Blake Griffin’s season is over, an Andre Drummond trade seems imminent, Dwane Casey is talking about a process, Reggie Jackson is still hurt.
This is what the end looks like.
The Detroit Pistons’ season is lost, and its latest attempt at building a contender has failed. That doesn’t mean, however, that it was all for naught. Most attempts at building a champion fail, often spectacularly.
Things were much different, or at least they felt much different, a few months ago. The hope coming into this season was based on the way the Pistons played after the All-Star break last season. Jackson finally started to look like his old self and chemistry among core players was forming. In the second half, Detroit played at a 48-win pace.
An offseason replacing useless roster filler with actual rotation players pointed to the chance for an even better season. It wasn’t totally unreasonable to think that a healthy (and lucky) Pistons team could compete for 50-plus wins and possibly make noise in the playoffs.
Well, at this point, even if everyone was magically healthy for the rest of the season and the Pistons played at a 50-win pace the rest of the season they would manage just 39 wins. That’s probably not a playoff team, even in the East, and it’s certainly not a good team.
Of course, we also know that everyone is not going to be healthy. Blake is gone for the season, Reggie will be back soon but he hasn’t played in four months, and we don’t know how much longer Luke Kennard will be sidelined. So, it is 100% correct to view this season as officially a lost cause for even the most optimistic.
OK, so how was this not a total mistake?
When building a contender, one of the most iron-clad requirements is having a dude who can be THE dude. Blake Griffin, when healthy, is that dude. Before he hurt his knee last season he was proving that he was that good. Not only is having a guy of that caliber a must, it’s also typically the hardest piece to obtain — especially when you’re not drafting in the top 3 nor a free agency destination.
Griffin, with Andre Drummond, formed a quality one-two punch. The Pistons were +5.4 per 100 possessions when both Andre and Blake shared the floor and were even a positive in limited minutes when both were on the floor in the shellacking they took against the Bucks in the playoffs.
Last season, the issue was that the Pistons had, quite possibly, the worst wing rotation of any non-tanking team in the NBA. So while it was a long-shot to truly contend, there was real reason to believe that if Luke Kennard took another step and they got a couple of other things to got their way, this could be a competitive team. Shoot, even with Griffin looking like a shell of himself, in 117 minutes this season the Bruce/Luke/Tony/Blake/Andre lineup was +19.5 per 100 minutes.
So, it didn’t work, the Pistons knew that a cloud of injuries could bury this team when they traded for Blake, but that doesn’t mean it was foolish. They didn’t make that trade to try and be on the treadmill of mediocrity, they took a big swing and it ended up just being a high pop fly.
OK, so where do they go from here?
First off, the Pistons should officially unofficially give up on Blake Griffin. It isn’t worth trying to build a winning team the next two seasons hoping he gets all the way back to where he was last season. At this point, the Pistons should assume he will be diminished or hurt or both for the rest of his days in a Detroit uniform.
Even before he got hurt last season, he started showing signs of slowing down from the wear and tear. Post-All-Star break last season, he averaged 20 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per game with true shooting of 53.8%. That’s still good, but it’s a far cry from the 26/8/5 on 60% true shooting he put up before the break.
Most importantly, it is definitely not “the DUDE on a contending team” good. So, don’t both about any “what if Blake gets healthy” scenarios. Just purge it from your mind. The Pistons have had, what, three of their past four seasons crippled by injury to key players. When you consider that had Blake not gotten hurt last season the Pistons likely don’t fall to the 8th seed and can maybe put up a fight with whoever they draw in the first round, then they would be 4-for-4 on ruined seasons.
Detroit might try to do the hard tear-it-down rebuild and full youth movement, or they could for for the soft rebuild and keep a few veterans around for when Blake is healthy. But the team still needs to focus on, and build around youth.
And we think Blake is going to be cool with this?
If Griffin has a problem with it then the Pistons can kindly remind him that the last year of his contract is a player option that he is welcome to opt out. He, of course, will not do this, but if he raises a stink he will have little ground to stand on. He’s going to be paid very well, and he can be satisfied being a veteran presence.
Ok, so talk about life after Blake
Job No. 1 is to decide who is worth keeping as part of the rebuild and who isn’t. This means the Pistons should definitely attempt to get anything of value in trades for their veterans with no long-term future on the team. Langston Galloway is expiring. Markieff Morris and Tony Snell are veterans with one year left after this season, and they should all be traded if the Pistons can get any sort of asset in return for them.
Ideally, Derrick Rose would be in the same boat, especially since he likely has the most value on the team. Supposedly there was a gentleman’s agreement between Rose and the team that they won’t trade him unless he wants to be traded, and he doesn’t want to be traded right now so prevailing wisdom says he is going nowhere this deadline.
That’s fine. The Pistons have trouble attracting quality free agents so it’s understanable not to risk upsetting a veteran player and having that reputation linger long after Rose is gone. Also, even in a full rebuild it helps to have a actual NBA point guard on the roster. Even if he stays all the way through next season as well, the worst that happens is that he makes the Pistons offense a little bit more watchable. Even if they draft a point guard, there will be minutes for them.
I haven’t heard Andre Drummond mentioned much
Seems like a moot point. All reports are that he will not last beyond the deadline in a Pistons jersey. Even if he does, all those same reports are that he is opting out, and Detroit should just let him walk. It sucks that this is how Andre’s time in Detroit will end but them’s the breaks.
What if he opts in?
