This sort of stuff doesn’t happen every day in the NBA world. A superstar player in his prime doesn’t often fall into the laps of mid-market teams like the Detroit Pistons.
But it did happen. Blake Griffin arrived, and arrived at a pivotal time, not only for the Pistons as a team, but for his own legacy and the legacy of one Stanley Alan Van Gundy.
Conjoined legacy making
Here’s the reality: Blake Griffin is now slated to spend his remaining prime years as a member of the Detroit Pistons. Stan Van Gundy has stated that Detroit is the last stop for him. They find themselves as unlikely partners paired up in the stretch run of their careers. They are now in a position to help each other cement legacies that each may not have seen possible before the surprise trade, especially on Van Gundy’s end, where he realistically had to have been discouraged that the team he had worked so hard to build was smoldering after it had begun to catch fire at the beginning of the season.
Stan and Blake are in this position barring any unforeseen changes, and they have no choice but to dig in and make this work or fade quietly into relative NBA obscurity. The choice is theirs, and the future of the franchise’s success largely rests on them choosing to put their heads down to take this challenge head on.
The good news is that they both seemed extremely up for the challenge at the outset. Griffin in his introductory press conference embraced being in Detroit, with a team that “wanted him”. Stan showed a renewed energy that was extremely evident in press conferences (he was downright giddy) right after the trade, a vitality that was slipping away while being exasperated with the inconsistency of players like Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson. Since he arrived in Detroit Stan had been searching for his alpha player both inside and outside of the team to no avail.
Enter Blake Griffin: superstar, gym rat, high IQ son of a coach... franchise savior? The skies opened and down he came, or so it seemed for a brief few games.
But, as always happens, the honeymoon phase is officially over and the real work is sitting there, glaring at them like a hungry animal waiting for food.
Starting off with a bang
Blake Austin Griffin started his career off with a bang (while of course starting it a year later than expected due to injury). Number 1 pick in the NBA Draft, Rookie of the year, 5 time All Star, All NBA. Yet due to injuries and a Clipper team that never quite lived up to expectation he’s languished a bit, even if most everyone still sees him as a top tier talent and he still puts up big numbers.
In a similar way Stan Van Gundy’s trajectory seemed firmly positioned at reaching the top tier of coaching when he lead a rag tag team plus Dwight Howard to the NBA Finals in 2009 only to come crashing back to earth when he was unceremoniously fired, apparently driven out of town by Dwight the jokester man-child.
Now both Van Gundy and Blake find themselves at a cross roads: one leads to woulda-coulda-shoulda land and eventual relative NBA obscurity. The other leads to fulfilled potential and being remembered as two of the architects of one the the best teams of an era. Blake especially has Hall of Fame talent.
This won’t be easy. The team is now hamstrung by the enormous contacts of Griffin, Drummond, and to a somewhat lesser degree Reggie Jackson. There will have to be an incredible amount of growth internally from players like Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard, continued excellent play from role players like Anthony Tolliver and Reggie Bullock, masterful trading by Jeff Bower, and a whole lot of luck with injuries.
But the intangible feeling of something special is there, and this franchise is no stranger to magic.
Shades of the Bad Boys
The Pistons have done things like this before. The Bad Boys were lead by a similarly driven-but-humble and team-oriented star in Isiah Thomas who was surrounded by a well put together group of odd balls that just worked. While much more rough around the edges there is an intensity to Stan that I’m sure Chuck Daly would’ve admired. Isiah was also just about Griffin’s age (29) when they won their first Championship in ‘89-’90, no spring chicken (more on that in a minute) but one that had been through years of playoff runs and would not give up.
The league has changed since then, it has changed even since 2004. It’s even more of a superstar league, a multiple superstar per team league in fact. But there are always outliers. 2004 was another more extreme example so we have it in our DNA, we just have to embrace that underdog mentality, work hard, and pray for multiple miracles. “Detroit vs Everybody” pretty much encapsulates that (which if it weren’t already a fashion label I’d have an easier time using more often).
The value of a veteran who can still play
Recently there have been a couple of examples where a team signed a veteran player who seemed, as is the parlance, to “not fit the timeline.” They were too old compared to the majority of the young stars.
Al Horford for the Celtics was signed at age 30 and Jimmy Butler for the Timberwolves at 27. Plenty of people questioned the logic of signing an “older” Butler, myself included. What was Butler going to do but take away from the development of Andrew Wiggins and Karl Anthony Towns? By the time they’re in their prime he’ll be long past his, right?
Well without him this season the Timberwolves would be at the bottom of the playoff contenders or possibly yet again on the outside looking in.
Very similar can be said in the case of Horford. He is the backbone of the team. Conventional wisdom says you add veterans to the bench or even the end of the bench to provide a “locker room presence” while making sure your starting five is of a similar age. These two examples buck against that wisdom.
Now we have our Horford, our Butler, in Griffin. He can be the rock solid base for our team, absorbing moments of lackluster play when necessary by taking over a game or can sit back a bit and facilitate and make the game easier for the rest of the team. He can be a mentor to Andre Drummond and Stanley Johnson, showing them how to let them game come to them, not rush their shots or make mental mistakes.
He can be and in many ways already is the unquestioned leader of this team, allowing Dre and Reggie Jackson to function like the secondary cogs they are more suited to be. They each had ample opportunity to be the alpha but neither was able to grab hold of the reins. That’s not to say that in 3 to 4 years, when he will be Griffin’s age now, that Dre might not be ready to take that mantle. In fact it may be these very years that allow Andre to absorb the necessary training to be ready for that.
Or maybe it’s Stanley Johnson, or someone who isn’t even on the team right now. But the stability of having an unquestioned leader is now there, the foundation is finally stable, the real building can start.
Leadership and the value of a coach’s son
Blake has mentioned several times how he was coached by his dad. This on the outside might just seem nostalgic or sweet, but it points to an inherent respect for coaching. One of the concerns about SVG over the years has been his boisterous coaching style. There have been multiple reports of he and Andre clashing and I can’t help but think it might be a lack of connection between the old school way of doing things and the newer generation being much more handled with kid gloves through the AAU system.
Blake provides a sort of liaison possibility, seeing both sides and being able to communicate and mediate between SVG and especially the younger players who may and probably do bristle at Stan’s bombastic personality. In a way Griffin has the opportunity to almost be a version of the now nonexistent player-coach.
From the first few games it’s obvious he is communicating well with the players on the floor and is encouraging the players like few players of his stature do. He’s no Kobe Bryant, Lebron James or Chris Paul, barking out orders, pointing fingers after botched plays, scowling after a teammate failed them in any way.
At his best he seems to be more of a steady presence, that teaches through positivity and encouragement. Handing Reggie Hearn the game ball after their win over Portland during which Hearn made his first NBA shot, a 3 pointer, in garbage time showed an incredible amount of respect for even the benchiest of bench players. It showed he is all about the team and the people who make it up. It’s said you can learn a lot about a leader by how he treats the people in the lowest positions in the organization. By that metric he’s passing the leadership test with flying colors.
The hard work starts now
So now is when the real, extremely difficult work really begins. After seven games it’s just as obvious what the problems are as where the benefits lie in having a player like Griffin, and just because something is obvious doesn’t make it any easier to fix (just take a peek at our political system, ahem). It will take an incredible amount of focus and commitment to make this situation into anything sustainable, much less Championship worthy.
Yet the Pistons have all of that in their DNA, a DNA rich in hard work, defying the odds, and challenging conventional wisdom.
Ultimately it will come down to Stan and Blake, their recognition that their fates are intertwined, and that it’s all in their hands now.