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Basketball and Balance Sheets: Blake Griffin and beyond

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We bring back an old format for the Pistons’ most recent deal.

Detroit Pistons v LA Clippers Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Well, I think it’s fair to say none of us saw “Blake Griffin, Detroit Piston” coming. This trade is going to be the single defining transaction of the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit - however long that lasts - and has salary implications that stretch all the way into 2025.

Let’s get into it.

Balance Sheets:

Yes, that is a $39 million player option in 2021-22. Pick your jaw up so we can keep going.

Cap-wise, the Pistons are in roughly the same situation they were in before the trade - Over the cap, but under the luxury tax, for the foreseeable future. The only way to make changes to the roster is through trades, exceptions, and minimum contracts. Without a 2018 first-rounder (in all likelihood), they don’t even have to worry about adding a rookie-scale contract (typically more expensive than a minimum player) until 2019.

The Pistons have no upcoming flexibility, and very little ability to get under the salary cap, but it’s time to acknowledge that that is a feature of the Stan Van Gundy model, not a bug. Large amounts of cap space are used primarily for two things: Absorbing bad contracts to receive draft assets during a rebuild, and signing free agents. Stan Van Gundy ain’t tanking, and Detroit has historically been a small fish in the free agency pool. Cap space just is not as useful to Detroit as it is elsewhere.

Don’t believe me? Fair. Maybe you’ll believe ESPN’s Zach Lowe:

The Pistons are not a destination under any circumstance. That’s why they made this deal, and almost every deal of the Stan Van Gundy regime. Bradley was out the door once they faded from playoff contention. They faced the possibility of paying Harris big money after next season. They could have let both walk and freed up cap space, but that space has less value to the Pistons than it does for at least 20 of 30 NBA teams.

Or Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today:

The optimistic alternative the Pistons were facing - not bringing back Avery Bradley and handing Harris an extension that reflects what he would make on the open market - was not exactly a cap space bonanza:

The Pistons would be further away from the luxury tax, granted, but still over the salary cap until 2020 - and needing a starting point guard and wing help at that time. The biggest benefit of less salary would be the ability to trade for MORE salary - but would the players be as talented as Blake Griffin? Impossible to say, but difficult to believe.

Lastly, I am required by Sean Corp to present you the financials on a George Hill trade (in this case, Ish Smith, Jon Leuer, and Stanley Johnson for George Hill and Malachi Richardson):

This trade is... possible. Let’s go with “possible.” That is an accurate description of the parameters of this trade, which would leave the Pistons PERILOUSLY thin on the wing, slides them too close to the luxury tax for comfort, and doesn’t even get the Pistons under the cap if they cut Hill and only pay him the million he is guaranteed in 2019-20. I would pass.

Basketball

The Pistons’ current issues that Blake Griffin helps resolve:

  • Rebounding from players not named “Andre Drummond
  • End-of-game scoring
  • Foul-drawing (Blake’s 6.6 free throw attempts per game are more than Avery and Tobias combined)
  • Passing from frontcourt players not named “Andre Drummond”
  • The issues presented by the below image:

(Ok, that last one is not a basketball issue, but I’m absolutely sure Tom Gores took it into consideration).

It shouldn’t be controversial to remind ourselves how good Blake Griffin can be. Griffin would be the first 20-point-per-game scorer the Pistons have had since... Rip Hamilton? TWELVE years ago??? Jesus. Sports Illustrated ranked him the No. 22 player in the NBA prior to this season. ESPN ranked him No. 24. He is not a perfect player, but he is the best player the Pistons have had on their team in the better part of a decade.

The biggest issue the Pistons should have with Blake Griffin is getting acclimated to exploiting the defensive attention he draws.

...when he plays.

The biggest basketball concern I have with Griffin is his availability. As I said on my podcast, he hasn’t played 70 games in a season since 2013-14, and it’d be foolish to expect him to consistently play 70 games a year for the duration of this contract. When (not if) he is unavailable, the Pistons will be compelled to turn to Anthony Tolliver and Henry Ellenson this season, and Jon Leuer in the years to come - not a comforting proposition. If Griffin and Reggie Jackson are ever hurt at the same time, the Pistons could be literally unwatchable offensively.

Speaking of unwatchable offense, the Pistons should be much better off without Avery Bradley, who corroded the offense by seizing more usage than he was capable of utilizing responsibly. It could have been because Avery was in a contract year, it could have been attributed to Reggie Jackson’s injury, it could have been because Bradley overrates his own abilities - whatever the reason, Detroit will be much better offensively without Avery.

Pistons fans also should be excited to see more of Luke Kennard, even if he is not an “exciting” player. Pistons fans should also keep praying that Stanley Johnson finds ways to be effective offensively when his shot isn’t falling. Stanley and Luke on-court together remain one of the few ways to get Stanley to a positive net rating, and those two will have to grow up quickly, as Justin Lambregtse said.

Lastly, there’s no reason to believe that Griffin and Drummond can’t combine to become one of the scarier frontcourt pairings in the East. They will not have the telepathic connection Blake and DeAndre Jordan shared - at least not right away. But Griffin commands more attention than anyone Andre has ever played with, which will enable Dre to gorge himself even more on the offensive glass, which should do, for now.

There are definite reasons why this trade is not a panacea for all that has plagued the Pistons, but as long as Griffin is healthy, Detroit’s future in the short-term is much brighter than it was 48 hours ago.