Just over 24 hours ago, the headline screamed from mlive.com: “Pistons slide raises questions about Stan Van Gundy’s future.” Over at the Detroit Free Press on Saturday, the headline read, “Van Gundy has a plan; it’s just not working out.” With Monday’s blockbuster trade that sent Blake Griffin, Brice Johnson and Willie Reed to the Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a pair of draft picks, Van Gundy proved that he could pull off a narrative-changing trade when he perhaps really needed one.
Van Gundy addressed the media Tuesday and explained Detroit’s thought process.
“The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star,” he said. “It’s hard to do in free agency. It’s hard to do in trades. You get very few opportunities to do it. The guy’s a five-time All-Star. He’s been an All-NBA guy. He puts you in the top 15 guys in the league. He’s only 28 years old. We know the injury history. That’s the risk on him. But that risk was worth it because of the talent that we’re bringing back.”
Griffin’s arrival comes not a moment too soon, with the Pistons mired in an eight-game losing streak, the longest since a 10-game streak in Van Gundy’s first season. Detroit opened the season 14-6 but have gone 8-20 since, including 3-12 since starting point guard Reggie Jackson suffered an ankle injury. With Van Gundy in the fourth year of a five-year contract and the Pistons in danger of missing the playoffs again despite being hard-capped with a massive $117 million in guaranteed salary, the time was ripe to make serious changes.
“When you get an opportunity to add that kind of talent, you take it,” said Pistons owner Tom Gores on Twitter. “The move is not without risk. We gave up a lot to get him.”
— Tom Gores (@TomGores) January 30, 2018
But did the Pistons really? Harris led the team with 18 points per game, but what does that mean if it doesn’t result in a playoff berth? Bradley was second for Detroit with 15 points per game, but his -5 on-court net rating was the worst of any Piston with at least 400 minutes. With nearly 1300 minutes played this season, it’s not a small sample. Marjanovic didn’t clear the 400-minute threshold.
Detroit sent a 2018 first-round pick to the Clippers in the deal, which is protected 1-4 through 2020 and would be unprotected in 2021. The Pistons could still miss the playoffs and convey a lottery pick, but that’s the kind of real risk you take to obtain the top-15 player Van Gundy spoke of.
The Pistons coach said that, although dedicating most of the team’s cap money to a pair of big men goes against league trends, Detroit wasn’t in a position to follow what other teams have done.
“When you look at all the analytics … we understand that it’s a perimeter league,” said Van Gundy. “We’re not in a situation where we can be that choosy. We can’t necessarily go and try to do it the same way as everybody else. We’re going to be different. Our money and our talent is in our big guys and in Reggie when we get him back.”
For Detroit, this is a Hail Mary that was answered. There’s nothing but upside for the Pistons unless Griffin, who has missed 99 games in the last four seasons, continues to be plagued with health issues. With Bradley out of the picture, Van Gundy will be forced to feed minutes to shooting guards Langston Galloway and Luke Kennard. Neither has cracked 800 minutes this season, but Galloway is a team-best +6 while rookie Kennard is right behind him at +5.8. Those are by far the best net ratings on the team as stretch four Anthony Tolliver is third at just +0.6.
Kennard is shooting a scorching 43 percent on 2.5 three-point attempts per game while Galloway is a respectable 36 percent on nearly four attempts. Reggie Bullock, a three-and-D prospect who is finally starting to make an impact in his fifth season, leads the team at 44 percent on 3.5 attempts. He’s averaging a career-best 8.2 points and has started 23 of 33 games.
With such efficient shooting from wings who will surely see an uptick in usage, Griffin’s playmaking can only make those players better. Griffin is already accustomed to playing with DeAndre Jordan, whose lob-and-rebound game mirrors that of Andre Drummond. The newest Piston’s ability to play on the perimeter as a scorer and playmaker will instantly make Drummond better, and could boost his trade value if Detroit opts against pairing them long-term.
“Blake’s been able to extend his range,” said Van Gundy of how he envisions integrating Griffin and Drummond. “He’s a very, very good ball handler, really good in pick and rolls with the big. Obviously he and DeAndre have played very well together for a long, long time. I don’t think that will be a problem. Of course there’s going to be some kinks to be worked out and it’s going to be an adjustment for Andre because we’ve run everything — literally everything — through him this year. And now that obviously won’t be the case. We’ll run a lot of stuff through Blake and he’ll be in different positions off the ball.”
The combination of Jackson’s injury and letting Harris and Bradley combine for nearly 11 shots per game had the Pistons on the verge of a lost season. Point guard will continue to be a major issue unless Jackson can return to health after a Grade 3 right ankle sprain that is due to be re-evaluated in February. Griffin’s arrival could also change the equation for young players such as small forward Stanley Johnson and power forward Henry Ellenson, who have struggled to make an impact this season.
For Detroit, the trade for a star who just signed a five-year max contract in the summer was the best avenue to add a player of Griffin’s caliber. Even with the brand-new Little Ceasers Arena opening this season, Detroit is a tough sell for top-flight free agents. Griffin’s contract is fully-guaranteed through 2020-21 with a player option in the final season. That gives the Pistons three full seasons with Griffin locked up to make additional moves and contend in an Eastern Conference that has been weakened by free agent defections to the West.
