The Detroit Pistons were already deep in researching Blake Griffin when news broke that Kemba Walker was potentially available for trade on Jan. 19. Detroit, long curious about opportunities to upgrade its roster at point guard, mulled pursuing Walker and forming a potential UConn tandem with Andre Drummond. The Pistons stood in a precarious position at the time, stuck in the middle of what became an eight–game losing streak after a seven-game drought in November curtailed their 14-6 start.
Detroit clearly is not the East contender that appeared possible after a feisty postseason clash with the Cavaliers in 2016. Their two regular–season skids aside, the Pistons felt that adding a true star, whether at the cost of Drummond or Reggie Jackson, could propel their roster back into the thick of the conference’s playoff discussion. They explored a bevy of trades for Drummond this summer, nearly agreeing to a swap with the Kings. The Raptors called dangling Jonas Valanciunas and the Suns at least feigned interest in exchanging a package involving Eric Bledsoe and the No. 4 pick in June’s draft. Detroit circled back to Bledsoe in November, coming within inches of swapping Jackson for the disgruntled Bledsoe. The proposed three-team deal with New Orleans fell through.
By default, Jackson and Drummond essentially grew cemented as Detroit mainstays, and the Pistons geared up for this February trade deadline motivated to aggressively add wing depth, league sources said. Pistons brass toggled back and forth between drafting Stanley Johnson and Devin Booker at No. 8 in 2015, and also outright chose Luke Kennard over Donovan Mitchell at No. 12 last June. And while Detroit remains optimistic about Kennard—the rookie is shooting 42.6% from three—Johnson has yet to establish a clear offensive role and initial conversations proved his rookie salary, with one year remaining after this season, to be a valuable trade chip in acquiring a more established perimeter presence.
Detroit looked into Danny Green, Jordan Clarkson, Tyreke Evans, Rodney Hood and Courtney Lee, according to league sources. Orlando called offering a package of Evan Fournier and Elfrid Payton for a deal centered around Kennard, but that was a non-starter for the Pistons. All these preliminary conversations and prep work made one thing clear to Detroit. "It's becoming a wing league, and not many teams are willing to move those players,” said one team source. “We were willing to give up ours."
So the Pistons focused on a package of Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris for Griffin, beginning roughly two weeks before Detroit finalized the deal that landed the All-Star forward in the Motor City. Only Stan Van Gundy, general manager Jeff Bower and three other basketball personnel were briefed on the discussions with the Clippers. That group analyzed Griffin film dating back to his MVP-caliber season in 2013–14, digesting how his game has transitioned from all athleticism and power to include more finesse and shooting, attempting to envision his fit alongside their incumbent All-Star big in Drummond.
“The last six or seven days is really when it started to take shape,” Bower said during the team’s introductory press conference Wednesday afternoon.
The Pistons and Clippers uniformly worked in quiet, with Detroit under the impression only president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and general manager Michael Winger had knowledge of the initial talks. Head coach Doc Rivers only became aware of the deal when the teams reached an agreement on Sunday, with every detail settled but the first-round pick protections, one league source said.
For Detroit, the deal needed to be consummated well in advance of the trade deadline. Including Tuesday night’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, eight of the team’s nine games before the All-Star break are at home. “It’s time to make a run now,” said one team source. If the Pistons failed to close on Griffin, Detroit was prepared to turn its attention to Kevin Love.
The Pistons will continue to listen for opportunities to add to the wing. Detroit knows it must be frugal in how it shapes its roster around the massive contracts Griffin and Drummond hold for the next half decade. Griffin—along with Willie Reed and Brice Johnson—was introduced Wednesday afternoon and will be available to debut against the Grizzlies on Thursday evening. A clear path to the playoffs has emerged. How the Pistons close the regular season and build around their expensive frontcourt will be fascinating to watch.