard Langston Galloway (36.2 percent from 3-point range this season on nearly four attempts per game) over caretaker point man Ish Smith (22.2 percent on 0.8 tries a night) in Jackson’s stead. Ditto for Reggie Bullock (44 percent from deep) over defense-first jumbo wing Stanley Johnson. Already operating from a talent deficit on the wing, Detroit just downgraded its depth and dependability at a spot where the league now demands both quality and quantity.
Whatever lineup choices Van Gundy makes, there will have to be a lot of change for just about everybody in a Pistons uniform. Which, given the state of affairs ever since Chauncey and Rip left town, might not be the worst thing for all concerned in the Motor City.
It’d be tough to blame Griffin for feeling some kind of way about being shipped out of L.A. mere months after all that “lifelong Clipper” talk. But if he shows up ready to work and eager to shoulder the load, he could be the defining star that the attention-and-attendance-starved Pistons have long lacked, pairing with Drummond to give Detroit a couple of cornerstones for a rise up the Eastern ranks for years to come.
Pistons fans better hope he is. With this deal, Detroit’s not only over the salary cap for next season, but also already has nine figures in salary on the books for a 2019-20 rotation of Griffin, Drummond, Jackson, Galloway, Johnson, Kennard, Jon Leuer and sparingly used 2016 first-round pick Henry Ellenson. They just gave up a pair of draft picks to lock in this scenario.
It seems unlikely that Ages 29 through 32 Blake, Drummond and Jackson will become the core of a team that contends for the conference finals. It’s possible, though, that it’s a core good enough to make the playoffs a few years in a row, and maybe to catch lightning in a bottle with a deep run if some things break right. That’s the upside they’ll hope to realize. The Pistons — and Van Gundy, who’s got one year left on his five-year deal — need this to work, badly, and that means they need Griffin to stay healthy and producing at an elite level well past his 30th birthday.
“Are there ways you can raise your talent level and make your team better now and next year — a two-year window, or even longer?” Van Gundy said during a recent Q&A with the Detroit Free Press. “[…] Now, if we can get a star — which isn’t easy to do — but if there’s some way to get one of the top 20 players in the league, I think we’d be all-in on that.”
They went all-in on Monday, hoping to jolt the franchise out of a decade of doldrums through the infusion of a marquee game-changer. The question now: is Griffin still the sort of top-20 talent who can vault Detroit back into the playoff race, and into broader NBA relevance? The future of the Pistons franchise, and of Van Gundy’s leadership of it, will likely depend on the answer.
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