Niyo: Blake Griffin is game, but is Pistons' brass up to the task?
Blake Griffin finished on one leg. And when he finally walked off the court Monday night, the noisy collection of playoff-starved Pistons fans inside Little Caesars Arena showed their appreciation, rising one after another — on two feet — to give him a standing ovation.
“Blake played his heart out,” head coach Dwane Casey said later, using what was left of his raspy voice to join the chorus. “He gave everything he could to our team.”
A moment later, Casey added, “So we owe him a lot.”
And if there’s a single takeaway from this fitful season, that should be it. The Pistons owe Griffin a lot of money, sure: Nearly $110 million over the next three seasons. But more than that, they owe him a fair return on what he’s already given them.
A presence. Some long-sought relevance, too. And the kind of veteran leadership from an All-Star player this franchise hasn’t been able to lean on in more than a decade.
But how do they repay that in kind? That’s the awkward question now, as the Pistons’ players scatter for the offseason and the front office and coaching staff try to figure out what their next steps will be, dragging around a roster that feels more like a ball and chain than a budding championship contender.
One way to do it would be to let him go, of course. Trade Griffin to another franchise and begin the painful process of starting over. Or see what the market would bear for Andre Drummond, who is coming off a career-best season of his own at age 25 with two years — including a player option for 2020-21 — remaining on his max-salary contract.
But either scenario seems as likely to happen as a first-round upset of top-seeded Milwaukee was for Detroit in these playoffs, a point Pistons owner Tom Gores reiterated as he stood in front of his courtside seat following Monday night’s Game 4 loss to the Bucks.
'We're committed to him'
“I just don’t believe in the idea of whatever you want to call it — tanking, losing,” he said. “We need a winning culture here and let’s just see what happens from there. … No, I’m not gonna get into that business.”
Griffin, for his part, talked earnestly in the locker room Monday night — and again Tuesday when he met with the media — about how much he enjoyed playing with this team, and how good the chemistry and camaraderie felt. He doesn't sound inclined to move on, either.
“No, I don’t see that at all,” Gores said Monday, when asked if he sensed any frustration from Griffin about his future in Detroit, only 15 months after he arrived in that stunning blockbuster trade from Los Angeles. “I mean, Blake and I know each other pretty well. He believes in this team, and he really believes in this city. … And he knows we’re committed to him.”
And at least for now, Griffin, who turned 30 last month, seems willing to wait patiently while Ed Stefanski and the rest of the Pistons' brain trust try to map out the way forward.
“They have plans and an idea and a direction,” the six-time All-Star forward said Tuesday, though he added “it might not happen overnight because of the (financial) situation.”
Therein lies the problem, however. The Pistons’ salary cap is even more swollen that Griffin's left knee at the moment. About as helpful, too, when you consider Jon Leuer's $10 million salary was a healthy inactive for half this season. Or that he and Langston Galloway ($7.3 million) are on the books for one more year, along with the final $5.3 million cap hit from Josh Smith's buyout nearly five years ago.
And while those are expiring contracts that other teams eyeing the 2020 free-agent market might consider useful — including the one that belongs to point guard Reggie Jackson — significant trades likely will come with a cost, both in terms of young players and future assets.
Still, if Griffin can reinvent himself the way he has — emerging as an above-average, volume 3-point shooter in addition to his other strengths — and extend the Pistons’ window for contending with him as a centerpiece, then the least the front office can do is figure out a creative way to follow suit.
Casey’s right when he says it’s imperative that the Pistons see some dramatic strides from the young players Stefanski & Co. have been championing.
“It’s gonna be a huge summer for our development coaches and ourselves to develop the weaknesses of some of our players,” Casey said. “Because we’re gonna have to grow from within. We have a lot of talent with our young guys, but they have some areas where they can get much better in.”
Luke Kennard needs to build on his late-season successes with a healthy offseason. Bruce Brown has to find some semblance of an offensive game. Khyri Thomas needs to emerge as a rotational backcourt piece. And Svi Mykhailiuk is the kind of shooter this team desperately needs. (Or one that maybe another team wants in a larger deal.) Throw in a couple more draft picks this summer — the Pistons own the 15th and 45th overall selections in June — and you’ve got the makings there, perhaps, of the kind of cost-controlled bench Casey utilized as a strength at the end of his tenure in Toronto.
But if the Pistons are going to be anything more than middling, it’ll likely require significant outside help as well. Not just reliable backups at point guard — maybe Ish Smith returns on a cheaper deal? — and center, either. They need to find a 3-and-D wing who won't come cheaply. And they need to revisit those talks with Memphis about point guard Mike Conley, or circle back with New Orleans to see what it'd take to land Jrue Holiday.
Too much? Probably. But if not this summer, maybe next February prior to the trade deadline, the Pistons may have to pull the trigger on another blockbuster deal. It's either that or try the detonator no one's willing to touch. They owe Griffin that much