Pistons make right call to keep powder dry as Westbrook exacts heavy toll in deal to Houston

The price to acquire superstar talent has escalated dramatically in the 18 months since the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin
Zach Beeker (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

The proper reaction for Pistons fans hoping they’d be the trade partner for Russell Westbrook upon seeing the toll Oklahoma City exacted from Houston: Better them than us.

You can’t judge trades in a vacuum. A good trade for one team could be a disastrous trade for another with similarly valued components changing hands. You don’t have to strain to argue the logic of Houston trading two first-round picks and two more options to swap first-rounders for the right to take on the four years and $171 million of Westbrook’s contract. The Rockets might have an NBA title or two by now if Golden State hadn’t existed – and Golden State, as we knew it, no longer exists.

There are legitimate reasons to wonder how James Harden’s game meshes with Westbrook’s at this point and how Westbrook fits in Houston’s analytics-heavy blueprint, but Mike D’Antoni is recognized as one of the true offensive innovators. Chances are he’ll figure it out.

So, sure, it is – quite possibly – a worthwhile roll of the dice for Houston.

At that price, it would have been a foolhardy gamble for the Pistons – and, to be clear, there is zero evidence the Pistons were ever motivated to trade for Westbrook despite speculation they were a suitor.

The fit would have been at least as questionable for the Pistons and an offense centered around Blake Griffin’s inside-outside potency, a style they’re trying to enhance by putting more shooters around him. But just as D’Antoni should be trusted to figure it out, so Dwane Casey would have figured a way to draw out the best in a Griffin-Westbrook-Andre Drummond configuration.

But taking on Westbrook and that contract – with Griffin’s equally sizable deal and Drummond due for his own long-term whopper next summer – would have been the last realistic move for the Pistons, just as it represents Houston pushing all of its chips to the center of the table.

Here’s the thing: Houston had a 53-win hand last season despite Chris Paul – whose own onerous contract was the ideal salary match the Pistons lacked – and Clint Capela missing big chunks of it. The Rockets were already in the running for a next season that starts with a greatly diminished Golden State and a wide-open race. If Westbrook improves them incrementally, they might be champions.

The Pistons won 41 games. Adding Westbrook likely would have made them better, even though they would have had to part with at least two and perhaps three other rotation pieces in addition to the necessary inclusion of Reggie Jackson and his $18 million.

How much better, though? Would they have gotten to 45 wins? Fifty? Perhaps. On the high end, they probably would have gotten a four seed. (Boston won 49 last year as the four seed, Indiana won 48 as the five seed.)

But their avenue to take the next step – the one needed to put themselves in the running with Milwaukee and Philadelphia atop the East – would have been dead-ended by lack of options. Ceding the future No. 1 picks plus the pick swaps, nearly as valuable, would have undermined their ability to make the next move necessary to vault them to true contender status.

It’s tempting to grab for shiny baubles in an off-season where the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Al Horford, Kemba Walker and Westbrook, among others, change uniforms. But you have to maintain self-awareness and discipline.

There is a time for such a move. There probably are players for whom such a move at this time would have been sensible for the Pistons. This move, at this time, at that cost? Nope.

As an aside, consider how the price for stars has escalated in the 18 months since the Pistons acquired Griffin for the cost of Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and a solitary first-round pick. Davis brought three first-rounders and two other pick swaps plus three very good young players, two of them recent No. 2 overall picks. George brought a preposterous five first-rounders and two pick swaps plus Shea Gilgeous-Alexander, coming off of a strong rookie season.

The Pistons paid a steep price for Griffin, but it didn’t wipe out their future. Bradley was coming up on free agency. Harris had 1½ years left and just hit the jackpot in free agency. Would the Pistons have offered him the maximum deal Philadelphia just did had they not traded Harris? Hard to say they’d be in a better spot having Harris in the salary slot occupied by Griffin.

The Pistons, assets-poor when Ed Stefanski agreed to take over as head of their front office 14 months ago, are much better situated today. They’ve acquired six players out of the last two drafts – Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas, Svi Mykhailiuk, Sekou Doumbouya, Deividas Sirvydis and Jordan Bone – and have all of their first-rounders going forward. Their salary cap, bloated when Stefanski took over, is a year away from fluidity and two from endless possibility.

They’ll be better positioned at either of those points to make the type of move Houston made for Westbrook. Sometimes you have to keep your powder dry. This was such a time.

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