Niyo: Fates of Pistons, SVG hinge on Blake Griffin gamble
Auburn Hills — The Pistons gave up a lot to get Blake Griffin. Maybe not a ransom, exactly. But this was a kidnapping, in some respects.
And that was another admission of guilt Tuesday, as Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons’ president and head coach, explained his team’s thinking in pulling off a blockbuster deal for the Los Angeles Clippers’ star forward.
“The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star,” Van Gundy said. “It’s just very hard to do.”
For the Pistons, it’s been bordering on impossible for nearly a decade now, from the end of Joe Dumars’ tenure as team president through Van Gundy’s first four years at the helm. And whatever the reasons — poor drafting, ill-advised signings, an awkward ownership transition, the local economy, you name it — the results have been impossible to ignore, as have the dwindling crowds for games. The Pistons have had just one All-Star selection in the last decade, and they’ve made just one playoff appearance as well.
So from that vantage point — as perennial bystanders in a league driven by star power — this was a significant risk worth taking, both in terms of the price the Pistons paid in players and draft picks or the $150 million commitment owner Tom Gores has made in taking on Griffin’s 6-month-old megadeal — the second-richest contract in the league.
And that’s the point Van Gundy kept trying to make after his team’s shootaround in preparation for Tuesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. He rattled off Griffin’s resume — a five-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection, former No. 1 overall pick — then reiterated what Pistons fans have long lamented.
"Since we’ve gotten here, all of our discussions have talked about, ‘How do you get that guy? How do you get the real superior talents in this league?’” Van Gundy said. “You’ve gotta have one of those guys. So how do you get him?”
The Pistons have tried in free agency in recent years, but Detroit’s hardly a prime destination — far from it — and they’ve mostly come up empty, whether it was chasing top-level targets like DeMarre Carroll in 2015 or Al Horford two summers ago.
They’ve tried via trade as well, and had some success at various levels, including the deal that brought Tobias Harris — one of the key pieces in this Griffin deal — to Detroit from Orlando, for example. But not for lack of trying, the Pistons have failed to strike bigger deals for the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Paul George and, more recently, Kemba Walker.
And partly because the Pistons never tried to tank when they could’ve or should’ve — the way the Cavs once did to land LeBron James and the way other teams have since — they also haven’t found an All-Star the old-fashioned way, either. Prior to Monday’s trade, the highest-drafted player on Detroit’s roster is Stanley Johnson, the eighth overall pick from 2015.
“That’s rare in this league,” Van Gundy said. “I mean, everybody’s got a top-three or top-four pick somewhere on their roster.”
Well, maybe not everybody, but Cleveland’s got a half-dozen players on its roster right now that were top-five picks. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, Boston boasts four, while Washington and Philadelphia each have three apiece. Now the Pistons finally have one, too.
But how much difference can one star make, particularly given Griffin’s injury history — “That’s the risk on it,” Van Gundy said — and the Pistons’ current standing? They’d lost 12 of their last 15 prior to the trade, and with Jackson sidelined by a serious ankle injury the offense ranked third-worst in the NBA during that stretch. With that in mind, few were surprised to see Van Gundy — feeling the heat in the fourth year of his five-year contract — make a trade.
“I think probably the whole world could sense that,” forward Reggie Bullock said.
But this trade?
“That came from left field for me,” Bullock added.
For Griffin, too, no doubt. In July, the Clippers sold him on finishing his career with the team that drafted him. Now they’ve literally sold him to the highest bidder. Or the most desperate one, depending on your perspective.
“But like coach said, when you have a chance to get an all-star player like that,” Bullock added, “you just go after it and do whatever you can.”
That’s the idea, all right. It’s also why Van Gundy chuckled when asked if he was OK with taking a step back now, giving up two starters — Harris and Avery Bradley with his expiring contract — and a part-time rotational piece (Boban Marjanovic), along with first- and second-round picks, in exchange for Griffin, Willie Reed and Brice Johnson.
“We’ve lost eight in a row,” he said. “I don’t know that we can take a step back, quite honestly.”
Still, he understood the general point of the question. He’s also well-aware these next couple weeks might not look much better than the last few have for the Pistons.
Reggie Jackson’s not coming back before the All-Star break, and it’s going to take some time for Griffin to assimilate and for the rest of the Pistons’ rotation to “work out the kinks.” For Drummond, in particular, there will be adjustments, because after nearly 50 games of running everything —“literally everything,” Van Gundy said — through him as a high-post hub offensively, that’ll change once Griffin’s in uniform.
There are some intriguing possibilities here — big-man pick-and-roll games few teams can match and a bona fide go-to option at crunch time the Pistons have lacked — as well as opportunities for some of the younger Pistons to finally get some run and prove their value.
But while this team still could make a run at a playoff berth this spring — they began play Tuesday night only 2½ games out in the East — the notion of re-creating “Lob City” in the Motor City may have to wait until next season.
Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess, though this sure feels like it’s Van Gundy’s make-or-break moment, going all in on Griffin, a 28-year-old star whose best days may be behind him but whose biggest paychecks are yet to come.
“Everybody can view that differently: ‘Oh, wow, you’re locked into $140 million-plus,’” Van Gundy said. “Yeah, but he’s locked into us, too, as one of the best players in the league.”
Fair enough, but the “proof of life” demands from Pistons fans are coming soon.
PISTONS SEASON RANKINGS
Scoring: 102.8 per game (24th in NBA)
Scoring defense: 103.1 (8th)
Field-goal percentage: .450 (23rd)
Field-goal percentage defense: .464 (19th)
Rebound differential: -0.5 (T-15th)