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2017-18 Pistons review: Blake Griffin and How to Kill a Vampire

Is Griffin worth $39 million? Maybe, maybe not. Also, it doesn’t matter.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin: The Trade

Detroit Pistons receive: Blake Griffin, Willie Reed, Bryce Johnson

Los Angeles Clippers receive: Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, 2018 first-round pick (Protected 1-4), 2019 second-round pick.

The Pistons swapped no cap flexibility and, by popular perception, a limited ceiling cap flexibility and, by popular perception, a limited ceiling. Staring a $20 million-plus Tobias Harris extension in the face, the Pistons blinked, trading for an older, more expensive, but more talented player who could do what Tobias could not - carry an offense.

The incomparable Zach Lowe, summarizing it better than I could:

Blake Griffin is an exquisitely skilled player in his prime. When you read that the Clippers traded him for (mainly) a lightly protected first-round pick and a younger power forward they might have some interest in re-signing in July 2019, your reaction was probably: That’s it? That’s all they get for Blake freaking Griffin ...

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.

Through that lens, Detroit traded a first-round pick and some cap space that wouldn’t net anything better for a star.

I liked Tobias SO much, but he always left me wanting more - more shot creation, more free throw attempts, more rebounding. After the Reggie Jackson injury, he and the team careened offensively; Tobias put up 18, 5, and 2 on 43/30/83, and for better or worse, ceded primary control of the offense to Avery Bradley.

Speaking of Bradley, the trade also freed the Pistons from having to make a decision on him this offseason. Perhaps you could have gotten him at a discount because of his sub-par play and the current cap climate, but that was not a fight worth having. I tend to assume the Pistons would not have brought back Avery Bradley, but even if they did, that’s another cap log on the “zero flexibility” fire.

And Boban, poor Boban, the NBA equivalent of the 90-inch projector screen you install to host movie nights in the basement - only you live 25 minutes outside of the city, so it’s an inconvenient Uber for your friends, and you hate cleaning for company. Every time you host movie night, it’s awesome, but you can only do it on weekends, and you have to spend all Friday night vacuuming and hauling chairs down the stairs, and eventually, movie night is way more trouble than it’s worth.

...Sorry, where were we?

Losing a first-round pick sucks, full-stop. The Pistons could use the young, cheap talent. But a first-round pick is generally accepted as part of the cost to get a player like Blake for more than a year. Look at the Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kyrie Irving trades - all followed the star trade protocols (A pick, an asset, and salary ballast). The price is on the can, and Tom Gores swiped his card.

Transaction complete, the Pistons now posses “Blake Griffin, The Contract” and “Blake Griffin, The Player.”

Blake Griffin: The Contract

Blake’s contract is long, both in terms of dollars and years. It’s also a function of what a player of Blake’s talent - a max player - can be paid, and what they cost.

Max contracts are a feature, not a bug of the CBA. Artificial ceilings create congestion at the top. Just because a player is getting paid like LeBron James does not mean he is as valuable - and the league has determined that is an acceptable alternative to LeBron making $400 million or whatever he’s actually worth.

Too much hay is made by fans and analysts about this. “We’re paying you as much as LeBron - Why aren’t you as good” syndrome is real, and it grates.

People will tell you that the Blake Griffin contract is too large to construct a viable team around, that such a contract renders a team “stuck,” and that improving from this non-playoff position will be too difficult for the Pistons.

I respond with a question: How do you kill a vampire?

How do you build a playoff team? ANY WAY YOU WANT.

There is no correct way.

Overpaying players does not preclude you from being in the playoffs. That’s not in the CBA, I checked. Overpaying guys is sub-optimal, but so is the internal combustion engine and the American health care system. Sub-optimal things are still USEFUL.

Blake Griffin is an extremely useful player to have on your team, and nothing I have seen in his time in Detroit points to him being not useful (when healthy) for the length of his contract.

Blake Griffin: The Player

Blake Griffin puts up numbers. He averaged 20 points, six rebounds, and six assists as a Piston, slashing 43/35/78 with a true shooting percentage of 53 percent, a 28.4 usage rate, and a 31.5 (!?!?) assist rate. This is going to sound obvious, and it is, but 20-5-5 guys do not grow on trees:

I didn’t cut off the image - That’s the list. The MVP, the best player in the league, the top two players on the best team in the league, last year’s MVP... and your Detroit Pistons’ Blake Griffin (and Boogie Cousins). The Pistons finally have a player who can absorb a large amount of possessions at something approaching relative efficiency - and he’s also an above-average passer and rebounder!

Here’s Blake’s shot plot for his time in Detroit:

Huh. All those bully-ball postups that look ugly (but go in) really do wonders for a guy’s percentages around the rim. Yes, this is a league that is obsessed with spacing (Griffin is a league-average three point shooter, btw), but you also have to let Blake do what he’s good at.

I call this “Tobias Harris could never:”

Tobias was a very, very good player. But, even at his absolute best, he never exerted his will on a team quite like Blake does here - and this is against the Rockets, one of the better defensive teams in the league. Is this pretty? LOL no - it’s an action repeated to brutal effectiveness. But since when do the Pistons care about pretty?

Stan Van Gundy believed in the Reggie Jackson - Blake Griffin - Andre Drummond core offensively, and it’s easy to see why. Although they started without Reggie, Blake and Andre developed some mutually beneficial chemistry as they played together more:

When Reggie returned, that trio only got to play four games together, and the Lakers game offered the clearest glimpse into Stan’s vision:

The threat of the Reggie/Andre PNR opening up space for Blake to shoot, followed by the Blake post-up drawing so much attention that it leaves Reggie wide open. Like Mike Snyder (who I stole all those clips from, thanks Mike) says, basketball is a simple game if you let it be.

Blake is not a perfect player, and he does not make the Pistons a perfect team. It is wholly probable that he does not play 70 games in a season ever again. I would love for him to spend another summer bumping up his three-point percentage. I would love for him to be a more efficient roll man (his Synergy numbers as a roll man in Detroit were... ugly). I would love it if a summer spent not rehabbing meant he regained some of the athleticism that was his calling card.

But Blake made the Pistons better, he makes the Pistons better as long as he’s on the floor, and there’s no reason to believe that will stop being the case anytime soon.