DETROIT — With his team in a slump that threatened to derail a once-promising season, Stan Van Gundy boldly put the Detroit Pistons on a new path.
Where it will lead is anyone’s guess.
The trade that brought Blake Griffin to the Pistons includes plenty of risk. The 6-foot-10 forward with an All-Star pedigree has a lengthy highlight reel and an injury history to match. But in his fourth season as Detroit’s coach and team president, Van Gundy wasn’t going to let this opportunity pass. If healthy, Griffin is the type of player who could lift this franchise significantly — and not just this season.
“The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star,” Van Gundy said Tuesday. “You get very few opportunities to do it.”
Detroit has made the playoffs once under Van Gundy, but when the Pistons lost their eighth straight game Sunday, this season seemed to be slipping away. Detroit has looked lost without injured point guard Reggie Jackson, and although center Andre Drummond is signed long term, the future appeared murky at best.
Guard Avery Bradley was on an expiring contract, and recent draft picks Luke Kennard and Stanley Johnson look more like role players than stars. The Pistons weren’t in a clear rebuilding mode, but improving the roster wasn’t going to be easy.
So Detroit took a gamble, sending Bradley and leading scorer Tobias Harris to Los Angeles for Griffin in a six-player trade announced Tuesday morning. The deal also cost the Pistons a first-round draft pick.
“It’s a great addition,” said Detroit forward Reggie Bullock, who once played with Griffin on the Clippers. “We’re getting an All-Star-caliber player coming to a team to add onto the one that we already have.”
The upside is obvious. The Pistons have been mediocre for most of the past decade, but they’ve never picked higher than seventh in the draft during that period. Detroit isn’t considered a major free agent destination, so if the Pistons were going to acquire a player like Griffin, this was one way to do it.
Griffin agreed to a $171 million, five-year deal with the Clippers in July, so Detroit can keep him for a while, albeit at a prohibitive cost.
“Everybody can view that differently. ‘Oh wow, you’re locked into 140 million dollars-plus.’ Yeah, but he’s locked into us too, as one of the best players in the league,” Van Gundy said.
The 28-year-old Griffin has averaged 21.6 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his career, and he and the 24-year-old Drummond could be a formidable frontcourt tandem. Van Gundy acknowledged that the NBA has become more perimeter oriented, but he says there is value in trying to build a different type of team.
“Like the Tampa Bay Rays in baseball. Everybody wanted power hitting and on-base percentage. They couldn’t get that. What did they go do? They went and built it on relief pitching and defense, and were very, very competitive for years,” Van Gundy said. “So we’re not in a situation where we can be that choosy, and we can’t necessarily go and try to do it the same way as everybody else.”
The question is whether Griffin can stay healthy. The Clippers drafted him first overall in 2009, but he missed the 2009-10 season after surgery on his broken left kneecap. He also missed 21 games last season and 47 in 2015-16.
If Griffin isn’t able to stay on the court, that big contract will become quite a burden for the Pistons — and even if he is healthy, Detroit may need to be creative to build a capable supporting cast around him and Drummond.
Van Gundy already suggested that it will be hard for the Pistons to make another major move before this year’s trade deadline next week.
“If you look at our roster, and the fact that we gave up a pick and the whole thing, we don’t have a ton of assets now to really do anything major,” he said. “But it doesn’t mean something couldn’t come up.”
No matter how this deal turns out, it feels like a tipping point for Van Gundy, the kind of trade that could define his tenure in Detroit. The Pistons will have a hard time withstanding any significant decline in Griffin’s performance, but if he remains the star he’s been for much of his career, his arrival could be a big step in the right direction.
“Since we’ve gotten here, all of our discussions have talked about, you know, how do you get that guy? How do you get the real superior talents in this league?” Van Gundy said. “You’ve got to have one of those guys.”