Then he is on the team next season. He’s the sort of complementary player that he can work fine with whatever young guys the Pistons are playing next season, and if they really want him gone they can trade him in the offseason. Assuming they go for a full rebuild, it’s not like they will need the cap space anyways. The worst-case scenario is he sticks around all of next season, sets some Pistons records and makes life easier for the Pistons youngsters by setting monster screens, running dribble handoffs, and cleaning the glass while the Pistons lose 60 games. Then he leaves and the Drummond chapter closes for good. There really isn’t a risk here. Especially since you don’t have to pay any of the youngsters until after next year.
But they should still trade him?
I’m admittedly a huge fan of Drummond. It’s frustrating because, by all accounts he wants to stay in Detroit. That’s a rarity for a player of Drummond’s caliber, and he’s young enough that he could make sense with the Pistons youngsters.
Remember, though, the first point I made. The Pistons must treat Blake as a sunk cost. With that much salary effectively dead on your roster you are not winning anything, which means the Pistons should set themselves up to be good in two years when Blake comes off the books. As such, yeah, the Pistons should trade him. They should hold out for real return, if the offers are as low-ball as simply for expiring contracts as has been reported then hold out till the deadline and hope someone blinks. If they don’t, let him do dribble hand-offs with Svi, Luke, and Sekou the rest of the year and wish him luck in the future.
The only scenario where they keep him long-term would be if they are truly being offered crap this deadline so they don’t trade him, then he opts in and the same thing happens next summer. Then, hey, maybe something really clicks with the team and it looks like if they can survive one more year of Blake’s contract and it looks like they can build something.
So what about the young core?
This is where things get a bit dicey. The Pistons hypothetical rebuilding young-core has an issue. As of this moment, the Pistons look to have four solid young pieces in Christian Wood, Luke Kennard, Bruce Brown, and Svi Mykhailiuk who are all about to enter front ends of they hypothetical primes. Wood is already 24, Luke and Bruce are 23, and Svi is 22, but all three of Luke, Bruce, and Svi come off of their rookie deals after next season. (so does Khyri Thomas just for the record. In case he shows any signs of life) This is a problem because it is already clear that the Pistons best young piece is Sekou Doumbouya, who only just turned 19. Toss in that the Pistons are likely to have a high draft pick where they will probably draft some 20-year-old this summer and they have a timeline conundrum.
Luke, Bruce, Svi, and Wood all have the makings of solid players. None of them are good enough to be the best player on a good team, not to mention a real contender. So you can’t really build around any of them even if you might be able to build with them. The one guy (and possibly a second depending on what their draft pick from this \summer looks like) who may actually have that potential of truly being a franchise cornerstone won’t be ready for at least another two or three years and possibly longer. If you consider that the hypothetical prime for most NBA players is from age 24 to 28, most of their current young core will be at the tail end of their primes just when Sekou is ready to take over the league.
So what’s the answer?
That is the most important question facing the front office. They have two options — a soft-rebuild or a hard reboot. A hard reboot doesn’t necessarily mean “trade Luke Kennard,” but it should certainly be on the table. If Sekou is the team’s best prospect then everyone else is expendable, the team could sign more young guys this summer and win 18 games next season. The upside to this approach is obvious. The Pistons would likely get at least two straight really high draft picks (this summer and the next) to get impact players as young as Sekou and build a new, dangerous core.
The downside is that the Pistons will be terrible for years with no guarantees their picks will be as good as Bruce, Luke, Christian, and Svi. And it’s not like those players are over the hill.
A soft rebuild, on the other hand, means that the Pistons sign actual NBA players this summer (they will have a little money if Drummond opts in and more money than they need if he opts out). So, for instance, if the Pistons don’t draft a point guard they would still have Rose and/or Brown, and they could sign a player like DJ Augustin this summer to help the other young players. Young talent gets priority and an easy path to playing time, but stop gap veterans can help plug holes and the goal would be win some games and, most importantly, use veterans who can help those young guys reach their potential.
The downside is that if Pistons win more games they don’t get as high of draft picks and maybe can’t draft another impact player to play alongside Sekou. That means they could potentially be jogging on the mediocre treadmill for a second decade.
Would it be the worst thing if the Pistons were only bad instead of awful? Yes and no. It could be the best thing to truly bottom out for multiple season but, you know, not sucking would be kind of nice. Also, if Blake Griffin comes back reasonably healthy the Pistons likely won’t be terrible enough and he still won’t be tradable. If he’s good and the Pistons have that the Pistons do have enough useful young guys on the roster they could be a fun team that actually does win some things.
Lastly, here is the biggest upside. Maybe Sekou doesn’t take five years to make it. It didn’t take Giannis until 24 to make his first All-Star game. He did it at 22. By 24 he was an MVP. Andre Drummond also made his first All-Star game at 22, and both players put forth really solid seasons at age 21. So if Sekou’s timeline means that he’s ready to start winning in just a couple of years, then the Pistons actually could find themselves on the Bucks timeline. Because it is important to remember that rarely is a competitor made overnight, part of the journey is usually spending a year or two making the playoffs but losing. So if the Pistons can get going on that sooner rather than later, which if Sekou is ready ahead of schedule could happen, it would be hugely beneficial.
What is the most likely course?
Based upon the small amount of information we have, I would guess that they go for a soft rebuild. Tom Gores doesn’t want to tear it all the way down and it would be foolish to not at least give the Bruce/Luke/Svi/Wood a shot to prove they could maybe win some games. So trading who they can, playing young-guys, but not going out of their way to make the team noncompetitive.
What if they do none of this and talk about trying to still win with Blake?
It would be stupid to do but not totally out of the question. But by most accounts that is not where the team is looking right now so we can cross that bridge if it comes to it.