In January 2018 the Detroit Pistons shocked the NBA when they swung for the fences and traded for Blake Griffin and his gargantuan five-year $171 million contract. Heck, they even shocked Blake Griffin himself, who had signed his monster new deal on the premise of being a “Clipper for life.”
As we approach the one-year anniversary of that franchise-altering trade, it has become increasingly clear that the move has not worked out for the Pistons or for Griffin nearly as well as was hoped. Bad drafts, bad contracts, bad talent evaluation and bad roster management have created a true mess in Detroit. Shockingly, trading for Griffin didn’t instantly solve all those issues.
Welcome to the Bleak Griffin Era.
This is no fault of Griffin himself, who has been everything advertised and has continued to evolve his game in ways needed not only to play alongside Andre Drummond, Detroit’s other highly paid star, but to succeed in a modern NBA that emphasizes perimeter shot-making. Right now, he’s definitely overpaid but he’s also probably a touch underrated.
Griffin has his second-highest usage rate, second-highest true shooting percentage, third-best defensive rebound rate, fourth-best free-throw rate, is a high-volume 3-point shooter with a good conversion rate.
The problem is … well, everyone else. Everything else.
The Pistons have been looking for a point guard since trading away Chauncey Billups and still don’t have one they can rely on. The Pistons have been profligate spenders for the past decade with little long-term value or promise to show for it.
Trading for Griffin needed to be the final move in franchise-altering redesign that cemented Detroit as a perennial playoff team. Instead, it was the first move – get a superstar and figure everything else out later.
The problem is, everyone’s figured out they still aren’t good enough, and they have zero path to fix their myriad problems. The future is not bleak because of Blake, the future is bleak because the Pistons only have Blake. They have their alpha. The no. 1 option you can build your team around, but they have left themselves no way to build that team.
No young assets
The draft is always a crapshoot, but it is clear Stan Van Gundy struck out. His first pick remains his best – Spencer Dinwiddie. He plucked an injured talent in the second round and then got too frustrated at his lack of development and traded him for nothing. Now he’s a difference-maker for the Brooklyn Nets.
Van Gundy then went the “safe” route with the all-around talent of Stanley Johnson, who might have a lot of skills but through four years not nearly enough of them are at an NBA level. It turns out when you’re a B-minus talent in all facets of the game you’re not a B-minus player, you’re a C-minus or D-level player. The 2016 draft was a mess, but SVG guessed wrong when Henry Ellenson, a projected top-10 pick, “fell” into his lap. There are misses all over that first round, but the Pistons had an opportunity at Caris LeVert, Furkan Korkmaz, Pascal Siakam, Dejounte Murray and Malcom Brogdon. They took Ellenson and he had his final year option declined. The future looks decently bright for the talented Luke Kennard, but he’s not burning quite as bright as Donovan Mitchell is in Utah, to say the least. Mitchell is a player that ticks so many boxes of what Detroit is desperately searching for it’s hard not to imagine what might have been.
When you have young, contributing players you have players who perform far beyond their salaries, and you have building blocks to slot into the future with current skills and projected growth. They are a gold mine and vital to NBA success. Detroit doesn’t have any of that and are suffering for it.
Salary Cap Hell
The Pistons added a $32 million player a year in Griffin after agreeing to pay Andre Drummond $25 million a year, paying Reggie Jackson a hefty $17 million, and splurging on the following players in free agency: Jon Leuer ($10 million), Langston Galloway ($7 million), Ish Smith ($6 million) and our dearly departed Boban Marjanovic ($7 million).
That alleged murderer’s row of talent was why Stan Van Gundy and the organization deemed it better to waive and stretch Josh Smith’s contract as opposed to releasing him outright. If they did the latter, they would have had no free agent money in 2016 but he would have cleared the books. Because they did the former, Smith is getting $5.3 million this year and next.
Looking at all that contract money and nothing is egregiously terrible. But everyone on that list is overpaid, and if you have that many overpaid players, you’re probably going to get yourself fired. Unsurprisingly, that is exactly what happened to Van Gundy.
An entire new front office was brought in to clean up Van Gundy’s mess, but there were no tools in the toolbox. The team needed to improve their perimeter defense, 3-point shooting, playmaking, interior defense, depth.
That’s a caviar shopping list on a cheese and crackers budget. The Pistons already had a $117 million roster with a salary cap sitting at $101 million and punitive luxury tax is $123 million.
That left the new regime and new head coach Dwane Casey shopping at the NBA thrift store. With obvious holes on the wing, at point guard and in the frontcourt, Detroit’s pockets were empty.
