Harris and Bradley Out, Blake Griffin In: How it Changes the Pistons

The Pistons have traded for Clippers big man Blake Griffin. How does he change the team's outlook?

The Pistons made a trade with the Clippers. The reported deal is that the Pistons will receive Blake Griffin, Willie Reed, and Brice Johnson and give up Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, Avery Bradley, a (lightly protected) first round pick, and a second-round pick. As reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

So how does Griffin fit in?

Well, the good news is that he won't have to make any huge adjustments to playing with Andre Drummond. He was basically playing with the junior varsity version of Drummond in DeAndre Jordan. The spacing on the floor will be kind of tight just like it was in LA but Griffin has learned to shoot a bit this year which will help of course, but the biggest thing that will make it work better with Drummond than Jordan is that Drummond can pass.

Griffin has steadily learned to shoot and extended his range over his career, but even this year where he can shoot at least a little bit from deep he isn't an overly threatening shooter. He and Jordan largely worked because Griffin is an awesome ball handler and passer from the power forward position which greased the wheels to make up for the lack of spacing. Now he will be with a much more skilled offensive player in Drummond, who can also use his passing to help grease the wheels a bit. Essentially the spacing will be a bit cramped but they made it work with Jordan and Drummond provides enough extra passing and ability to finish in ways other than dunks to make it work at least as well as it did with the Clippers and probably better.

Overall Griffin will largely be playing the same role he did with the Clippers. Have the ball in his hands a lot, score points inside, can enough jumpers to try and keep defenses from totally ignoring him off the ball, and be part of a super slick and potentially super fun big man pairing.

Griffin still thrives in the paint, his goofy post up game is not pretty but it is effective. He scores points effectively and is a good enough passer to punish double teams. He also draws a lot of fouls out of them. When he isn't posting up he will spend a lot of time running the proverbial point forward which will be a snug fit with the motion offense that the Pistons have favored this year. He is a legit number one option offensive who has the right combination of scoring and passing ability to make something out of nothing.

Defensively he is a decent but not overly remarkable player, the good news is that he will be replacing a very bad defender in Tobias Harris which means he will still be an improvement. He is pretty quick and is also pretty smart. He isn't really a shot blocker and doesn't get many steals, but he does rebound pretty well when he needs too and generally does the right stuff. Once again, he isn't some great defender, but he is largely just fine and a good enough athlete that in important moments he can make awesome plays. 

How does he change the way the Pistons play?

They will run a lot more offense through Griffin than they did with Tobias for obvious reasons. But other than that it will probably not be a huge change to the general way the offense works. Griffin isn't the shooter that Tobias has been this year, but he is not far behind where Tobias was before this year. Essentially Griffin is the true first offensive option and secondary ball handler/creator that the Pistons have so desperately needed for some time. Offensively the only way he would be a better fit would be if he shot 38% from deep instead of 34.2%, but you can work with the 34.2%.

A big thing that he will help with is also rebounding. Andre Drummond is the greatest rebounder to ever live, but the Pistons have been awful other than him and actually been a mediocre rebounding team all season. Griffin doesn't always put up huge numbers (he has generally been totally content to let Jordan clean the glass) but he is big, boxes out, and when he does go for rebounds he can go up with anyone. Power forwards who are really good rebounders have given the Pistons trouble for a while now, and that shouldn't really be the case anymore. 

What about losing Bradley, Harris, and Boban?

I was not as done with Bradley as most people were but there is no denying that he was not playing like the Pistons had hoped he would. He also was a free agent after this season and if the Pistons didn't turn things around he very likely was going to be out. Especially given the way Kennard and Bullock have played I don't think there is much reason to overly lament his departure. He's a good player and the Pistons will miss him but probably not a huge loss there. For Boban, I loved him, everyone loved him, but he just wasn't working out and the Pistons get out from the last year of his contract. Boban isn't a big deal either way but that is mostly a win for the Pistons.

Tobias is the hard one. He's a great dude who has gotten better with the Pistons. He's also young and could continue to improve. On one hand, he has never made the last step towards being a legit number one option on offense and while he has finally found a good long ball this year he has slumped lately and we will see where his final line ends up being. He also has never been able to put it together on defense and has remained a problem on that end for the Pistons despite some marginal improvements. On top of that, he is due to a big raise after this season, which may not be something the Pistons (or anyone else) would be very excited about.

