Blake Griffin gave the Detroit Pistons everything he had in 2018-19. The Pistons didn’t return the favor.
They gave him excuses about the contracts that they were saddled with from the Stan Van Gundy regime, a lopsided roster that was doomed to produce an inefficient offense, and no real vision for how this team could ever be a contender.
That’s enough of that.
Going into this offseason, this front office has everything it needs to create a roster that can be successful. And not the 47, 48-win kind of successful. Like, 55-plus wins where you can legitimately see a roster in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The team has $42 million in expiring contracts, a stable full of young players, all of their upcoming first-round draft picks, a bounce-back season from Andre Drummond, and a guy who was the second-best player in the Eastern Conference last season. If you can’t build a competitive roster with all of that, find a new job.
All it takes is fit
The Bucks had never been a big 3-point shooting team. Their best player is not a 3-point threat. By volume, they were last in the league in 2015-16, 24th in 2016-17, 25th in 2017-18. But this season, they jumped to second. How? They added Brook Lopez to the starting lineup and had him shooting 6.6 three-pointers per game. Then Giannis Antetokounmpo played at a MVP level and the team won 14 more games.
Lopez was the only new player among their top six players in minutes, but it’s not like Lopez is a +14 win player. The team identified a key stylistic change that would open things up for their best player and it led to great results for both. They considered how to optimize their key player and effectively implemented that vision. That’s how it’s done.
We know where the problem is
True shooting percentage is to the Pistons what 3-point shooting was to the Bucks. Of course. I’ve only written on it about a billion times, you know the spiel by now. They were bottom five in the league again this season, which makes for the sixth straight year they’ve been one of the least efficient shooting teams in the NBA.
The Pistons will never be a successful team until they are in the top half of the league in TS. The Magic, Pistons, and Thunder were the only playoff teams in the bottom half of the league in TS and they combined for a 1-12 record in the playoffs.
The standard solutions folks have been suggesting for the Pistons offseason has been relatively predictable. Try upgrading Reggie Jackson at point guard, improve on the wings. Sorry to break it to you, but that’s not going to turn take this team from the bottom five in true shooting percentage to above average.
Let’s take a best-case scenario for running the team back as-is, when they broke out of their two-month slump at the end of December to make a strong finish to the season. Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson were both playing very well, 3-point shots were falling, the schedule was favorable, they stayed healthy until Blake Griffin’s knee left him in and out of the lineup. Roster plagues Jose Calderon and Stanley Johnson weren’t on the court.
You can look at those two months as an example of everything lining up for this roster about as well as you could hope for. They finished the season 20-13. That’s pretty good!
But still. If you project that out over the course of 82 games, that’s still only 49 wins. That would put them right in the 4-5 seed range in the Eastern Conference. If you take a segment of the season where you’re getting the absolute ceiling of what you could hope for out of a roster and it’s that underwhelming ... then what are you doing?
There’s room in the world of roster building for the incremental upgrade route. During the Stan Van Gundy/Jeff Bower years, there was some logic to it. Most of their core players were still younger than their prime so there was time to tinker. That’s not the case anymore.
Blake Griffin’s window is now
Perhaps Blake has another Herculean career season in him, but the expectation would be that his best seasons are behind him.
Internal development ain’t going to do it. Andre Drummond had a great post-All Star break where he played some of the best basketball of his career. But to bank on significant growth from him would be contrary to statistical norms for career progression, which suggest that he’s already hit his peak. And how much better would guys like Bruce Brown, Thon Maker, and Luke Kennard have to get to take this team from a 49-win ceiling to a 55-plus-win ceiling?
True that they won’t have to play Calderon, Glenn Robinson III, and the now-traded Stanley Johnson, but even hoping for upgrades over them aren’t enough. There are always weak spots in a rotation. Chances are that all 15 roster spots won’t be filled with a guy that you feel great about getting out on the floor and there’s always the chance that injury forces them into the lineup. But still, Calderon and GRIII only played 600 minutes each. They were 12th and 13th on the Pistons in minutes played. If a guy playing 600 minutes makes your house fall down, the foundation is the real problem.
The draft ain’t going to do it. This is a weak draft and the Pistons pick at 15. The odds are extremely low that they land a player who will make an impact next season.
The little money the Pistons have in free agency ain’t going to do it. After all, it’s never done it for the Pistons. And the new front office doesn’t seem to have any magic touch, whiffing on their offseason free agent signings of Calderon, GRIII, and (sorry Zaza, I like you but ... ) Zaza Pachulia. Yeah, they had to shop the bargain bin but still.
