On leadership and the value of Blake Griffin & Derrick Rose to a Detroit Pistons team in transition
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
So often the most revealing comments come not in direct response to the question posed but flower on their own as the answer navigates an organic thought trail. So when Blake Griffin was asked about Killian Hayes bouncing back from a seven-turnover NBA debut to commit only a single turnover in 25 minutes of his second game 48 hours later, ears perked up when he turned mid-stream to talk about the other 19-year-old French import on the roster.
“Sekou was unbelievable tonight,” Griffin said of the 2019 Pistons No. 1 pick, Sekou Doumbouya, after his 23-point outing on Sunday in a win over New York. “I was so proud of him. He came in and played exactly like he knows how to play, worked off the ball, played defense. These guys are the future of the franchise. Derrick and I talk about it all the time. It’s our job to bring them along. I was proud of the way they played tonight.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. And we’ll get to that. But mostly it speaks to the value of leadership. It gets described ceaselessly as invaluable but rarely can it be quantified.
Well, there it is. In Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose the Pistons are blessed – and we use that word judiciously – with not only two of the most luminous stars among the NBA constellation over the past decade but an even rarer breed: transcendent players not obsessed with personal accolades or glory but instead true to the obligation of stars as central to the success or failure of their team’s mission.
The Pistons’ organizational mission is now to put themselves in position to compete for NBA titles in the future – at some cost to their present. Griffin and Rose are now on the other side of 30 and it’s become almost standard operating procedure for players of their stature at this juncture to demand of their organization to bolster the present at all costs to a future that doesn’t include them.
No one outside the organization would have blinked if Griffin or Rose had pushed for a trade once the Pistons acknowledged last winter that they were entering a rebuilding. No one inside the organization would have thought any differently about them. They’ve earned such consideration for everything they’ve done, here and elsewhere.
Not only have they rejected that course, they’ve taken ownership of the course the Pistons have chosen – one significantly different than the one understood to them upon arrival in Detroit.
If you want to know why the Pistons – from owner Tom Gores to new general manager Troy Weaver to Dwane Casey – have decided that both their present and their future are better off with Griffin and Rose on board, it starts with that.
“There’s two different ways to rebuild,” Casey said Tuesday. “We took the lesser of the two routes. Some teams tear it down to play rookies. If you tear it all the way down and try to do that, it’s years and years and years before you get it back – because those rookies are learning bad habits.”
Mason Plumlee, who broke into the NBA on a Brooklyn team that had acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce even deeper into their careers than Griffin and Rose, defined the value of playing with great players when he was asked specifically about playing alongside Griffin – another answer that revealed more than you might have expected.
“Any time you have an All-NBA player – I’ve played with a couple of them – they make the game easier for everybody,” he said. “The game plan’s going to focus on them defensively. They’re going to give you a base in scoring 20-plus a night. It’s a luxury for a young team to have. Playing with Blake is great – as is D-Rose. I put those guys together. It’s a privilege to play with them.”
The Pistons are putting a lot on Hayes, Casey installing him as the starting point guard. Going on this journey without Griffin as a security blanket in the starting lineup or Rose as counsel at his position would multiply the degree of difficulty – and risk sending a 19-year-old into a tailspin that might be irreversible. It’s happened.
“I know, like at the end of the game, having guys like D-Rose and Blake, who are used to having the ball in the clutch and making plays is definitely going to help me,” Hayes said. “And put less pressure on my shoulders.”
Back to Griffin’s comments about Doumbouya, starting with taking pride in his performance. That speaks to a level of investment in a teammate – and, by extension, in a team – that is the very foundation for the “culture” you hear Casey and Weaver saying they want to create. Having veterans of the stature and temperament of Griffin and Rose gives the Pistons a chance to cultivate an environment that can prove devastatingly elusive – and has almost no chance of fostering in the absence of such players.
What reasons did Griffin cite first for his pride in Doumbouya? Moving off the ball, playing defense – the nuance stuff that doesn’t create headlines or lead “SportsCenter” highlights but are among the strands that bind the fabric of winning. Subtle message in there for not just Doumbouya but all young players, meaning more coming from him than if it came from Casey or another staffer.
These guys are the future, he said. He and Rose talk about it all the time, he said. Rose, in fact, spoke passionately after Hayes’ turnover-plagued debut of the challenges facing a 19-year-old robbed of any semblance of a normal off-season preparation path.
“We have two guys who are Hall of Famers and they are comfortable in their own skin,” Casey said. “They’re great pros, big-time pros. We’re being sensible about our program and what we’re building. It’s not going to happen overnight – I know that and they know that. It’s not like they’re fighting for star status. They’ve been there. Their legacy will be about how they helped build the Detroit Pistons back to championship level. They are big time. I know I appreciate it. I know Tom appreciates their approach to what we’re trying to do.”
Hayes and Doumbouya aren’t the only kids the Pistons are nurturing. There’s Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, Josh Jackson and Svi Mykhailiuk, Saben Lee and Dzanan Musa and Deividas Sirvydis. And Griffin and Rose’s attention isn’t reserved only for them nor their impact felt by only their understudies. But the French teens are surely as important as any of the kids to what the Pistons become and it is their great fortune – both the kids and the franchise – that at their positions they have role models so worthy of emulating.
And that’s the value of keeping Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose in Pistons uniforms over whatever they might bring in exchange. Maybe there comes a time when it makes sense to revisit the proposition – for the Pistons and their valued leaders – but that time isn’t today.