It’ll take time for fit, but Griffin deal ‘made perfect sense,’ Steve Clifford says

Blake Griffin is one of the ’12 to 15’ NBA players who demands a double team, Charlotte coach Steve Clifford says
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

CHARLOTTE – Steve Clifford recently returned from a sabbatical necessitated by the fact that coaching was slowly – or maybe not so slowly – undermining his health. So his call for patience is voiced through a perspective uncommon to coaches.

But Charlotte’s coach didn’t understand anything approaching a panning of the Pistons trade that brought Blake Griffin to Detroit. It might take a minute for all the gears to mesh, he says, but it’s a deal Clifford would do a hundred times out of a hundred.

“The NBA is about winning in the playoffs, right? When you’re a coach, you look at it like this. Tie score in a Game 7, there’s 12 seconds on the clock, Blake Griffin’s one of the … I don’t know, 12 to 15 guys in the league that you can’t guard one on one. The guys they gave up are terrific, OK, but they’re not go-to, Game-7-of-a-series guys that are going to dictate a double team. That’s the number one thing you have to have to win big and that’s what they picked up. To me, it made perfect sense.”

So the Pistons might be a bit removed from getting to Game 7 of a playoff series, but here’s the thing: Opportunities to grab one of those 12 to 15 guys – you can quibble about the number, but that’s in the ballpark – come around only so often. Seize the day and sort out the rest later.

One of the consequences of the deal that sent Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley to the Clippers for Griffin is that it radically remade the Pistons in the middle of a race that wasn’t about to stop so Stan Van Gundy could make adjustments and shape the roster to better suit Griffin’s talents.

That might take an off-season and a training camp.

“I hope not,” Van Gundy winced before the Pistons lost to Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets on Sunday. “But it is harder when you’re bringing in a guy like that who’s a focal point than if you’re bringing in a guy who’s just going to fit in. Blake wants to do it badly. He’s a very competitive guy and I think he puts a lot on his shoulders. He may be pressing a little bit, too, because he’s not a guy to make any excuses at all. So he does put a lot on his shoulders.

“But it’s hard. You’re fitting into a new system, you don’t know your teammates and the ball’s in your hands. It’s not like he’s a spot-up shooter, he runs to the corner and you throw it out. Hopefully we can get it going. We’re certainly working at it, but I don’t want Blake putting all that on his shoulders. It’s not him. He’s a great player in a difficult situation.”

Clifford, moments earlier at the other end of the corridor connecting the home and visiting locker rooms, struck a similar cord.

“There’s no question that it’ll take time for him to be the player that he can be,” he said. “There’s got to be a comfort level for the other guys because they’re going to be playing through him so much, so I think there’s no question that it takes more time.”

Clifford said he saw five or six elements Van Gundy incorporated into the Pistons playbook over the All-Star break in scouting for Sunday’s game. Griffin got the ball in more favorable positions against Charlotte, taking only three shots from the 3-point line. The Pistons used him in dribble handoffs in a two-man game with Reggie Bullock and in pick and rolls. He wound up making 10 of 18 shots after coming into the game at just less than 40 percent.

“I think he’s not getting the same looks (as with the Clippers),” Van Gundy said. “He’s got different teammates on the floor, the space is not exactly the same – all of that goes into it. It’s a difficult adjustment for a great player and it’s still only been nine games and we’ve had three actual, real practices. It’s tough. Had our schedule been different and we’d gotten more work in, maybe that would have helped. It’s just something you’ve got to keep working through.”

Clifford, Van Gundy’s right hand during his time in Orlando, envisions what an off-season and familiarity will do for Griffin and Van Gundy.

“I think that he’ll be terrific for Andre Drummond because he’s going to get him the ball. He had to develop that type of chemistry with DeAndre Jordan. When he gets the ball going to the basket and you come to help, he’s like a point guard now. He’s got that type of passing skills and decision making. There’s not many guys at that position that makes those plays.”

The playbook underwent a dramatic overhaul last summer, Van Gundy installing a system that made heavy use of Andre Drummond’s playmaking from the elbows. Now it’s taking another sharp turn.

“We were a team that for this year was really built on movement and we still want to move and cut,” Van Gundy said. “But it’s different now. We haven’t found that balance yet, but we’re still working at it and hope to get better every day.”

Time isn’t their ally and making a trade that changes the complexion of your team in the middle of the season brings with it a whole new set of challenges. But, as Steve Clifford might tell you, there’s never a bad time to trade for one among the rare breed who’ll have the ball in his hands to decide a playoff series.