The Bucks were successful because they made a transformational stylistic change. Swapping Jackson for Conley and signing DeMarre Carroll doesn’t quite qualify as a transformational stylistic change. It’s about on par with upgrading Ersan Ilyasova with Tobias Harris. Sure, Harris is much better than Ilyasova. But the lack of a transformational stylistic change kept the Pistons in the bottom five in TS.
It’s not rotisserie basketball
I sometimes wonder how much NBA2K influences fans’ views on roster building. When it comes to the NBA2K universe, if you replace a player with an 80 rating with a player with an 85 rating, your team will obviously be better. And if you have players with high ratings at all of your positions, that’s when you’ll win.
That’s not how it works in the real world. Brook Lopez’s NBA2K rating was unlikely to be in line with a 14-win improvement. And the 76ers would shred in the game, but in the real world, floor spacing is important and finishing 19th in 3-point attempts with a bunch of players who need to attack the rim leads to a sum that’s less than the whole of its parts.
For the Pistons, that line of thinking may lead to thinking that they’ve got a power forward and a center whose ratings are solid, so the job is to strengthen the other spots. On the video game, sure. But that’s not going to get you to the transformational stylistic change.
So what will?
Effective offenses start with actually putting pressure on defenses, attacking them. The Pistons have that in Blake Griffin, but it’s obviously not enough. It also takes players who can create from the perimeter. The Pistons don’t have that.
Passive offensive threats, guys who are dependent on others to create for them, still play a role, but only as long as you have an appropriate number of active offensive threats. The Pistons don’t.
The onus should be on putting all as many assets as possible toward acquiring the best active offensive threats that the Pistons can land. While these types of players aren’t easy to get, it’s possible. See: Griffin, Blake.
It’s clear as mud
We know what came to mind for the prior leadership in Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower. Building around Andre Drummond with a high pick and roll point guard, a stretch four, and the goal (though rarely realized) of shooters at the wings. But what is the current leadership’s vision?
A team hasn’t won a championship with a power forward and center as its two leaders in field goal attempts in 20 years, since the Spurs did it with Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Sure, there are teams that are still effective in the league today with ball dominant power forwards or centers. But look at the power forwards and centers next to those ball dominant power forwards and centers. Their frontcourt partner isn’t going to be among the top three in usage percentage or shot attempts.
Know why? Because it doesn’t work.
To have an effective offense in the league today, it requires balance. Blake can serve as the offense’s primary threat, but the next two primary threats need to come from the perimeter. It leads to more penetration, ball movement, and open looks for shooters.
But hey. Maybe you love the Twin Towers idea (even though it’s been outdated for a decade). OK. That’s fine. Maybe Andre Drummond is the center of your dreams to play next to Blake Griffin.
That’s where an explanation is needed. How will that lead to the team going from a bottom-five team in TS to an above average TS? Why would a front court-dominated offense be the very best method of building around Blake Griffin?
Because even if you really, really, really think that it can work, that’s not enough. The case needs to be that this is the very best structure to optimize the team’s personnel. Look around the league. You can’t bullshit your way into being a top team with something that can work. You get there by building in a way that will work. The league is too good today.
You know what that means
So yes, Andre Drummond should be traded. Not because he sucks or doesn’t care, but because if you’re truly building around Blake Griffin, he’s not the guy who would maximize Griffin’s, and therefore the team’s, effectiveness.
I hear a lot of times that you can’t trade Drummond because of the trade market. I find that perplexing on a couple of levels. It usually comes from the same people who tout how valuable his numbers are. If they’re really valuable then other teams would find them valuable as well.
But the bigger issue is that it doesn’t matter. I’m a rock climber. Let’s say I wanted to go rock climbing, but what I had for shoes was a pair of high heels that were worth $250. But what I need are climbing shoes. Let’s say someone offers to trade me climbing shoes that are only worth $100 for the high heels. Do I say no and go climb in the high heels?
It’s not about making sure that your trade value balance sheet ends up in the positive, it’s about making your team work right.
When SVG let Greg Monroe walk with no return, there was plenty of hand-wringing. “It’s poor asset management!” Know what happened? The Pistons won 12 more games. Know why? Because the roster had the tools to do the tasks that SVG was trying to accomplish. Ersan Ilyasova and, later, Tobias Harris were far more equipped to play the style SVG wanted at power forward than Monroe was.
If Andre Drummond can be used to get the roster closer to one that has a coherent vision, that’s a win - even if the ratings on NBA2K don’t agree.
So who is it that we trade for?
