By: Will Burchfield
To Stan Van Gundy, it’s a matter of perspective.
While some might look at Blake Griffin’s massive contract as a burden, Van Gundy considers it a plus. In trading for Griffin on Monday, the Pistons took on about $34 million per year through the 2021-22 season.
“Everybody can view that differently: ‘Oh wow, you’re locked into $140 million-plus.’ But he’s locked into us, too, as one of the best players in the league. We viewed that as a positive,” said Van Gundy on Tuesday morning.
For a small-market team like the Pistons, acquiring and retaining stars is a constant challenge. The fact that Griffin, a four-time All-NBA selection, is under contract through the next four seasons made him all the more appealing.
Van Gundy said there was no need to convince owner Tom Gores of the merits of the trade.
“We’re under the (luxury) tax, we will stay under the tax next year. How your money’s distributed I don’t think really bothers him,” said Van Gundy. “We got a star. … For us, the major risk was that he’s missed games at a high salary. On the positive side, if he can stay reasonably healthy you’ve got him locked in.”
That’s a big ‘if,’ of course. The 28-year-old Griffin has missed 99 games over the past four seasons, including 16 this season due to a sprained MCL and a concussion. He hasn’t played a full slate of games since the lockout-shortened season in 2011-12. His injuries have mostly been of the fluky variety, but even those start to take a toll.
“Obviously there’s some risk involved,” said Van Gundy. “If there was no risk involved, if Blake didn’t have any injury history, he wouldn’t be available. We take the risk to get that high-level talent.”
When healthy, Griffin has been one of the premier players in the NBA. He was an All-Star his first five seasons in the league and he’s become a terrific passer and a more diverse shooter in the years since. He’s one of only five players this season averaging at least 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game.
Van Gundy believes his track record should make Pistons fans excited.
“They’re getting a perennial All-Star here, and it’s been a while,” he said.
When the Clippers made Griffin available, the Pistons knew they had to make a push. They aren’t a free-agent destination nor are they a team that’s willing to tank for high draft picks. This was their chance to land a bonafide star.
It’s something that’s consumed Van Gundy and general manager Jeff Bower since they took over the Pistons’ front office in 2014.
“All of our discussions have (been) about, how do you get that guy? How do you get the real superior talents in this league?” Van Gundy said, acknowledging how hard it is to win without one. “It’s been done before by teams, but it’s damn rare. You have to have one of those guys.”
There’s risks on top of Griffin’s injury history. The Pistons gave up their two leading scorers in Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, they’re investing heavily in their frontcourt in a backcourt-driven league, and they’ll have to remake their offense on the fly. In the short-term, they might struggle.
But Van Gundy much prefers the team’s long-term outlook with Griffin in the fold.
“Heading into next year, we got a high-level talent to build around,” he said. “If we can get (Reggie Jackson) in there with Blake and Andre Drummond, going forward it’s good.
“For now, immediately, I don’t know. We don’t have Reggie and we don’t know what the adjustment period’s going to be. I don’t know if we’re immediately better, but we certainly have more prospect down the road to be a better team.”
It isn’t often that a star like Blake Griffin is available. It’s even rarer for a team like the Pistons to have a shot at acquiring him. Knowing that, Van Gundy and Bower took a calculated risk on a guy they view as a top 15-20 NBA talent and one who will be in Detroit for at least the next four seasons.
It wasn’t about being “all-in,” Van Gundy said. “It was that a guy became available who’s a great player, and we took the opportunity to do it.”