Can Blake Griffin Revive Detroit?

A struggling franchise continues its search for relevancy.

Guest Column from Patrick Hayes (Fli City). You can follow him on Twitter @patrick_hayes.

Former Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy made what was largely panned as a panic trade when he acquired Blake Griffin last January. Van Gundy was arguably the splashiest coaching hire in Pistons franchise history (perhaps only Larry Brown came to Detroit with a higher profile), and when you factor in that he oversaw the front office as well, it is inarguable that Van Gundy was feeling some heat in the midst of a fourth consecutive mediocre-to-poor season

Prior to the Griffin trade, it was pretty clear that Van Gundy wouldn’t be back for a fifth season in Detroit if the team failed to make the playoffs. Under those circumstances, the fact that ownership allowed the trade caused consternation. Here were the laundry list of issues:

  • Griffin’s contract. In the summer of 2018, the Clippers signed him to a 5-year, $171 million contract -- and hilariously pitched him by doing a mock jersey retirement ceremony just months before trading him. Steve Ballmer thirstily still hoping Blake would shake his hand in his return to L.A. was such an amazing out-of-touch rich guy move though. Anyway, when you combine Griffin’s contract with the fact that the Pistons are paying Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson big money, along with decent money to guys like Jon Leuer, Langston Galloway, and Ish Smith, and somehow hilariously still paying off Josh Smith’s contract until 2020, their cap situation is not exactly pretty.

  • Griffin’s health. Griffin has had well-documented injury issues, and he’s not quite the freakish athlete he was entering the league. He hasn’t played more than 67 games in a season in four years, and also missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. Griffin is really, really good, but at 28, with his massive contract, his health is certainly a concern.

  • Griffin’s fit. For better or worse, the Pistons are invested in Drummond. He’s a great offensive rebounder, finishes well, is still relatively young and improves incrementally every season. But Drummond can’t stretch the floor or create his own shot, and isn’t what anyone would call an instinctive defensive player. In short, he does enough things really well to make himself a vital player to have on the court, but he needs to be surrounded by players who can shoot, facilitate, and defend. Griffin is an exceptional facilitator, and an improved perimeter shooter, but he’s also not great defensively. Playing two bigs with defensive limitations big minutes, along with the increasingly pointless Reggie Jackson, gives the Pistons maybe the worst trio of highly paid players in the league in terms of complementary skills.

  • Griffin isn’t a big upgrade over Tobias Harris. This is probably the biggest criticism. At the time of the trade, Harris was younger, cheaper, and improving. This season, he’s comparable to Griffin in PER and Win Shares, but Griffin’s counting stats are still superior, and Griffin is a better facilitator.

None of those criticisms are invalid. And as we’ve seen this season, even with Griffin at full health, the Pistons are the same team they were under Van Gundy -- capable of beating the league’s elite on some nights, and also capable of making Buddy Hield look like Steph Curry. Adding Griffin didn’t fix any of the massive issues associated with the team before his arrival, and his contract certainly limits their ability to dramatically makeover the roster in any meaningful way.

But was the Griffin trade really a “panic” trade? After all, Van Gundy has … uh … a history of being associated with panicking. Or was it the right move for the franchise regardless of Van Gundy’s uncertain future?

The case for Griffin not fitting the insanely flawed roster makes itself. We all have eyes. Griffin plays hard, he’s highly intelligent, and he has the ability to single-handedly drag a team to victory some nights. The Pistons haven’t had a player with that sort of offensive ability since Grant Hill. No one had any illusions about what this roster would look like with Griffin on it, Van Gundy included. Even if he knew his job was on the line, this trade wasn’t going to save it, because he couldn’t fix the rest of the roster.

What it did, though, is give the Pistons a 28-year-old top 15-ish player (currently ranked 35th in fantasy) who is signed for three more years. Who cares about fit? Players of Griffin’s caliber become available so rarely that, when they do, you have to take the risk, no matter what a jumbled mess your complementary parts are.

The mistake in evaluating the Griffin trade has been looking at him as “a piece” rather than the piece. This season, Griffin is averaging a career high in scoring (26.0), nearly a career high in assists (5.3), shooting more threes than he ever has (6.6 attempts) and doing it a solid 36 percent clip. Griffin runs the offense, is extremely vocal on the court, and -- this might seem minor but anyone who has regularly watched the Pistons over the last decade or so KNOWS it is not -- actually seems to play with passion. He has also been durable, playing in 43 of 45 games so far.

Post-Griffin trade, we’ve been asking the wrong questions, worrying about how Griffin “fits.” His fit is unquestioned, he’s already one of the best players in franchise history. The more important question is what to do with so many players who don’t fit with him?