It depends. I have my vision for what I think this team should look like: an aggressive point guard, a wing who can both get penetration and serve as a shooting threat, a three point specialist wing, and flexibility at the center with a platoon of one guy who is a shooter and another who can bang down low.
Looking around the NBA landscape, guys like Mike Conley and Gordon Hayward are a pair that fit that bill. I was also a big Brandon Clarke fan before it was cool and he’d be a dream next to Blake. He could play a small ball, rim protecting five or slide down as a de facto three with a floor spacing center on the court. And Luke Kennard already works as the other shooter on the wing. Between $40 million in expiring contracts, a number of young players, and Andre Drummond’s contract getting to the length that it’s not a barrier for a trade, there’s plenty of resources available to end the summer with those three names.
Conley has a true shooting percentage of 58 percent over the past three years. Even still recovering from injury, Hayward’s TS was 57.5 percent this season. Clarke’s was 70 percent, so I guess that’s not bad. With Griffin’s 58 percent TS and Luke Kennard’s 56 percent TS, that’s a starting five that shouldn’t finish in the bottom five in the league.
That’s just my vision. Yours is going to be different. Ed Stefanski’s is also going to be different.
But there has to actually be a vision. Something more than “Well, this is what we have so let’s see if we can make it work.” And hopefully it’s not a vision of some lineup from the 1990s.
There’s only two routes for next season
Personally, I think it’s possible for a team that fits well around Blake Griffin to win 55 or more games in the Eastern Conference. I think the East is much weaker than the West, making it so that having a top-tier talent with a quality supporting cast where each part compliments the other is enough to rise to the top.
Maybe you disagree. Maybe you think that the only realistic route is moving ahead with this roster as is. OK. That’s fine.
But if that’s the case, standing pat isn’t an option. This team was .500 in a mediocre conference despite having an awful lot go their way from players on an individual basis. They’ve shown pretty definitively that a 49-win pace is about as much as it can hope for. And Blake Griffin deserves better than that kind of mediocrity. If you can’t assemble a lineup that you can at least hope things click well for a 55-win season, then you don’t deserve Blake Griffin.
If you can’t do that, then it should be 20 or fewer wins. If your best player is on the wrong side of 30 and the absolute best your team can hope for is a 49-win season, then you’re on the mediocrity treadmill. Jump off.
I don’t love the idea of tanking for the Pistons. Earlier this year I wrote about why it’d be a bad idea for them and though a couple key issues were the quality of this draft and that it was too late in the season, many of the points still stand. The Pistons would need to figure out what institutional problems exist that have caused their issues with developing young talent and it’d also be a shame to fail to take advantage of an Eastern Conference that severely lacks top-tier talent.
But the goal of any team building strategy should be to win a championship. Even if it’s not exactly clear how you get there, that’s the destination. Even if it’s just being a top seed and hoping for some luck, that’s at least something.
Running it back with Griffin and Drummond as the core, there’s no way to claim the goal of that roster construction is to win a championship. It’d be hoping for a five seed, maybe below .500 if Griffin gets hurt. That is the absolute, worst way to build a roster. It’s insane. Just ... why?
I don’t trust this franchise to develop young players. I don’t trust this fanbase to support a teardown. And I think it’s unnecessary. But it should absolutely happen before going through another season with a Griffin-Drummond core.
A test for the front office and ownership
Ed Stefanski was brought in as the de facto general manager with no competitive interview process. The Pistons brought in some of the brightest GM candidates in the league, but the job offer turned out to basically be his assistant. Despite a lackluster resume from Stefanski.
This offseason is where he proves he deserves his job. It’s where he proves that he was brought in to be more than just Mr. Smithers next to Tom Gores as Mr. Burns. Where he proves that he deserved to be handed the job.
For years, Pistons fans have gone around in circles about the team’s problem. Is it the players or the coach? It’s been a trick question all along. It’s been higher up. The problem has been the team building, the front office. Sometimes it was just bad ideas, sometimes it was reasonable ideas that just didn’t work out.
That’s still been the problem. The Pistons need to be an organization that is actually with its times. In this modern era, rosters aren’t built based on what might could maybe possibly work. They’re based on evaluating their personnel objectively and doing their goddamn best to optimize it.
If the Pistons can do that, they’ll win. One way or another, now or later. They’ll take a step back from the situation, analyze what they have, properly assess where they’re likely to end up, and implement an appropriate strategy. If they can’t, they’ll lose. Maybe they’ll finish above .500, sure. But a five or six seed next season would be a failure for the franchise.
We’ll see which route they go.