On the other hand, he is young, super talented, a guy that would be awesome as the 3rd option on a good team, has continued to improve every year, and been super durable. Regardless of the flaws, it is always tough to part with a young player who is good. What will really tell here would be if he ends up being one of the few guys who has such a work ethic that they continue to chip away until by the time they are 27 you look up and they are awesome players. Kemba Walker would be a great recent example of that. If Harris ends up following that trend, which is not likely but is possible, then the Pistons could end up really regretting letting him go especially if Griffin has problems in Detroit. (which we will get to later) On the other hand, the most likely course is that Harris stays the same sort of player he is now, which is very good but not great who may end up being overpaid by some team desperate for a guy who has a chance at becoming great. If that happens then that is not a terrible price to pay. There was already some question as to Tobias' long-term place in Detroit, and it will be hard to judge it until a few years from now when we know how Griffin adjusts to Detroit and the player Harris is when he is fully into his prime.

What about the picks?

They are protected, but once again it kind of depends on how this season goes. If the Pistons don't turn it around (for whatever reason) and the Pistons end up losing a top ten pick as a result of this then it hurts, but if Griffin bolsters the Pistons now, and Jackson returns healthy like the Pistons are growing confident he will, and it ends up being the 20th pick then that plus a second rounder is much less painful. Once again, it depends. Also not that it matters, but the second round pick was likely the price for the Clippers taking on Boban's contract.

Overall, this is not a bad amount to give up. We will see how it works out, but the Pistons kept their two promising young players in Kennard and Johnson and even have their project guy in Ellenson still on the roster. If the Pistons keep falling and it ends up being a lottery pick sent this year, and Tobias Harris does turn himself into a star eventually then it will be a lot to give up. The more likely situation though is that the Pistons first round pick is a late lottery pick at worst, and Harris will be just pretty good. 

How about the other players the Pistons got?

Brice Johnson and Willie Reed. Neither are big gets by any stretch but both guys that I like adding for now. Willie Reed is a backup center who will probably win those minutes immediately. He is not a big upgrade from Moreland, but he does a little bit better at the basic things. He is tall, a good athlete, and plays hard. Once again, he isn't a big needle mover and there are nights where he will make no difference over Moreland. However, you know how there are nights where Moreland looks like a guy the Pistons pulled off the summer league and wasn't supposed to actually be playing at all this year? That won't really happen with Reed. He should stabilize the backup center minutes a bit and he's also paid nothing and only on contract for this season.

Brice Johnson is harder to say much about. I would equate him somewhat similar to when the Pistons got Reggie Bullock (who also ironically was originally drafted by the Clippers) as an add-on in the Marcus Morris trade. Johnson is young but not super young at 23 years old and has a basic NBA skill-set that you can see becoming something useful but he has basically never played so it isn't clear if he can be anything or not long term. He is a good athlete who can score a bit around the rim and in the short range, but he isn't a three-point shooter. It is tough in the NBA today to be a power forward who doesn't shoot from even long two range. But is long and athletic enough that he could maybe slot in at some center in the future and if you paired him with another big who could actually shoot (like say, Henry Ellenson) he could work fine as a rim-running, rebounding, defensive specialist off the bench. I wouldn't expect anything from him but he is worth taking a look at. The only downside to him is that the Clippers declined his team option so if the Pistons think there is something there they will have to deal with him as an unrestricted free agent this offseason. 

Griffin is owed a lot of money though...

Yeah, this is where the risk comes in. Griffin is 28 and will turn 29 in a couple of months, will be owed $31million next season which will continue to increase to a player option for nearly $39million in 2021-2022 at which point he will be 32. That's a lot of money, which combined with his injury problems is concerning. The thing you shouldn't be concerned about there is his age, guys don't usually start to really slow down until they are really into their 30s at some point, which means even if he does decline early you are probably looking at one year of him being the feared "aging superstar" type. On top of that, Griffin is not nearly as reliant on his athleticism as people seem to think. He has never really shaken the reputation as a dunker from early in his career, but he has improved his shooting every single year, is a great passer, ball handler, and is big. Guys who are big and can pass tend to last and he won't have to improve much further with his shooting to add shooting as a plus to his longevity. Like, yeah, he won't age like Dirk or Duncan but let's not act like the guy is Allen Iverson.

