Niyo: Blake Griffin’s buyout a final payment for Pistons’ past sins

Detroit News

John Niyo | The Detroit News

It was a big mistake. Those usually prove costly.

And so it is with Blake Griffin and the Pistons, an arranged marriage that’ll end amicably this weekend, with the former All-Star clearing waivers and completing a buyout in Detroit before heading off to join a playoff-bound team as a free agent.

Hello, Brooklyn? Maybe so.

But back in Detroit, this was the necessary next step for the Pistons and first-year general manager Troy Weaver as he finishes the teardown of Stan Van Gundy’s poorly constructed roster. It’s both an acknowledgment of past sins and a leap of faith, frankly, that comes with owner Tom Gores’ blessing and his billfold, because Griffin was still owed more than $56 million here for the remainder of this season and next.

No matter how you frame this move, that’s a tough sell, especially for a private-equity guy who made a fortune on the other side of deals like this. But there wasn’t a lot of leverage on the Pistons’ side to negotiate that number down, obviously. And there won’t be any real salary-cap relief once Griffin is officially gone.

But there will be one less elephant in the room, if you will, reminding everyone of past blunders. One less encumberment, too, as Weaver presses forward with what Pistons fans hope will be an accelerated rebuild. There’s some exciting and intriguing young talent on the roster now, and it’s time to see even more of it.

Griffin played in just 20 games this season before reaching an agreement with the team last month to sit out until both sides could work out a trade or buyout. By then, it was clear the direction this season was headed — at 10-26, the Pistons own the Eastern Conference’s worst record heading into the All-Star break — and the level to which Griffin’s game has deteriorated.

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After two knee surgeries in an eight-month span from the end of the playoffs in 2019 to the middle of last season, he’s clearly not the same player he was when he arrived in Detroit. He’s not the guy who earned third-team All-NBA honors in his first full season with the Pistons, carrying them back to the playoffs with a career year. And he’s nowhere near the high-flying All-Star Slam Dunk champion who jumped over a Kia a decade ago.

In Brooklyn, or wherever the 32-year-old Griffin lands next week, maybe he can fill a lesser role on a championship contender, possibly as a small-ball center in limited minutes. Nobody’s banking on much more than that, honestly. Then again, his new team probably won’t be paying him more than the veteran minimum, either.

But in Detroit, Griffin had become more than just a sunk cost, unfortunately. He’d become a high-usage liability at both ends of the floor — particularly defensively — and, more important, an impediment to the on-court growth of both his replacement, Jerami Grant, and some of the young talent on the roster that Griffin spent time mentoring. Namely rookie Saddiq Bey, but also last year’s first-round pick, Sekou Doumbouya.

“He gave his heart and soul to this organization and we as Pistons fans should thank him for that,” head coach Dwane Casey said last month, when the news broke about Griffin’s pending departure. “I know from a coaching standpoint, I appreciate it. I appreciate everything he did for the team, for the organization and for the community.”

Indeed, Griffin was a consummate pro from the time he arrived here in a trade that some of us framed as a kidnapping at the time.

Griffin had just signed a massive, five-year, $171-million deal with the Clippers in Los Angeles the previous summer, after an elaborate “Clipper for Life” sales pitch that even included a mock jersey retirement. That courtship reportedly ended with the five-time All-Star telling team officials, “I want my legacy to be a Clipper.”

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It turns out Griffin should’ve demanded a no-trade clause, though, because the Clippers, who’d drafted him No. 1 overall in 2009, blindsided him with the blockbuster deal that sent him to Detroit only seven months later.

For the Pistons, it was a move borne out of desperation on multiple fronts. With the team scrambling to make the playoffs — a couple years after ending a lengthy postseason drought — Gores signed off on Van Gundy’s bold (and expensive) move to land a marquee talent.

To get Griffin, they gave up plenty, including Tobias Harris and a late-lottery pick in ’18 that the Clippers, in turn, swapped for another to draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, now a 22-year-old budding star in the league. (Charlotte used the Pistons’ original pick to draft Miles Bridges, another young pro who’s starting to shine.) Detroit also gave up any salary-cap flexibility for years. And the Pistons did all that knowing Griffin’s injury history was a red flag, along with that price tag.

“Everybody can view that differently: ‘Oh, wow, you’re locked into $140 million-plus,’” Van Gundy said at the time. “Yeah, but he’s locked into us, too, as one of the best players in the league.”

He was right on both counts, of course. And therein lies the lesson here, one that Weaver seems to understand, based on his history in Oklahoma City’s front office and his flurry of moves since taking the top job in Detroit.

Shortcuts might seem like a good idea, but they often lead to dead-ends.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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