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.
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