Rod Beard | The Detroit News
Blake Griffin walked off the court for the last time with 7:06 left in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the 2019 first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Maybe it was a few games before that, when he scored 45 points, including nine 3-pointers, against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That was the real Blake Griffin — not the one who has been trudging his way through the past two seasons, trying to play on a knee that buckled under the weight of his own lofty expectations and a franchise that anointed him as its shepherd out of mediocrity.
The Pistons took a big risk when they made the blockbuster trade with the Los Angeles Clippers to bring Griffin and his max contract of $171 million over five years. It’s the equivalent of buying a new car, with the knowledge that its value begins depreciating immediately.
During Griffin’s first full season with the Pistons in 2018-19, they had a luxury sports car that the Pistons became enamored with because they hadn’t had a player like him since Grant Hill. In the showroom, it always seems like a good deal, looking mainly at the upside, casting away that lingering doubt about the risk, especially with Griffin’s injury history.
Stan Van Gundy, who was the team president and coach at the time, bit the bullet, with the approval of team owner Tom Gores. They thought they were close to contending and it was worth the risk.
“Obviously, there’s some risk involved. If there were no risk involved, if Blake didn’t have any injury history, he wouldn’t be available,” Van Gundy said after the trade. “We take the risk to get that high-level talent. We weren’t in a position and aren’t now and weren’t in a position before I got here to get a (top-four) draft pick.”
Everyone will say that the deal wasn’t worth it because it didn’t yield any playoff runs — or even a win in a playoff game — but that’s the inherent risk. No one goes to the casino with the express purpose of winning money, because if they did, they just walk in, put all the money on black and live and die with one spin of the roulette wheel.
The draw is the exhilaration of the small wins along the way.
Every deal is a gamble. There’s nothing to suggest that the Pistons would have been any better off if they had kept Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and the first-round draft pick. What they lost in the Griffin trade was the flexibility to make other deals and to reshape their roster.
“We are serious about winning, and this is a major move to improve our team,” Gores said after the trade. “Blake Griffin is one of the NBA’s elite players, and when you get an opportunity to add that kind of talent, you take it.”
There was a small group of voices suggesting that the Pistons should have traded Griffin after that 2019 season, when he was at his peak. They possibly could have gotten a haul for him after an All-NBA season.
That’s the equivalent of walking away from the craps table in the midst of a big winning streak — it’s easy to say beforehand, but in the moment, it takes the most disciplined of gamblers to do. Gores and Van Gundy likely believed that they were on the precipice of something bigger, with a healthy Reggie Jackson and some small tweaks to the roster.
The pragmatic side of that is that even with an all-league version of Griffin, the Pistons only mustered a 41-41 record that season.
In hindsight, it would have been the right call, and something that new general manager Troy Weaver might have done, judging by the history of the Thunder in trading many of their stars, such as James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, when he was an assistant GM.
Better days ahead
As the Blake Griffin era ends, there’s optimism for what the future could hold for the Pistons.
Weaver’s modus operandi seems to include a lesser focus on short-term success and a more conservative approach to sustaining a long-term plan and flexibility, both with the roster and with the salary cap.
That’s where the Pistons’ rebuild is coming into focus. Griffin’s cap hit for next year will be just under $30 million, but after that, the biggest contract on the books is Jerami Grant’s very reasonable $20 million, through the 2022-23 season, when the young core of rookies could be coming into their own.
This rebuild toward a contending roster is quite different than the trade for Griffin. Beyond the young core, only Grant and Martin Plumlee are under contract beyond next season. They can make decisions about their complementary pieces such as Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk by then and have massive available cap space to augment the roster.
There is new hope, but it might just take time.