Before it even began, the Blake Griffin era in Detroit needed more luck to succeed than a franchise-altering transaction of that magnitude should ever require. That isn’t the same as saying it was doomed from the start, but health, internal development, and a capacity to solve potential fit-related issues were all variables that needed to fall in Detroit’s favor if they wanted more than two home playoff games every year.
At the time of the trade, Detroit’s vision was unimaginative; lofty goals were replaced by a pretend optimism, the “please clap” rallying cry of a franchise content with settling into years of aimless mediocrity. Griffin was an intriguing draw and made an All-NBA team last year, but his fading impact on winning no longer validated a max contract — hence the Clippers’ wish to trade him.
Here’s what I wrote about the Pistons at the time: “It’s unclear how good this team can be, and if Drummond continues to make strides they’ll be an unpleasant matchup more nights than not. But being locked into the back-half of a very good player’s career, paying him more money than he’s worth, feels a little depressing.”
That prediction was prescient but also safe. Since Griffin’s first game with the Pistons on February 1, 2018, they’ve won *checks notebook* zero playoff games. Their defense when he’s shared the floor with Andre Drummond has deteriorated, and is unfeasible in the postseason setting we probably won’t ever see. Today, at 13-24, between an eight seed and the league’s worst record — with Griffin still owed $75.8 million over the next two years — Pistons owner Tom Gores has finally cozied up to the eject button.
Blake is 30 years old but may be damaged goods. Drummond is trade chum. Derrick Rose is their best player. There is no roadmap to perennial contention, but where the Pistons go from here is clear and as long overdue as it is difficult to execute. Moving Griffin at this juncture may not be possible, but even if no team is desperate enough to take that contract on it still makes sense for the Pistons to take a dramatic step back and operate like every other smart small-market team would.
Cap space is no longer reserved for the right to overpay the Jon Leuer’s of the world in free agency. Instead, preserve it, and build through the draft. Partially speaking, the Pistons are where they are because they whiffed on a couple recent picks — Stanley Johnson (eighth overall), Henry Ellenson (17th) — failed to maximize another (Luke Kennard one slot ahead of Donovan Mitchell) and, from an earlier regime, mined Khris Middleton and Spencer Dinwiddie only to give up on them too soon.
But the semblance of a core that’s comprised of 24-and-under pieces is starting to take shape, in intrigue if not actual production. Bruce Brown is a bulldog. Christian Wood — who, physically, looked like Anthony Davis’ doppelganger in a recent loss at Staples Center — is starting to reach the most salivating areas of his potential. Kennard can be more than serviceable in any modern offense.
Svi Mykhailiuk is shooting 45 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. As the youngest player currently employed by an NBA team, Sekou Doumbouya has the type of body that, at a bare minimum, can eventually unlock switchy, versatile defensive lineups. He guarded Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James in two of his first three career starts, and oozes potential on both ends.
Zero members of Detroit’s youth movement may ever play in an All-Star game, or justify personnel moves that treat them as the center of an acceptable offensive system. That makes bottoming out a terrifying exercise, one the Orlando Magic, Hornets, and Cleveland Cavaliers are currently enduring at their own pace.
But a few smart transactions mixed with measured expectations and a tight focus on player development can accelerate the process. That means the rest of Detroit’s roster makes sense elsewhere, including Drummond. A monstrous force on his best day, the 26-year-old has let delusions of grandeur infect the physical dominance that once warranted him collecting a $28 million player option for the 2020-21 season.
“Who wants Drummond?” is an immaterial question when placed ahead of “Who will part with an asset to get him?” Free agency is right around the corner, and with it comes a hefty commitment for a tantalizing talent. All first-round picks should be welcome, be they from the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs, Charlotte Hornets, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, or any other conceivable suitor that wants to sniff around.
Several teams listed above are a stretch, and for those interested in a more detailed look at why Drummond is unlikely to bring back a sizable return in any transaction, I wrote about him a couple months ago. But the Pistons have other chips to dangle. One even more relevant to the playoff picture is Rose, who, at $15 million through the end of next season, has been Detroit’s closest thing to a bright spot.
Detroit soars from last to first in offensive rating with Rose on the court, running tons of pick-and-roll and catalyzing their transition game with frequent glimpses of the athletic specimen he used to be.
Several contenders need exactly what he’s giving Detroit, which is per-minute numbers that rival his MVP season. (Last week, the Golden State Warriors habitually trapped Rose 30 feet from the basket as if he was James Harden.) But it’ll be interesting to see how lethargic defensive energy, scarce three-point shooting, and his physical inability to play significantly more minutes in a playoff setting will temper interest.
If any teams do consider mortgaging parts of their own future to get him, the Philadelphia 76ers are it. No team with championship aspirations is more desperate for someone who can playmake downhill, organize an offensive possession, score in the paint, draw fouls, and carve defenses up when coming off a high screen. A Rose-Embiid (or Rose-Horford, Rose-Simmons) pick-and-roll with three shooters spacing the floor is one highly-efficient solution to Philly’s offensive issues. He’d create shots they can’t consistently manufacture in the half court.
Relevant to the conversation are these two statistical impressions Rose is having on the Pistons:
1) He assists 2.65 corner threes per 100 possessions, which leads the NBA and is higher than every player since LeBron James averaged 2.9 during the 2016-17 season.
2) The Pistons make more assisted corner threes per 100 possessions (4.21) than any team in the past 20 years — and maybe league history, but I can’t find stats that go back that far.
Philadelphia is 22nd in corner three rate, but second in corner three-point accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass. If you’re Detroit, the argument for keeping Rose around through at least the end of next season is he can conduct a credible offense without taking it over — an important distinction for a roster that’d be full of young, impressionable talent. But if the Sixers put, say Matisse Thybulle — or Zaire Smith and their next available first — on the table then Detroit should immediately part ways. Would the Los Angeles Lakers give up Kyle Kuzma? Maybe the Milwaukee Bucks want a cheaper facsimile of Malcolm Brogdon before they head into the postseason, and offer Indiana’s first-round pick plus D.J. Wilson?
Almost everybody else represents salary filler — Tony Snell, Thon Maker, Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson — in any deal, but contenders and teams wanting to immediately upgrade what they already have might show moderate interest in Langston Galloway, who’s armed with one of the fastest shot releases in the universe and an expiring $7.3 million contract.
Change is inevitable, and the Pistons have finally reached the point of their life cycle where they can no longer avoid it. Digging out from the cave-dark lottery won’t be easy, particularly in a market that’s barely interested when the team is competitive. But embracing a new era is the only way forward. The more aggressive they are trying to get there this season, the better off their future will be.