Wojo: Pistons land needed star, but at steep cost

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Seemingly out of nowhere, perhaps out of desperation, the Pistons pulled a fast one and a big one. Stan Van Gundy gambled again, and this is his boldest yet.

Hey, at least the Pistons officially, emphatically revealed their plan, landing star Blake Griffin from the L.A. Clippers. They’re not standing pat, not stocking for the future, not waiting around. It’s fraught with danger, as Griffin brings a huge contract and a history of injuries, while the Pistons are surrendering Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, a first-round pick and more.

But if the Pistons didn’t think they were going to win with their current group, and probably were going to lose Bradley anyhow, gambling on a star in his prime — Griffin is 28 — is a worthwhile strategy. This is the type of move a team feels compelled to make in the midst of an eight-game losing streak, as a once-promising season collapses.

It doesn’t make the Pistons (22-26) instant playoff contenders; they’re still without injured Reggie Jackson and their already-thin backcourt is further depleted. Is it a bit of a public-relations gambit, bringing in a highlight-reel guy like Griffin? Sure. Does it make sound business and payroll sense? Not really.

But stars matter in the NBA more than any league, and this definitely moves the needle for a team that has struggled to generate excitement.

For Van Gundy, in the fourth year of a five-year contract with only one playoff appearance, it might buy him more time. Owner Tom Gores hasn’t publicly delivered a playoffs-or-else ultimatum, but I doubt he’d quietly endure another humdrum plummet.

In a way, Gores is pulling a classic Mike Ilitch maneuver, hoping star power attracts more star power, and more fans.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s not like the current plan was on its way to fruition.

It does make the Pistons instantly more interesting, adding a 6-10 multi-talented threat to the frontline, alongside Andre Drummond. Griffin is a five-time All-Star who significantly expanded his three-point shooting and has an impressive line this season — 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.4 assist per game.

He just signed a five-year, $173-million contract last summer to remain the Clippers’ centerpiece, and it was a shock they traded him. The value for the Pistons also will be determined by the value of the assets surrendered, and when you consider it, they didn’t give up a ton. When Van Gundy makes a bad deal — he’s made his share of good and bad — at least he moves to correct it. Bradley had been a disappointment, and with his contract expiring, it would’ve been problematic to keep him, and he already was a candidate to be dealt by Feb. 8.

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It’s amazing how quickly Van Gundy is willing to switch pieces, and it’s far from ideal to keep veering directions. But he has the power to keep searching and isn’t afraid to use it. I give him credit for never letting up, but it would be nice to see continuity and an upward trajectory.

Just a few months ago, Bradley was the bright new guy who would instill a feisty defensive demeanor in the Pistons. Now he’s gone, along with Harris, Boban Marjanovic and first- and second-round picks, while the Pistons also get reserve forwards Willie Reed and Brice Johnson.

Harris, 25, was having a career year, the team’s leading scorer (18 ppg), but he looked like a player nearing his ceiling. That’s not a knock, and on a good team, he can be valuable. It’s just difficult to win when he’s your primary offensive option.

Losing the first-round pick is a concern, and that’s where the Pistons’ plan has shifted. At least the pick is protected if it lands in the top four any of the next three seasons. Van Gundy told me the other day the team didn’t want to sacrifice future assets, but he added one caveat.

“We’ve said since I’ve been here, we’re trying to win now, but we’re not gonna give up our draft picks and young players, and that’s a very, very difficult thing to do, to walk that tightrope,” Van Gundy said last Friday. “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 just went all-in. That explains the rumors of the Pistons’ interest in Charlotte star guard Kemba Walker. It explains a lot, confirming the win-now strategy trumps a major rebuild. You can wonder about the wisdom of it, but the Pistons haven’t had much luck finding stars anywhere else, including the draft.

If Van Gundy was feeling pressure to make a bold move, he hasn’t admitted it. And he’s adamant he’s not concerned about job security.

“I don’t know if that’s Tom’s thinking or not,” Van Gundy said recently. “But if he walked into my office and said, ‘You’ve got to make the playoffs to keep your job,’ it wouldn’t change what I do on a daily basis whatsoever. I wouldn’t change our personnel approach to do something stupid that would hamstring the organization for years to come.”

Griffin isn’t a hamstring but he’s a gamble, no doubt. In a way, though, it also boosts the Pistons’ youth movement. With Harris and Bradley gone, rookie Luke Kennard and third-year forward Stanley Johnson will get more playing time, and perhaps we’ll learn they’re not just questionable draft choices.

The Pistons have been stuck in place, in a muddled middle ground, and you figured they’d react. Van Gundy said all along his plan was complicated and fluid and hard to explain, dependent on who was available. A star became available, and while you can question whether Griffin can lead a team to great heights, you can’t debate it’ll be more compelling to watch.