Orlando — As 2019 arrives, it’s a good time to take a look at the Pistons from the past year. By any measure, it was a staggering 12 months, with a complete overhaul of the front office, a new coaching staff and the arrival of the new franchise player in Blake Griffin.
There was optimism and intrigue in getting Griffin, a five-time All-Star and a key piece in the Clippers’ success during their heyday. It was a bold move by Pistons owner Tom Gores, but it hasn’t paid immediate dividends, as their record was 35-46 in the calendar year.
The Pistons are still in a financial bind and perilously close to the luxury tax, which inhibits their ability to make any other big moves without shredding the roster. It’s the purgatory the franchise finds itself in as it looks to return to relevance.
Here’s a look at the top five Pistons storylines from 2018:
1. The Blake effect
If anyone thought that trading for Griffin would instantly change the Pistons’ fortunes, the reality has been a cold splash in the face. Even with Griffin, the Pistons were 16-17 in the last three months of last season; combined with their 16-18 record this season, the Pistons’ 2018 record was under .500 (32-35) after he arrived.
The Pistons took significant risk in taking on Griffin’s five-year deal worth $173 million, including a player option for $39 million in 2021-22. Gores saw it as a move to bolster the roster — and it has, as Griffin has returned to All-Star form — but it prevented them from making other moves in free agency.
They gave up Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and their first-round pick to get their prized centerpiece. Getting Griffin was a gutsy move but unless the Pistons put other pieces around him, it’s just shuffling pieces with the same result — no postseason.
2. Cleaning house
After a second straight season of missing the playoffs, Gores decided to fire team president and head coach Stan Van Gundy in May. In his four-year tenure, the Pistons made the playoffs just once and were swept by the Cavaliers in that appearance. Van Gundy’s legacy was reshaping the roster left over from the Joe Dumars era and flipping into some talent — even if it pushed them over the salary cap.
Gores replaced Van Gundy with special advisor Ed Stefanski on a three-year deal. Though Stefanski doesn’t have the title, he’s making all the decisions of a general manager, including hiring the new coach, Dwane Casey.
3. Casey's arrival
After leading the Raptors to a franchise-record 59 wins, Casey was fired and joined the Pistons on a five-year contract worth $35 million. Casey was coach of the year but his downfall in Toronto was not being able to beat LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Casey is well regarded for his skill development and for building player relationships.
It’s being put to the test in the first few months with the Pistons, as he’s working with a Pistons roster that is essentially the same as last season’s group. The Pistons got off to a 13-7 start this season, with impressive wins over the Warriors and the Celtics, but they stumbled in December, going 4-11.
4. The rookies
With their first-round pick going to the Clippers, the Pistons only had a second-round selection and took Creighton’s Khyri Thomas, and made a draft-night deal to get Miami guard Bruce Brown. The pair of guards have a promising outlook in Casey’s system and Brown has garnered some playing time, including 10 starts.
Both players are valued for their defensive prowess, but they’ll have to develop on the offensive end. Thomas hasn’t found playing time yet, but Casey is optimistic that he can be a rotation player and contribute.
5. The cap situation
With the Griffin signing, the Pistons limited their options, going way over the salary cap, getting within a sneeze of the luxury-tax line. That meant they couldn’t keep Anthony Tolliver, one of their most productive players from last season, nor add any significant free agents. Their cap situation improves a little this summer, with Reggie Bullock, Ish Smith, Henry Ellenson, Glenn Robinson III, Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia as potential contracts coming off the books and Stanley Johnson becoming a restricted free agent.
Next summer, Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway have expiring contracts and Josh Smith’s leftover money also will be a welcome relief and open the opportunity for the Pistons to retool. They could maintain some of the current roster or find new pieces.
Pistons at Bucks
Tip-off: 8 Tuesday, Fiserv Forum, Milwaukee
Outlook: The Bucks (25-10) have the best record in the NBA, including a league-best 16-3 at their new home. The Pistons (16-18) lost by 23 points in the last meeting, on Dec. 5.