Again, Griffin’s arrival does not assure Detroit will make the playoffs. But this trade was a seminal moment for a franchise that missed the playoffs in six straight seasons before being swept by Cleveland in the first round in 2016. The Pistons were going nowhere and exhibiting little identity before Van Gundy’s big gambit. No one can say how it will turn out, but getting a star for expendable parts is a spectacular win.
NBA Daily: Houston Has It All
Deciphering whether Houston is a contender or pretender is tough, but they’re making it easy.
It is very easy to get caught up in the NBA regular-season hyperbole. The past is littered with a plethora of NBA teams that looked like world-beaters in the regular season only to pull up lame in the playoffs and emerge as a bunch of pretenders.
So when it comes to the Houston Rockets, it’s no surprise many pundits and fans of the game fall heavily on one side or the other. The 2017-18 Rockets are a polarizing squad in that respect. On one side of the fence, you have the folks that are struggling to get behind Houston until they see how the franchise performs in the playoffs under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. On the other, folks that place a great deal of weight on the 82-game regular season and the ability to sustain consistency throughout the marathon.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
At the top of Houston’s lineup are two future Hall of Famers in James Harden and Chris Paul. The latter was a perennial star in his heyday and is still a top-tier talent in the league. Harden, on the other hand, is closing in on his first MVP award and had serious cases for winning the honors in prior seasons, as well. Both Harden and Paul are criticized for their past playoff failures.
Paul entered the league during the 2006 season and has been dogged by the ever looming fact that he’s never reached a Conference Finals. Harden has been to the NBA Finals but has been dogged for multiple playoff missteps and shaky performances that remain etched in everyone’s memory. But something about this season’s Rockets team (57-14) seems different as the duo closes in on 60 wins.
One way to measure the true greatness of a NBA team is evaluating how many ways the roster can win playing a variety of styles. From the eyeball test, Houston checks the boxes in this category. The team sustains leads during blowouts. They have an offense built to erase large deficits quickly. The team possesses the talent to employ an array of versatile lineups to withstand top heat from opposing teams. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has shown the ability to adjust on the fly during certain situations. Houston is seemingly comprised of a bunch of guys that are selfless and ready to sacrifice at this stage of their respective careers.
Time will tell on all of those aforementioned aspects, but the Rockets are built to compete and win now. On paper at least, the team fits the criteria.
Paul has a chance to go down as a top five point guard in NBA history .His court vision is unquestioned and his big men always seem to end up being in the top five of field goal percentage each season (i.e. Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and now Clint Capela). In years past, the Rockets faltered down the stretch of games because the entire system ran through Harden. But this year’s club has the luxury of taking some of the on-ball expectation away from Harden and by giving the rock to Paul who naturally thrives in this role the squad doesn’t take a step back on the floor.
This is going to be big for Houston which has seen Harden gassed late in playoff games from carrying the entire load.
Small Ball Ready
Presumably standing between the Rockets and an appearance in the NBA Finals are the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors turned the NBA upside down with their free-flowing offense, long range accuracy and the successful ability to push the pace while playing small ball.
At the height of Golden State’s success they employed the “death lineup” which places All-Star forward Draymond Green at center. In different variations this gives the Warriors five guys on the court who can dribble, drive, pass and shoot. Versatility is important and if you look at this year’s Rockets team they have the ability to match the death lineup with their own version. Veteran forward P.J. Tucker would be able to guard Green in this scenario at center or Houston could just rely on the athleticism of Capela.
When it comes to defense, the Rockets will never be confused for the bad boy Detroit Pistons of yesteryear, however, the team has an assortment of individually capable defenders on the roster. Paul has all defensive team honors hanging on his mantle during his time in the league. Small forward Trevor Ariza made his bones in the league by placing an emphasis on defense. Before Capela emerged as a double-digit scorer, he was relied on as a defensive spark off the bench. Luc Mbah a Moute has a reputation and consistent track record of being a very willing defender.
Shooting, Versatility and Experience
All of this success, leads to the variation D’Antoni can put out onto the floor. The versatility to go with a small ball lineup or a lineup heavily skewed toward defenders is a luxury amenity. Houston also features five guys with 125 or more three-pointers made this season with Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Paul and Ryan Anderson leading the way. A sixth, Tucker, should join the +100 club before season’s end. Veteran Gerald Green has only played 30 games with the franchise but has already knocked down 76 attempts from distance.
Experience is key as well. This year’s Rockets team features only one player under 25, receiving 25 or more minutes per night in the rotation. Look at NBA history, title winning teams are full of veterans not second or third year players.
Again, the Rockets will never be confused with the late 80s or early 90s Pistons but the team has more than a few guys that don’t shy away from contact or physical play. The collection of Nene, Tucker, Green and Ariza have had more than their share of shoving matches when things get heated on the floor.
With the start of the NBA playoffs (April 14) under a month away, the Rockets continue to build momentum toward a title run. Will Harden and Paul’s playoff demons from the past emerge or is their first true shot at greatness with a complete team? These questions will soon be answered.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”