SVG, always willing to gamble on greatness, lands his whale: Blake Griffin comes to Pistons

Blake Griffin becomes the first All-Star player the Pistons have acquired in his prime since adding Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 trade deadline
Andrew D. Bernstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Every time a star player’s name bubbled to the surface of the trade market, the Pistons under Stan Van Gundy have made a bid. Last summer’s frenzy that saw Paul George, Jimmy Butler and others swap franchises? Van Gundy was open in his desire to add players of that caliber.

They’ve got one now. Blake Griffin becomes the most accomplished player the Pistons have acquired in his prime since Rasheed Wallace at the 2004 trade deadline. I think we remember how that turned out.

Griffin’s s a five-time All-Star and when he hasn’t made the roster it’s usually because of injury. Is there risk in taking on a 28-year-old superstar who’s visited the doctor a few times and is in the first year of a five-year, $173 million deal? You bet there is.

You know when there isn’t risk in NBA transactions – trades, draft, free agency? When you have the No. 1 pick and LeBron James is in the draft pool or when Kevin Durant chooses your max contract over everyone else’s. That’s it. Everything else comes with inherent risk.

You weigh that risk against the reward. And a team that starts with Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond vibrates with possibility.

Van Gundy will have to figure things out, starting with how the Pistons survive the next three or four weeks while they wait on Reggie Jackson to get back and win enough games over that time to give themselves a real chance to crash the playoffs.

Maybe there was reward waiting for the Pistons as constituted before the Griffin deal if Jackson hadn’t sprained his ankle. The Pistons were 19-14 at the time and Drummond appeared a cinch All-Star. But without Jackson to create scoring chances, the Pistons lack of a bellwether scorer – the kind of guy whose box score output isn’t tied solely to the inevitable ebbs and flows of shooting spurts – became glaring.

Since Jackson’s injury, the Pistons are 3-12 and claim the NBA’s 28th-ranked offense. Griffin is not just an irrepressible scorer – he’s averaging 22.6 this season and no Piston has averaged even 20 points since Rip Hamilton, 12 years ago – but maybe the best passing power forward or center in the NBA, averaging 5.4 assists this season.

Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower weren’t bloodhounds on the trail of stars for what it would mean for ticket and jersey sales but for the reality of today’s NBA. As defenses become ever more sophisticated and scouting increasingly precise, the only sure-fire remedy is pure talent. All you need to do is look at the rosters of the teams ahead of the Pistons in the Eastern Conference standings for affirmation of the importance of high draft picks to playoff pursuits and success.

As part of the package required to pluck Griffin from the Los Angeles Clippers, the Pistons had to part with a precious No. 1 pick. It’s reportedly protected through the top four in each of the next three years and unprotected only in 2021. The rest of the package was Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a 2019 No. 2 pick.

For two expiring contracts and a 2020 second-round pick, the Pistons added Harris and Marcus Morris. Morris turned into Bradley. Throw in that protected first-round pick and that’s the cost for adding Griffin, a player who gives the Pistons something they haven’t had since Grant Hill left in free agency in July 2000: arguably one of the game’s top 10 players when healthy.

Beyond Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons are left with Jackson, their last three No. 1 picks – Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson, Luke Kennard – and a collection of useful players from Ish Smith to Reggie Bullock to Anthony Tolliver to Langston Galloway. One important byproduct of adding Griffin: All of those players won’t be pressed into roles beyond their readiness or capabilities now. That’s the ripple effect a superstar creates. It’s no coincidence that good players become better players when they play with great players.

The 2004 Pistons won an NBA championship without such a player, but the margin for error in pursuing those heights is incredibly thin if that’s your blueprint. The Pistons under Van Gundy have stayed above .500 the last three seasons when they were fully staffed, but injuries to Jackson in each of the past two years have sent them into tailspins.

That’s why Van Gundy has always been willing to push his chips to the middle of the table for a great player. Midway through his fourth season in Detroit, he’s finally landed his whale.