Free agent bargain bin
The Pistons were so cash-poor they couldn’t even entertain the idea of re-signing Anthony Tolliver – a great player and person who seemed to really click in Detroit. A team desperate for 3-point shooting had to sit and watch as a player who played more than 1,700 minutes for them at power forward, with 77% of his shots being 3s that he converted at a 43% clip went to Minnesota on a paltry $5.7 million deal. It was a borderline tragedy.
Detroit used their meager funds to bring in Glenn Robinson III (a smart gamble that hasn’t paid off) and veterans Jose Calderon and Zaza Pachulia. Those vets only count against the league minimum for salary cap purposes, almost completely explaining why they were targeted. Adding those three players has left the Pistons $480,000 below the luxury tax. If Detroit so much as sneezes they might be forced to pay the tax. Teams that are borderline playoff entrants shouldn’t ever be paying the luxury tax. The Pistons won’t be paying the luxury tax.
Options aren’t just limited but nonexistent
So they are stuck with no way to improve the obvious holes on their roster.
They can’t make trades unless it is for equal contract value. And following the misses in the draft of Stanley Johnson and Henry Ellenson, they are not in a position to sacrifice a pick or Luke Kennard attached to a deal like Leuer’s or Jackson’s for a marginal, or even a marked, upgrade in the rotation.
If the Pistons don’t want Jackson why would anyone else? Same for Leuer or Galloway. The Pistons were locked in for 2018-19 the day the team sacrificed all their flexibility for Blake Griffin. And that team just wasn’t good enough.
The holes were obvious before the trade, they were obvious through the offseason and they are obvious now. And there is nothing that can be done about it. Status quo is practically the only option. The only trade pieces that the team has are likely pieces they can’t afford to sacrifice – Ish Smith at point guard, their best 3-point shooter in Reggie Bullock, and the world’s best rebounder Andre Drummond, whose salary wouldn’t appeal to many NBA teams.
Bleak, bleak, bleak.
And for those looking for a light at the end of this tunnel, don’t look too hard at next season. The team is already above the salary cap with $107 million in committed salaries. That also doesn’t factor in the return of Smith or Reggie Bullock, two roster mainstays, on new deals. They will have the flexibility to spend their full mid-level exception ($8.6 million) on a piece or pieces – but what do you target? The giant hole at point guard? The multiple giant holes at the wing? The giant hole in the frontcourt?
A stranded superstar
Everyone was worried about Blake Griffin’s salary. Everyone was worried about his injury history.
Now I’m just worried that he’s absolutely wasting his prime years with the Detroit Pistons.
Griffin didn’t make the playoffs in his age 28 season with the Pistons, and it looks increasingly likely he will miss the playoffs in his year 29 season in Detroit. If next season, his age 30 season, is also a wash in Detroit ... what are we even doing here?
Griffin is doing everything in service of a franchise that can do nothing right.
Mercifully, in 2020(!!!) things can change. Josh Smith is off the books, and I will throw some kind of party to celebrate that fact. Reggie Jackson will be off the books. Jon Leuer and Langston Galloway will likely have moved on. The Pistons will have significant money under the cap to actually remake the team properly around Griffin.
But by then he will be a very banged up 31 years old and probably with few fond memories of Detroit. How much more can he take? How much punishment is it worth?
The future in Detroit is clear, and it isn’t extremely bright. The roster you see now is almost assuredly the roster you’ll see in April fighting for the final playoff spot. The roster you see now also looks like a team headed for a No. 8 pick in the draft or in the best-case scenario a first-round playoff beatdown at the hands of the Bucks or Raptors.
Next year is only marginally more hopeful because, maybe, somehow, someway this new Detroit front office could offload expiring deals like Jackon’s, Leuer’s or Galloway’s for better roster fits with larger financial commitments.
Maybe, just maybe, Bruce Brown and/or Khyri Thomas are real-deal steals in the second round. Kennard could continue to develop as a multi-faceted scorer who is more aggressive and makes fewer young-man mistakes on the floor.
Who are we kidding, though? Fool me once, Pistons, shame on you, fool me since 2009 and maybe there is really something clinically wrong with me.
The Pistons swung big for Blake Griffin and they got a great player. But this organization and team had a plan flawed from the ground up. Now they are paying the price, and the cost just gets steeper as the years go on. They have nowhere to go and nothing to do except hope Griffin remains a great player. Are you willing to bank on that? Or is it more likely Griffin will kill himself carrying a poor team nowhere significant? With a broken body and large paychecks, and with the only solution being quiet obscurity or an ugly, if amicable, parting of ways before his contract expires.
I see the future in Detroit, we all do – we all did last January. We hoped for the best, but the future was, is and will be bleak.
Welcome to the Bleak Griffin Era. Enjoy your stay until 2022 unless Griffin is so eager to move on that he leaves some money on the table to get his career back.