Omari Sankofa II | Detroit Free Press
Stan Van Gundy’s explanation for the trade that brought the Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin, at the time, was sound. How often are mid-market NBA teams able to swing trades for bona fide franchise players?
“The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star,” Van Gundy said on Jan. 30, 2018, a day after the Pistons pried the Griffin away from the Los Angeles Clippers. “It’s just very hard to do. It’s hard to do in free agency, it’s hard to do in trades.
“He’s only 28 years old. We know the injury history. That’s the risk on it, but that risk was worth it because of the talent we’re bringing back.”
Three years later, Griffin is nearly 32 and found himself at odds with the Pistons’ direction.
Under first-year general manager Troy Weaver, the Pistons aren’t chasing the playoffs yet. They’re in the beginning stages of a rebuild. Knee surgery limited Griffin to 18 games last season, and the uber-athletic, supremely skilled forward who brought the Clippers to national prominence and led the Pistons to the playoffs in 2019 has rarely been seen these past two years, if at all.
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The Pistons knew the Griffin trade could bite them. It eventually did. The Pistons and Griffin agreed to a buyout on Friday, league sources confirmed to the Free Press. The two sides had previously agreed Feb. 15 to part ways. Griffin is in the midst of his second consecutive down season after undergoing left knee surgery in April of 2019 and January of 2020.
The unceremonious end of the Griffin era in Detroit illustrates a pitfall that comes with rebuilding. And if there’s something Weaver can take away, it’s that attempting to shortcut a rebuild can undo years of progress. Patience is a virtue, as the cliche goes. Van Gundy swapped two of Detroit’s most valuable assets in rising forward Tobias Harris and a 2018 first-round pick to acquire Griffin. It brought the franchise one playoff berth, zero playoff wins and tens of millions in dead money on the books through the 2021-22 season.
“We did some good things here and changed some things for the better, but we made some mistakes and overall didn’t get the job done,” Van Gundy, now the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, said Feb. 14. “Didn’t win enough, fast enough. Because of my respect for the ownership group and the people that I worked with, and the fans here, I wish we would’ve done better. … I’ll always regret that it didn’t go better.”
The Pistons grew impatient in 2018, as they neared a decade without a playoff win. The franchise appeared to be on an upswing after the 2015-16 season; they won 44 games and earned their first playoff bid since 2009. They had a young, developing core in Andre Drummond, Tobias Harris, Reggie Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Stanley Johnson.
Injuries limited Jackson to 52 games the following season, and the Pistons missed the playoffs. Jackson played 45 games the next year and the Griffin trade didn’t give them the playoff push they desired. He played in 25 games, missing the final eight, and Van Gundy was fired after a 39-43 season.
Griffin delivered one of the best seasons of his career in 2018-19 with 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 75 games. The Pistons made the playoffs but were swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
Recurring issues with Griffin’s left knee spelled the end of his time in Detroit. His knee pain led to him missing the first two games of the series, and two surgeries failed to help him regain his All-Star form.
Weaver’s debut season can be characterized as aggressive. He made numerous trades in November to give the Pistons a new core of players to build around. Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey have impressed, the franchise is high on two-way guard Saben Lee’s trajectory and there’s confidence Killian Hayes’ seven games before his hip injury were a poor representation of the player he will become. Jerami Grant, Josh Jackson and Mason Plumlee have outplayed the contracts they signed during the offseason, and Detroit is trending toward another high lottery pick in a 2021 draft expected to be strong.
Unlike Van Gundy, Weaver isn’t being pressured to quickly deliver wins and postseason appearances. The Pistons are taking the long road with their rebuild and relying on the internal development of their young players to bring the franchise back to contention. Weaver wasn’t responsible for the Griffin trade, but he is responsible for the team’s future. Moving off Griffin gives the team something of a clean slate, and coach Dwane Casey can now distribute his minutes (31.3 per game) among the building blocks of the organization.
None of this is an indictment on Griffin. He didn’t ask to be traded from the Clippers, but carried himself professionally in Detroit and worked hard for the franchise. He delivered the single best individual season any Pistons player has had since Grant Hill. He embraced being a veteran mentor for the young players on this season’s roster.
In the end, the Pistons did right by him and are letting him choose his destiny.
“He will be in the Hall of Fame one day, and hopefully I’m around to see it,” Casey said recently. “He gave his heart and soul to this organization and we as Pistons fans should thank him. I know from a coaching standpoint, I appreciate it. I appreciate everything he did for the team, for the organization and for the community.”
Casey acknowledged the Pistons need a thorough rebuild. Weaver’s eye for talent and willingness to get deals done has endeared him to the fanbase, and the team appears to be trending the right way. His biggest challenge now could be to keep the momentum going. Progress is rarely linear, but recent history shows how detrimental it can be when rebuilding teams rush their revamp.
“To see our team change so much in the last year is good,” Casey said. “It was needed. No disrespect to anybody else, or the previous regime, but it was needed. To grow the right way, to bring the right players in to grow and build it from the ground up the right way, to meet today’s NBA, is something that Troy and I, we’re all trying to do. With Tom (Gores’) blessing, it should be fun to watch for our fans. The losses hurt, they should hurt, but there’s growth in those losses and good things are down the road.”