The thing that should worry the Pistons is his injury history. He has played in 67, 35, and 61 games the last three years and has already missed some time this year. On top of that they have sometimes been the feet which is always worrying for a big guy (even if he isn't a super big guy) which combines with the fact that the Pistons don't appear to have an awesome training staff means that he may just miss too much time to really work out the way they need.

Essentially, he will almost certainly be worth the price in both salary and what the Pistons traded for him when he is on the floor. The problem could be that if he only plays 60 some games per year it isn't clear if the Pistons can get to where they want to go. There is also the terrifying prospect of the fact that the Clippers have had playoff runs killed off by him getting hurt, so even if the Pistons have success in the season there will always be some extra anxiety every time Griffin takes a hard fall in the playoffs. 

Best case scenario

Griffin stays healthy and loves it in Detroit, him and Drummond prove to be the best front-court in the NBA as Drummond continues to improve his passing and Griffin his shooting. Reggie Jackson returns healthy this year while Kennard steps fully into the light and the Pistons charge through the Eastern Conference this year as the annual sacrifice to the Warriors before recharging and being the ones to topple the Warriors en-route to multiple NBA championships where both Griffin and Drummond win MVPs wearing Pistons uniforms. For good measure, the Clippers totally whiff on whoever they draft with the picks, and Tobias Harris never really puts it together but some idiot GM still gives him a max proving that the Pistons actually dodged a bullet there.

Worst case scenario

Griffin doesn't really jell while adjusting in his first year in Detroit while Jackson doesn't ever come back healthy which causes the Pistons to continue to slide this season and they give the Clippers a top ten pick that the Clippers use to draft a franchise player. After this year Griffin is constantly hurt, missing nearly an entire season at some point and never playing more than 50 games, same with Reggie Jackson, and when he does play the Pistons just don't figure out how to make the lack of shooting work and the Pistons stay a middling team with two expensive players who are always hurt and Drummond never gets to be on a decent team his entire prime. The Pistons are stuck in mediocrity for 5 seasons while Tobias Harris becomes an all-star just for good measure.

The Final Verdict

There is a risk. A big risk. But the reality is that I think this is a risk you have to take. The Pistons are probably never going to get a guy of Griffin's caliber in free agency, the reality is that you need at least two of those guys if you want to compete so the Pistons can get them through the draft or a trade. The Pistons already had one of those guys in Drummond, and he is entering his prime and on a long-term contract so it makes sense to try and add another without tanking. Griffin has flaws, but I think you mostly have to simply take it. When you have a chance to add a player of that caliber you go for it and here is the biggest reason why. The reality is that the vast majority of team building schemes in the NBA fail, and so while this option has a chance of failure at least you know that you've got the base talent for something special. Maybe Griffin is hurt, maybe him and Drummond are never a clean enough fit, maybe they work awesome together but the Pistons can't ever get the right mix around them, but you can now say that the Pistons have two of the top insert arbitrary cutoff point here players in the NBA on their roster and somehow or another that is the first step to being a real contender. On top of that, they managed to do it without giving up their two best young assets in Kennard and Johnson.

The way this would hurt long term is that Griffin's contract will hamstring the Pistons in their ability to get free agents and/or keep their guys long term but that was already a problem. The biggest argument against this trade is that there is no salvaging this current team in any form and they should've had a total fire-sale to totally restart. If you thought that even Drummond was worth keeping around, then you make this trade, and the Pistons have never really had any interest in a total rebuild.

So yeah, it is a risk. There is a chance that this does bad things to the Pistons for years, but then again if they totally re-started it would mean years of awful basketball and if they had kept Tobias and Bradley there is a good chance their contracts bog the Pistons down in the same way Griffin's could.

In the end, it is scary. This is that great leap of faith, but unless you are the Warriors you will have to take a leap of faith in your team building at some point or another and I'd say that this is as good as any. I'd certainly prefer this to a total re-start.

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