A little over a week ago, I wrote a Fan Post for Detroit Bad Boys questioning the Pistons' decisions in the 2019 NBA Draft and how they matched up with the franchise's long-term goals. My primary criticism was that the Pistons were once again operating with mixed motives, seemingly trying to "win now" and also take shots at the long-term simultaneously.
When I wrote that piece, it seemed like that draft would likely be the franchise's last chance at a major move until next year's offseason. With so many contracts on the books and few reasonable trading partners and free agent options, it seemed like the front office was about to go into hibernation from the spotlight for at least the better part of eight or nine months.
Boy, things can change, huh?
Since that time, Kawhi Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder decided to move George to the Clippers as well. WIth those moves, many are speculating that superstar guard Russell Westbrook has been placed on the trading block. The Pistons and a few others have been linked as potential trading partners.
The question now becomes whether the Pistons should make a move for Westbrook.
At first glance, there are some major reasons to be skeptical about a trade for Westbrook. To start, his salary is ridiculous. Even if you don't think he's overpaid now, he's going to be overpaid immensely during the last two or three years of his deal. Seriously, just look at this thing:
Westbrook also comes with a fiery personality that doesn't always mesh well with teammates and numbers that appear to be trending in the wrong direction. One also wonders how he will age, considering he relies so heavily on his athleticism. After all, it seems unlikely that Westbrook will transition into a pass-first point guard or perimeter jump shooter.
Trading for Westbrook would also come with a price tag. Not only in future picks, but also likely in terms of franchise flexibility. The Pistons would likely have to move at least one, if not multiple, expiring deals and maybe even a young player with potential like Luke Kennard. Would the Pistons be willing to sell off their cap space, picks, and depth for an aging guard after making a similar trade for Griffin just a few years ago? It would undeniably be a risk.
But with all that said, this feels like a risk worth taking. Let's talk about why below.1. It's Russell Freakin' Westbrook.
While we sometimes like to forget it when discussing salary hits and depth charts, the NBA is and has always been a league dominated by superstars. Yes, you get your exception to the rule here and there, but generally speaking, you're not going to go that far without some top-tier talent on your roster. They can make up for the deficits of others and can up their game when it matters the most in the Playoffs. It takes an almost perfect storm to win without multiple stars.
The Pistons certainly have one star on the roster in Griffin. He was in the All-NBA discussion last year and had a career year. But we also know that he's not going to be able to lift the Pistons to the promised land without some serious help. After all, he played in nearly every game last season and had a career year and the Pistons got swept out of the Playoffs as an eight seed. Griffin also just turned 30 years old, which implies a decline could be coming.
Maybe the Pistons can work the draft and free agency to improve the pieces around Griffin enough to move up a tier or two. However, without something surprising happening in the next 24 months, it's hard to imagine the Pistons getting a player with Griffin better than Russell Westbrook. This is a guy who's played at an All-NBA level for years. It seems pretty optimistic to think you're going to hit on a guy like that with a mid-level pick or in free agency. After all, it's Russell freakin' Westbrook we're talking about here.2. What's the point of having cap space if you're going to waste it anyway?
As mentioned above, the Pistons are on the verge of exiting a pretty tough salary cap situation at the conclusion of next season. Some of the team's worst contracts finally come off the books and the Pistons should be able to go out and upgrade the team.
Well, at least in theory.
A lot of people don't talk about this, but a team's salary cap space is only as valuable as the players that end up filling it. If you don't agree, think back to the Pistons' decision to sign Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and what the Knicks just did this offseason. Many seem to live and die by how much money a team has available, but if you're going to use that money to overpay for mediocre players, what's the point?
For the Pistons, this is where I see things sitting. No matter what fans think, Detroit isn't going to go out and sign a guy like Kevin Durant, James Harden, or Kawhi Leonard. In fact, the Pistons might not even be able to get guys in the next tier either. More likely than not, the team's going to have to settle for overpaying the solid-to-good players, trades, and the draft.
Having flexibility is a good thing in today's NBA, but what is that flexibility going to net the Pistons next offseason? Nobody on the current roster is up for/should receive anything close to a max offer and there are no other realistic targets that would turn the Pistons into anything other than a bottom half East team. That doesn't exactly imply the Pistons are about to put that cap space to good use.
I wouldn't go so far as saying the team has "nothing to lose" by trading for Westbrook, but the Pistons have no apparent path toward winning immediately without a trade. And this could be one of the franchise's only shots at a legitimate top-tier guard.3. What else is out there in the East?
We all saw how far the Pistons are away from competing for a title last season, as the team got blasted out of the Playoffs by Milwaukee. But even with that said, the top teams in the East undeniably appear to have taken a step back this offseason. Notably, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Toronto all lost key players.
The addition of Westbrook by himself won't make the Pistons the team to beat in the East, but they'd be in the discussion. A Drummond-Griffin-Westbrook led team might have the best big three in the conference. And as we've seen in recent years, that can't be underrated.
Obviously, the specifics of the trade would need to be sorted out, but if the Pistons kept Drummond, Griffin, and Kennard in a potential Westbrook trade, that could be a really dangerous lineup. You'd need some shooting outside those three, but figuring out one starting spot and a few depth pieces doesn't exactly look overwhelming. And if so, the Pistons would have a serious shot at the Eastern Conference Finals. Immediately.4. Again, look at the alternatives.
A lot of this is going to be regurgitated from above, but think about the alternatives. Based on Griffin's injury history and his age, it's hard to imagine him playing at a top-tier level for much longer than the next three years. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's certainly what the odds suggest.
With that in mind, the Pistons have a limited window to do something to shake things up. I get that demanding action is a typical hot take, but I genuinely don't know how the Pistons get out of NBA purgatory anytime soon without making a major move. The team is too good to get a top five draft pick, but not good enough to compete for anything notable.
You're not going to escape that situation by making the Playoffs as an eight seed, getting eliminated, drafting at 15th, and overpaying some solid-to-good free agents. Unless you randomly hit on a draft pick or free agent signing, that cycle's simply going to repeat until Griffin regresses or leaves Detroit by trade or of his own volition.
Trading for Westbrook is a risky move and could wreck the franchise for a number of years. But what exactly makes that different from the current path? Is two to three years of top level play followed by a rebuild much worse than four to five years of mediocre play followed by . . . a rebuild? Even if the rebuild ended up being a tad longer in the first scenario, I think I'd take it.
It's also worth noting that Westbrook's contract could actually help the team tank once the worst years of his salary come into effect. It would make sure the roster is devoid of role players good enough to lift the team out of the lottery. The idea of transitioning from deep Playoff runs directly into top five picks sounds very appealing.
There’s no guarantees in the NBA and making a move for an overpaid Westbrook would undeniably come with some major downsides. However, based on the current situation of the Pistons, the potential reward is worth the risk. And it’s better to take your shot than to hide at home with your ball. It’s time to end the NBA purgatory for the Pistons.