In the moments immediately following Detroit’s loss to the Boston Celtics earlier this week, a pair of former teammates reunited near mid-court.
Former Pistons star Blake Griffin and Saddiq Bey, wearing opposing uniforms, embraced each other for a quick conversation. Griffin did most of the talking, as Bey attentively nodded, but it was a quick catchup between competitors and more importantly, friends.
Griffin was a 10-year veteran when Bey was drafted by the Pistons in 2020. At that time, the Pistons were led by Griffin, who reclaimed his All-Star status in Detroit and helped snap a two-year playoff drought in 2019. That still stands as the Pistons’ last postseason appearance.
Now in his 13th season, Griffin is in a reserve role with the Celtics after spending two seasons with the Brooklyn Nets.
The Blake Griffin era in Detroit is one that many Pistons fans appreciate, while others tend to want to forget, due to its sour breakup, as Griffin was bought out of his contract, and with the upcoming rebuild, he was better suited to play for a contender.
The Pistons haven’t produced any winning seasons since his departure, but the team is restoring the franchise around a developing group of young talent that includes Cade Cunningham, Jaden Ivey, Bey and Isaiah Stewart.
Griffin spoke about the Pistons’ young core before Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job,” Griffin told The Detroit News. “It feels like exactly what they wanted to do — rebuild, get guys in the draft, get guys around just to fill out the team — and I feel like they made smart moves. I like all of their young guys a lot.”
In just three years, Pistons general manager Troy Weaver has aggressively transformed a team that featured veterans like Griffin, Derrick Rose and Jerami Grant, into a roster beaming with youthful energy and athleticism.
The explosiveness of this year’s lottery picks, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren, has the franchise encouraged about its future. Combine the potential of those rookies with Cunningham, who’s taken his game to another level in his second season, along with Stewart, the heart and soul of the team, and Bey, a 3-and-D player who’s expanding his game inside the 3-point arc, and the Pistons have some building blocks toward competing on a nightly basis.
After the Pistons’ loss to the Celtics, Bey told The News that Griffin showed him the ins and outs of navigating the NBA during their short time as teammates. After he was drafted, Bey and Griffin bonded through their workouts. They remain close despite being on different teams.
“He was my vet my rookie year in Detroit,” Bey said. “He was the guy that took me under his wing and showed me a lot of the ropes. No matter what team he’s been on, he’s been a constant veteran to me by giving me words of wisdom. I always appreciated it.”
That bond was questioned by many in Griffin’s first return to Detroit after he was traded to the Nets. The two got into a verbal exchange after Bey blew past Griffin for a dunk. They bumped into each other following the play and Bey and Griffin had to be separated. The game was already chippy because Stewart was ejected in the second quarter for returning an elbow that Griffin inadvertently threw.
Both Bey and Griffin referred their recent battles back to their competitive nature, which makes them even more intense on the court.
“That’s kind of how it’s been my whole life,” said Bey, who’s averaging 17.1 points and 4.8 rebounds this season. “Once you step in that 94 by 50 feet, everyone is trying to take the other person’s head off and trying to win, no matter what happens. You want everybody to finish healthy, but you want to win, for sure. Off the court, that’s when we go back to being human. But on the court, I try not to have a human or emotional type of attitude. I try to just be a killer.”
That competitive side is what has helped define Griffin.
“The past two summers, Saddiq’s come to work out with me and stay with me, and we always talk about it,” Griffin said. When you get on the court, don’t expect all the hugging and dapping up that you see a lot of guys do. That’s what I love about Saddiq. That’s what I love about a lot of those guys over there.”
Griffin, a former No. 1 overall pick, has a good idea of what’s being asked from Cunningham as the face of a Pistons’ franchise. The best years of Griffin’s basketball career were spent with the Clippers, a franchise he took from the depths of the Western Conference standings to annual playoff contention.
He says Detroit needs to continue to fill out the roster to complement Cunningham and Bey, and applauded the Pistons’ acquisition of Bojan Bogdanovic, who secured a two-year extension to remain in Detroit.
“Cade had a great year last year. It’s hard to come in as a rookie and immediately impact winning and do all of this stuff. He will, but it just takes time,” Griffin said. “Jaden. Saddiq’s one of the hardest-working young guys I’ve been around. I really like Duren. I really like him. He’s going to be really good. Like I said, they’ve got those pieces. I think the move and signing of Bojan (Bogdanovic) was huge.
“To go to that next level, I think it requires every single area of the organization. Coaching staff will probably be something that needs to continue to get better as well. I love their young talent, though, and the front office has done a great job.”
When asked to reflect on his time with Detroit, Griffin was proud of the lone playoff run but appeared disappointed for how his time with the Pistons came to an end. A six-time All-Star, Griffin led the Pistons to the playoffs in 2019 in his first full season after he was traded from the Clippers. He averaged a career-best 24.5 points that season and achieved his career-high in scoring with a 50-point masterpiece in a win over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Griffin said the moment, and the playoff season, was one he’ll never forget.
“That season was special,” Griffin said. “It’s always a bummer to kind of come back and always have some hatred from the city for how things ended in a year where they kind of set us down and without saying, ‘It’s a rebuild. We’re going to be focused on our young guys.’ I remember having a conversation with (Derrick Rose) and we’re kind of like, ‘Well, this is it for us.’
‘It was no hard feelings for me, but it does kind of affect you when you come back and you don’t feel the same love that you did when you were playing there, trying to give everything you have for a franchise.”
Griffin returns to Detroit as a member of the Celtics on Saturday, when the Pistons have home for a two-game homestand before their six-game west coast trip next week. He didn’t play in the first meeting between the two teams. Despite his reduced role, Griffin still finds moments of appreciation, as he smiled during late-game chants of “We want Blake!” from fans inside TD Garden on Wednesday.
Once the game ended, he walked over to meet his former teammate. Griffin covered his mouth with his warmup shirt to shield their words from the public. Bey caught on quickly and imitated his veteran.
Just like old times.
Celtics at Pistons
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena
TV/radio: BSD/91.7 or 98.7
Outlook: The Pistons are on the second night of a back-to-back and will face the Celtics for the second time in four nights, following a 128-112 loss on Wednesday night in Boston.