Pistons GM Bower: Secrecy, trust is key in trade talks

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Pistons general manager Jeff Bower

In a digital age, many complex things can be done easily through a mobile app with the swipe of a finger. One could only imagine an NBA trade-deadline Tinder app where deals could get done quickly.

Pistons general manager Jeff Bower is not one of those people. He’s an old-school executive who relies on instinct and relationships to get through trades. Such was the case a couple of weeks ago, when he pulled off one of the biggest deals of the trade season, bringing Blake Griffin to the Pistons in a deal with the Los Angeles Clippers.

The complexities of the deal made it take almost two weeks to complete and through more than a dozen iterations of trade scenarios, Bower and team president Stan Van Gundy finally came to a deal with Clippers president Lawrence Frank for another franchise centerpiece to pair with Andre Drummond.

It wasn’t easy and although he didn’t want to go into gory detail, Bower did shed some light on some of the machinations that go into a trade of that proportion, involving a superstar — and keeping it under wraps until it was completed.

A trade of that magnitude doesn’t get done on the first try; there are many versions of a deal that are floated between teams before an agreement. In fact, sometimes the players aren’t even named initially. It can start simply in philosophies and what teams are trying to do with payroll or improving a certain part of the roster.

“In a lot of trades, it’s a byproduct of earlier conversations and getting an idea of what teams are trying to do,” Bower said.

“Earlier conversations that were had fed into it and as the year went on and closer to the trade deadline, we revisited some of those discussions… That’s when you start to get a sense that things are possible or momentum can be started. You have a sense that there are pieces that you have that the other team likes and also get the sense that the door may be cracked to explore something maybe bigger than you initially would have been looking at.”

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The suggestion is that maybe Griffin wasn’t the initial discussion piece, but over the course of the season, things may have changed for the Clippers to decide to make him available.

For Bower and other general managers, a good trade isn’t made with one cold call just before the deadline; it’s about building a relationship with a team and keeping those lines of communication open throughout the season.

Many of the proposals don’t work out or get past the initial idea phase.

“Jeff Bower does a lot of the things that we probably never hear about and the way this league works is people talk for months about ideas and they don’t necessarily form,” Pistons owner Tom Gores said after the trade.

The veil of secrecy

Teams talk. GMs gossip. Sources leak secrets.

Not the Pistons.

Maintaining that confidentiality and trust is one of the hallmarks of Van Gundy’s front office. One of the running jokes is that if there’s a rumored Pistons trade on social media, it’s false because there’s no whiff of a Pistons rumor until the trade is completed. The issue is the residual damage that can be done if a player hears that he’s likely to be traded.

“These are people, and trades are very disruptive — of your team and the players and their families who are involved. Having seen that in the past and seeing the effects on teams, so many things that you watch never get to the finish line and end up getting blown up,” Bower said. “If all those possibilities are out there, that’s a lot of upheaval for no reason and for no benefit of anybody: player, team, opposing team.

“You don’t want the anxiety that comes with it for exploratory (trade talks). That’s our job — to talk with every team about just about every player, from top of the roster to bottom. It’s disruptive when you read that. We have great respect for the players, both ours and the other teams’. That’s at the heart of it.”

In some cases, the Pistons don’t try to do deals with teams with whom they know the details may get leaked early. It’s just not worth it. They try to steer clear of those teams, unless absolutely necessary.

“The public nature of everything is such that it’s a hard climate to do business in, because other teams are sensitive to their players. They don’t want their players’ names in the papers as well,” Bower said.

“If you have a franchise that has a history of their business being in the headlines, teams won’t do business with you, or they’ll only discuss the obvious things to get to discussions that are highly combustible or disruptive to teams.

“You have to have a little give and take and you have to have trust amongst teams that you can discuss names without it becoming public because so much of the time, (the trade) dies on the phone.”

An ‘honest broker’

That trust has helped earn Bower a good reputation around the league. The Pistons have been active at each of the last three trade deadlines, partly because they have been a team in transition, trying to barter and increase their talent level.

Think of it in terms of Monopoly: when the Pistons started, they had assets that may have matched some of the less-expensive properties. Over the four-year tenure of Bower and Van Gundy, they’ve managed to trade up to some of the more expensive ones, culminating with the Griffin deal.

“(Bower) knows players and he’s created a trust around the league with his colleagues and they know he’s an honest broker. He’s a guy who people will always talk to about deals,” Van Gundy said. “From our standpoint, there are certain teams you’d rather deal with than other because you know you’re going to get honest stuff.

“It’s not true of everybody and it ends up hurting those teams. Jeff has us in position that people will talk to us about these things. They’ll be honest with Jeff on what they’re looking to do and then if it meets what we’re trying to do, you get something like that.”

Van Gundy said the Griffin deal had been discussed for a couple of weeks, but the two teams went back and forth 10 to 20 times with different trade proposals, Bower estimated.

“You have a sense of players they want and pieces they want and the combinations of such. You’re always juggling from your side and the other team’s side,” Bower said.

“Each time one thing changes that probably changes another piece. Those things tend to take every bit as long. Sometimes the players involved, in order to make the deal work, have to be the players involved.”

There’s an added layer of trust in not wasting another team’s time. There’s the due diligence of looking into a trade, but also having the faith that it can be completed.

In the Griffin deal, there were some complexities, but it eventually got done because both parties were committed.

“I never lie — I’ve never told somebody something that isn’t true, but I don’t discuss it with anybody, whether it’s the local writers or the national ones,” Bower said.

“We don’t tip or give stuff to one or the other to get the exposure. We just feel we can do more return business by being private.”