‘That’s how you’re wired as a player’ – Why Blake Griffin makes sense for Pistons amid a rebuild

Superstars are an uneasy fit on rebuilding teams, which made Blake Griffin’s future with the Pistons cloudy the minute they traded Andre Drummond. But unquestioned leaders are critically necessary to prevent the stain of losing that rebuilding invites from becoming permanent – and acceptable.

And that makes Blake Griffin’s presence with the Pistons invaluable.

In the abstract, the presence of a top-15 player – and Griffin was all of that the last time we saw him healthy, the 2018-19 season when he had, arguably, the greatest individual season in memory of any Pistons player – on a rebuilding team would mean the clock was ticking on his tenure.

But the abstract doesn’t account for Griffin’s influence on the young players in whom the Pistons now entrust their foreseeable future. Take Sekou Doumbouya, the youngest player in the NBA who, by the way, just happens to play Griffin’s position. Doumbouya comes with rare tools – an awesome frame, soft hands, shooting touch, length and an easy gait – but it’s always a coin flip whether all the other necessary traits will combine with the physical gifts to produce the rare outcome: a maximization of athletic potential.

Do you like Doumbouya’s chances better with Griffin there as a shining example of how all those other traits are brought to life or do you like them better with Griffin playing elsewhere and a future draft pick – protected, of course – in the asset drawer instead?

Those are the things analytics can’t quite wrap their arms around.

Let’s not confuse the issue of Griffin’s greatness, either. Healthy, he means so much more to the Pistons than the aura he projects amid a locker room that beyond Derrick Rose is now filled with players for whom the first instinct is – as it is with all young players trying to find their niche – career preservation. Healthy – which Griffin confidently claimed he is and will be whenever the Pistons next play – he makes the Pistons competitive. And staying in games to learn how to win them is a critical step in the evolution of young players.

Blake Griffin as you know him gives everybody breathing room to develop organically. Fans grow exasperated with veteran coaches leery about granting unwarranted playing time to 20-year-olds. There’s a tipping point between using playing time to reinforce the fruits of practice time and skills development on one hand and risking either the obliteration of confidence or a false sense of self-worth on the other. Too much, too soon has undermined more than a few NBA careers.

Griffin has handled the dismantling of the team of which he was at the heart – Drummond traded, Reggie Jackson bought out – with the professionalism the Pistons knew to expect from him. But don’t take that professionalism for granted. You don’t have to overwhelm your brain imagining others among the NBA’s top 15 players who would have raised holy hell publicly if their front office had pivoted as the Pistons did, acknowledging that injuries had shredded their blueprint of building off of the playoff berth Griffin’s brilliance had delivered just months earlier.

Here was Griffin earlier this month when asked what will get him excited to come back given the current reality: “Basketball in general always gets me excited and I’ll be very excited when it’s time to come back and even go to training camp and do all those things. This is a coaching staff and a team and support staff I really enjoy being around. When you come to work every day and you have great people on your team – a great coach and a great support staff – it’s just fun to be around that. We have a lot of decisions to make this summer and a lot of changes will probably be made. I look forward to that and look forward to whatever role they ask me to play.”

Read that last part again: “I … look forward to whatever role they ask me to play.”

And they’re going to ask him to play a lot of them. He’s the bellwether of the offense, the guy relied upon to keep the scoreboard moving to help the Pistons stay close and to make every important play in the last five minutes to win their share of games. He’s the extension of Casey as far as bringing to life the ideas – and the ideals – their coach espouses. He’s the role model for being the public face of a franchise, unfailingly willing to accept his share (and more) of responsibility in defeat and to slather credit on teammates (disproportionately, often) in victory.

Advanced metrics are not yet advanced enough to take that into account when evaluating a player’s value to a franchise.

As is the case with 99.9 percent of players throughout the history of the NBA, there likely will come a time when it makes sense for all parties to start anew. The last uniform Michael Jordan peeled off was not that of the Chicago Bulls.

“That’s up to the front office,” Griffin said when asked what he imagined his role would be in a rebuilding effort. “It depends on what they want to do and how they want to go about it. At the right time, we’ll have those conversations. But if I’m on the Detroit Pistons, then I’m doing everything I can to prepare to play for them and win games. That’s how you’re wired as a player.”

That’s how he’s wired, at least. The Pistons – from owner Tom Gores to the front office to Casey – know full well that’s not how every player is wired. And if you want to know why this particular superstar remains an easy fit – a critical, valued, necessary fit – with this particular rebuild, that’s why.