By: Will Burchfield
It won’t be like 2015 when the Pistons traded for Reggie Jackson and he instantly energized the offense. Nor will it be like 2016 when they traded for Tobias Harris and he promptly did the same.
Stan Van Gundy issued these warnings on Tuesday morning after the Pistons acquired Blake Griffin from the Clippers. The unique skillset that has propelled Griffin to five All-Star games won’t be easy to fit into Detroit’s offense on the fly.
“Blake, he’s different,” Van Gundy said. “We’re going to have to make some fairly significant changes to what we do, and we don’t have a lot of time to do it. That part of it is a little nerve-wracking, but we’ll put it together. It will have to be little by little.”
No player will be more affected by Griffin’s arrival than Andre Drummond. The Pistons’ center has been the focal point of the offense all season long. Everything — “literally everything” said Van Gundy — runs through him.
The addition of Griffin will change that. His talent demands it.
“We’ll run a lot of stuff through Blake, and (Drummond) will be in different positions off the ball. That’ll be a little bit different,” Van Gundy said. “It’ll take some adjustment.”
Jackson and Harris succeeded right away because the Pistons’ offense was already tailored to their strengths. Jackson took over the pick-and-roll game that had been put in place for D.J. Augustin and Brandon Jennings, and Harris stepped into the same sets that were designed for Marcus Morris. Meanwhile, everyone around Jackson and Harris maintained the beat.
Integrating Griffin will prove a much different challenge. He can do things from the four that the Pistons have never had at their disposal under Van Gundy.
“If you bring somebody in, they always have to learn your offense — but that’s easy because the other guys all know what’s going on and they can help direct him around. But when you’re going to put in new stuff at this point in the year, theres nobody to direct traffic,” Van Gundy said. “It’s all new, so it’s not going to be easy.”
It’s for this reason that Van Gundy is tempering expectations in the short term. Griffin, who will likely make his debut Thursday versus the Grizzlies, is a special player, but he may not be the savior that lifts the Pistons into the playoffs.
What’s more, the trio of Griffin, Drummond and Jackson that’s about to become the engine of this team is still without its primary cylinder. Jackson figures to be sidelined at least a couple more weeks with an ankle injury.
“We don’t have Reggie and we don’t know what the adjustment period’s going to be (with Griffin). I don’t know if we’re immediately better, but we certainly have more prospect down the road to be a better team,” said Van Gundy.
It behooves Van Gundy to hedge his bet in the short-term. Still, it’s tempting to wonder what kind of spark Griffin can provide a team that’s two games out of the playoffs with a large chunk of the season remaining. He’s one of only five players in the NBA averaging at least 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game.
Surely, even in a foreign system surrounded by new teammates, that translates to a few additional wins down the stretch.
“He gives you a go-to guy,” said Van Gundy.
After Van Gundy finished scouting the Cavs on Monday in preparation for the Pistons’ game on Tuesday night — a spirited 125-114 win over Cleveland — he spent much of the afternoon watching film of the Clippers. He was looking for inspiration, for ways to maximize Griffin’s impact the moment he arrives. There were things that caught the coach’s eye.
“We haven’t really posted up, especially our fours. Obviously we’ll want him down there, but he can really handle the ball and pass. He presents you with a lot of possibilities, and the tendency is to want to get it all in at once,” said Van Gundy.
He’ll have to resist that urge. On Tuesday morning he spoke with his assistant coaches about making changes “in priority order” and managing the trickle-down effect on Griffin’s new teammates. One thing Van Gundy isn’t worried about is how Griffin will coexist with Drummond.
“He and DeAndre (Jordan) played very well together for a long, long time. I don’t think that will be a problem,” he said.
By investing heavily in their frontcourt, the Pistons are going against the grain. Van Gundy likened it to the Moneyball philosophy of acquiring players whose skillsets are undervalued by the rest of the league. (Griffin and Drummond are due about $240 million over the next four years, but ya know, in theory…) As a small-market team that’s unwilling to tank for high draft picks, it’s the Pistons’ only shot at keeping up.
“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. We’re going to be different,” said Van Gundy. “Our money and our talent is in our big guys — and in Reggie when we get him back — so people are going to have to play to us a little bit on that matchup, too.”
Maybe that’s how Griffin makes an immediate impact, by giving the Pistons a look that allows them to dictate terms. It’s certainly what Van Gundy and Co. are banking on in the long run. It will take adjusting and adapting on the part of several people, Griffin included. The vision likely won’t take shape until sometime next season.
But the Pistons still have this season to play for, and now a transcendent player to bridge the gap.
“He knows where we are and that we haven’t been playing well,” said Van Gundy, who spoke with Griffin Monday night. “I think he wants to come in and help us get that changed.”