Here's why the Detroit Pistons had to pull off the Blake Griffin trade
After a decade of bad basketball, the Pistons have a star
DETROIT – Tonight, Blake Griffin will take the floor in a Detroit Pistons uniform.
It all happened very fast. One moment, the Pistons were on an eight-game losing streak and an afterthought in the eyes of most Detroit sports fans. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, one of the most entertaining players on the planet was coming to town.
Even though the Pistons clearly got the best player in the deal, it was met with a mixed reaction by the fan base. Many believe this was a move to sell tickets, and while, yes, Griffin is now the best reason to watch the Pistons, they had to make a trade like this regardless of attendance.
The Pistons have been bad. Really, really bad.
The NBA has evolved, and it left the Pistons behind. It's even more star-driven than ever, and franchises willing to take gambles have often been rewarded.
In the last eight seasons, Detroit has been to the postseason once -- as the No. 8 seed, and got swept out of the first round -- during an era in which the Eastern Conference has been weak.
Since the Pistons' most recent playoff win, six .500 teams have made the postseason in the Eastern Conference. Six teams with losing records have made the playoffs, including three teams with 44 losses and one team with 45 losses.
All teams have had to do this decade is be pretty bad, and that's been enough to make the playoffs. But seven times out of eight, the Pistons haven't even been able to muster "pretty bad."
From the 2009-10 season to the 2014-15 season, the Pistons went 172-304 -- good for a .361 winning percentage -- and never eclipsed 32 wins. They made the postseason in 2016, but got swept out of the first round.
It was time for a change
I could go on and on about how bad the Pistons have been for the better part of a decade, but the attitude toward the franchise is more telling than numbers could ever be.
In between Flip Saunders and Stan Van Gundy, the Pistons had five head coaches in the span of seven years, and nobody even noticed. The Palace was empty for years, and Little Caesars Arena has continued the tradition.
Even with a move to Downtown Detroit -- a basketball city -- and a new state-of-the-art arena, the Pistons couldn't move the needle.
The disregard from fans is much more damning than the mountain of losses.
So what do the Pistons have to lose?
The outrage over the Griffin trade surprised me because in order for a trade to be a big risk, there has to be something to risk.
When the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups in 2008, they were coming off seven straight years of at least 50 wins that included a championship, an NBA Finals appearance and five trips to the conference finals. There was a reason for fans to be upset. The Pistons actually had something to lose.
But where were these Pistons heading? What was the master plan that's now at risk because of the Griffin trade? The Pistons were heading for another losing season if they didn't make a move, and what sign was there of a brighter future?
At best, a Pistons team led by mid-level players such as Tobias Harris and Reggie Jackson aspired to be a first-round punching bag for the elite teams in the East. They were nowhere near a championship contender, and isn't that ultimately the goal?
There are only so many elite players in the NBA, and even during the early 2000s dominance, none of them were coming to Detroit. The free agent destinations in today's game are the likes of Golden State, Los Angeles and Houston.
If the Pistons want to compete for a championship in the near future, they need at least one superstar. With free agents out of the question, that superstar had to come through the draft or via a trade.
Well, it certainly hasn't come through the draft.
Van Gundy's initial first-round draft pick with the Pistons came in 2015, when he selected Stanley Johnson eighth overall. He's only 21 years old, but in his third season, Johnson is only starting because of the Pistons' hole at forward. He's shooting 36 percent from the floor.
In 2016, Van Gundy selected Henry Ellenson 18th overall. While it might be hard to find a superstar at No. 18 in the draft, a top-20 pick should be a contributor by Year 2. Ellenson has been invisible, playing fewer than seven minutes per game.
Is he struggling in practice? Does he need more time to develop? It's strange that Ellenson is rarely even a topic of discussion.
While teams across the league get major contributions from rookies and young players regardless of draft position, the Pistons have struggled to get even average production from their first-round picks.
The help clearly wasn't coming from the draft, and mega free agents aren't signing with the Pistons, so they went out and did what they had to do to bring in a player of Griffin's caliber.
Will it work out? Only time will tell. But at least this gives the Pistons a chance to make some noise. Otherwise, they would have continued on their decade-long battle toward mediocrity.
The future price is lower than the current price
In the immediate aftermath of the trade, it seemed like the Pistons gave up a lot in the deal, but in terms of the franchise's future, the cost wasn't too high.
Avery Bradley is a good player, but he will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and with the current direction of the Pistons, he had no incentive to resign here. Essentially, the Pistons had to trade Bradley or lose him for nothing.
Tobias Harris was a fan favorite because he was the Pistons' leading scorer and best all-around player after Bradley. While Harris is a solid player, he probably shouldn't be the best player on the roster if a team hopes to compete for a championship.
Giving away a first-round pick is always difficult, but as detailed above, Van Gundy hasn't had much success drafting anyway.
It isn't cheap to land one of the league's star players, especially when he's locked up for another four years. The Pistons gave up two solid pieces, but they weren't part of a championship future.
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