Detroit — It’s not working, by virtually any measure and any metric. Pistons owner Tom Gores still thinks it’ll work, or hopes it’ll work, or says it’ll work, but that’s flimsy optimism wrapped in delusion.
Almost precisely one year ago, the Pistons made a bold deal for Blake Griffin, and the gamble proved to be half-right. Griffin is far from washed up, having a career year at 29, and his critics have been humbled.
The player is great.
But the plan is failing miserably.
With the Feb. 7 trade deadline approaching, Gores, senior adviser Ed Stefanski, coach Dwane Casey and the rest of the front office can’t double down on a faulty philosophy, no matter how tempting they think it is. Gores insists he still has a “buyer’s mentality,” which is easy to say but foolish to pursue. Unless some sort of star — a point guard or a shooter — magically becomes available without having to surrender key future assets, the Pistons have two choices.
Sit it out or blow it up.
If they can trade Andre Drummond or Reggie Jackson, even just for expiring contracts and a draft pick, I’d do it, although there’s no indication either player will draw significant interest. If they can trade Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson or Luke Kennard for future assets, I’d do it.
If none of that is possible, take a step back, play it out and revisit a dramatic restructuring in the offseason. As bad as the East is, I can’t imagine a scenario where the Pistons, 21-28 and three games out of the playoffs, can have any impact, even if they somehow snuck into the eighth and final spot.
“We gotta look at everything,” Gores said at halftime of the Pistons’ 115-105 loss to Milwaukee Tuesday night. “But I have not lost faith in this team, I really have not. There is something there to build on, we just need some time. Also, Dwane just got here.”
‘Of course I’m frustrated’
The problem is, you can’t have it both ways. Patience? That disappeared when the Pistons — led then by Stan Van Gundy — traded a potential All-Star in Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and a first-round pick to the Clippers for Griffin, a clear win-now move.
Gores got what he wanted, a star. But he didn’t get wins, didn’t get much fan buzz and certainly didn’t attract customers, with the Pistons near the bottom of the league in attendance. It’s too bad Griffin’s fantastic season — full-season career highs in points per game (26.3) and 3-point shooting (36.4) — is being wasted.
Trying to build a team around Blake and Drummond was an unorthodox gambit that would only work if other pieces found their roles, and they haven’t. It was never more evident than Tuesday night, when Jackson scored 25 points and the Pistons still were blown out again by the first-place Bucks.
Casey is a fine coach, but there’s no blueprint to fix this. Griffin is a terrific talent and leader and says “I am happy here.” But too many nights, there’s no way out. Every time you look on the floor, Griffin is dribbling and driving and trying to muscle through crowds, unsure whether to do it all or force others to do more. Since a 13-7 start, the Pistons are 8-21.
“Of course I’m frustrated,” Griffin said. “If you’re not frustrated, what are you doing playing basketball? But like Tom, I still believe in this team, and we can turn this around and rattle off a couple wins and be fine. The NBA is ups and downs, and obviously after a loss, you’re not supposed to be happy. If there’s guys in here smiling, point them out and I’ll say something.
“All that is just talk.”
Gores was willing to talk and didn’t veer far from his standard script, speaking in pleasant platitudes without offering concrete plans. Empty words, empty promises.
Will you be aggressive at the trade deadline?
“I think if there’s something that comes along, of course we’ll look at it,” said Gores, who plans to remain in town through the week as the deadline nears.
The Pistons are at the luxury-tax threshold, and he suggested he’d gladly pay it if “there’s a big enough move for us to do something.” That’s a slight departure from the franchise’s purported thinking. But if other teams aren’t willing to deal, it doesn’t mean much.
Neither does the notion of tanking. The Pistons missed their chance years ago and dismiss the possibility now. With their roster and contract obligations, it isn’t exactly feasible. So, either out of necessity or stubbornness, Gores and his staff desperately cling to the script.
Which is more likely at the deadline, buying or selling?
“We want to win,” Gores said. “Nothing’s changed. We want to make the playoffs. … To me, the future is a little bit about now. Everybody can decide what they want. I just think we have enough here, you do really have two All-Stars with Andre and Blake.”
If they were surrounded by capable shooters, maybe you could sell that. But of the Pistons’ myriad flaws, none is more staggering than their inability to shoot. They’re last in the league in 3-point percentage (33.2), yet according to the metrics, get as many open shots as any team. Hmm. Maybe they’re open because the opposition knows they can’t shoot?
That’s why a scorer or a point guard — Hornets’ Kemba Walker? Wizards’ Bradley Beal? Mavericks’ Dennis Smith Jr.? — is always mentioned in fanciful options for the Pistons, even though most are generated by the make-believe computerized Trade Machine. The truth is, you can land a solid asset by trading a first-round pick — case in point, Griffin. But you can’t risk it if you can’t count on Drummond and Jackson, or if you can’t move them.
‘We got work to do’
Griffin has three years remaining on his contract after this one and says he isn’t interested in demanding a trade, as the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis did. Maybe he wants to see if the Pistons can do anything by Feb. 7, and if not, ride it out and assess options in the summer.
At that point, nobody should be an untouchable and everything should be on the table, even dealing Griffin. As good and healthy as he’s been, it hasn’t spiked the victory total or the fan total, although it’s certainly not his fault.
“Blake has been incredible,” Gores said. “We got work to do, we’re not winning enough. … We don’t want to sacrifice the future, and I don’t think we have. We have a lot to work on, but we’re not gonna do anything that just throws everybody out.”
Sorry, but somebody will have to get thrown out, eventually. You can’t have this many hefty contracts, still not have prime young assets, and miss the playoffs in the rancid East three straight seasons. You can’t expect Griffin to do more than he already is.
It’s not working as presently constructed, which is clear to everyone. Well, almost everyone. At least it should be.