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The Pistons’ Trade For Blake Griffin Was A Desperate Move — And It May Backfire

As if the Clippers weren’t an easy enough target already, as one of the worst franchises in the history of North American professional sports, instances like Monday night happen and drive the point home even further.

A quick recap, in case you missed it: The Clips swung a blockbuster trade, sending five-time All-Star Blake Griffin and spare pieces to the Detroit Pistons — all this just seven months after Los Angeles put on an elaborate free-agency pitch for Griffin, complete with a mock ceremony in which the team pumped in noise and lifted a banner into the arena rafters to simulate retiring his jersey.

The optics of this are embarrassing for Los Angeles, a franchise that’s already overfed its fans with humiliation. Still, as cringeworthy as the change of direction seems, the Pistons could be the ones left with egg on their face as the deal all but puts a hard ceiling on the development of this club, which also gave up what could end up being a valuable first-round pick1.

Depending on who you ask, the Pistons look either smart or desperate here. If you buy into the notion that this move was smart for them, it’s because you believe Griffin is still one of the 10-to-15 biggest stars in the league, and that the 28-year-old has simply been hindered by fluke injuries in recent seasons. If you feel it reeks of desperation, it’s because you see the writing on the wall: That the Pistons have lost eight in a row, and that Stan Van Gundy, one of the few men in the NBA who holds a dual title as both coach and team president, may need a playoff run to justify holding onto both of those jobs.

In any case, this certainly qualifies as a shakeup, and it’s undoubtedly one that could quickly reap benefits. Griffin brings a playmaking ability that the Pistons lacked badly prior to the deal.

On paper, Detroit’s offense — at 21st in the league out of 30 — is bad, but not awful (Van Gundy, without injured starting point guard Reggie Jackson for the past month, has in turn given speedy backup Ish Smith an unthinkable 30 minutes per game). But a deep dive, both statistically and on film, shows how much of a challenge it can be for the Pistons to score; particularly in half-court scenarios, where they’re forced to grind things out. They rank 29th out of 30 in average length of possession in half-court offense after surrendering a made shot and are almost just as bad — 27th out of 30 — in efficiency following an opponent score, according to advanced stats site Inpredictable.

Van Gundy and his assistants revamped the Pistons’ offense before the season to include more handoffs and ball movement, a strategy that might have gone overboard at times, given who the recipients were. Detroit sometimes looked as if it was bending over backwards to create shots for Avery Bradley by running dozens of off-ball screens for him — the most in the NBA, at 51.5 per 100 possessions, per Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats — even though he’s been below average as a shooter this year.

In trading both Bradley and Tobias Harris, who’s in the middle of a career year and leads Detroit in scoring, the Pistons might need a while to figure out the pecking order with the remaining roster — particularly among their younger wing players like Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Luke Kennard. With Jackson still out, Griffin will be called upon to handle the ball a ton, meaning it will likely being out of the hands of Andre Drummond a bit more, despite him having nearly quadrupled his assist rate this season.

That dynamic between Griffin and Drummond is the enormous bet here; one that resembles a less versatile version of what the Pelicans decided they’d do last season when trading for DeMarcus Cousins to pair him with Anthony Davis. One where a club’s two best players are both big men, despite the league having moved in a direction that favors smaller, quicker teams.

The gamble, though, is less a matter of tactics and more of sheer cost. By the 2019-20 season, Griffin and Drummond alone will cost more than $61 million in salary. To give that context, as of right now, that would make the Griffin-Drummond duo just one of five NBA pairings that exceeds the $60 million mark2 in combined salary during that season, according to ESPN front-office insider Bobby Marks. Looking at the others — Washington’s John Wall and Bradley Beal; Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams; Boston’s Al Horford and Gordon Hayward; and Toronto’s Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — highlights that other clubs who’ve invested in that way have already had perennial playoff success to justify that spending. It’s unclear whether Detroit would ever reach that point; especially without cap space to address the backcourt imbalance.

Griffin and Drummond themselves will likely fit just fine. Griffin has shot uncharacteristically bad from midrange — at 24 percent, he’s the second-worst in the NBA from there among players with 50 attempts or more — but he knocks down 3s at a decent enough clip to create space between him and Drummond. Both men are good passers, and Drummond, one of the best rebounders in the game — approximates some of what DeAndre Jordan does on offense for the Clippers, as far as rolling to the basket and catching lobs. (Drummond isn’t nearly as good as Jordan on the other end of the court, and is a bit inconsistent with how he aggressively he defends pick and rolls.)

Whether the Pistons can develop or find the right talent to put around these two remains to be seen. By trading Harris, Bradley (who was slated to be a high-priced free agent this summer anyway) and Boban Marjanovich — who is the most efficient scorer ever, but often unplayable — Van Gundy made this roster more top-heavy than before, which is risky, given Griffin’s injury history. The ex-Clipper has only played in 66 percent of his games the past four seasons after playing in 99 percent of his contests during his first four years in the association, according to ESPN Stats & Information Group. Detroit’s first-round pick — one that could easily land in the lottery — could also be valuable for the rebuilding Clippers, too, given how many of those Doc Rivers essentially gave away in recent years.

The deal is far easier to make sense of from the Clippers’ perspective: They’re finally embracing the idea of a full-on rebuild, and didn’t want to continue to carry the burden of the 5-year, $171-million contract they gave him in July. (The decision to offer Griffin a fifth year in exchange for leaving out the no-trade clause here looks brilliant in hindsight.) If anything, this deal should further embolden them to see what sorts of packages they can get in return for Jordan and Lou Williams, who is all but a lock for the Sixth Man of the Year award, and narrowly missed out on making the All-Star team. Depending on who all they get back in such deals, there’s a slight chance they could even remain in playoff contention while building a strong foundation — one that looks far different now that they’ll have the cap space to make runs at star-level free agents in the near future.

For the Clippers, it was about knowing when to abandon ship, and finding a partner to help them kickstart the process. Only time will tell whether this enormous gamble pays off for Van Gundy and his Detroit club. By trading for Griffin and the weighty contract that comes with him, the Pistons just went all-in on something that might only marginally improve their hopes of reaching the playoffs this season and beyond.

Footnotes

  1. Pistons fans know all too well from the last two drafts how painful it is to barely miss on star talent. Aside from watching their team take Luke Kennard over budding Utah star Donovan Mitchell, they also saw Detroit take Stanley Johnson over Devin Booker.

  2. A number of other teams like Golden State, Houston, New Orleans, Minnesota and San Antonio figure to join that list in the near future, assuming their All-Stars (Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, DeMarcus Cousins, Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kawhi Leonard) stay put and sign the sorts of big-money deals they’re eligible for.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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