To acquire Blake Griffin—as the Detroit Pistons did via trade this week—is to come to terms with a calculated risk. Griffin's knees have been a recurring issue. Other, unrelated injuries have cost him significant time. So before a team like the Pistons could even begin to evaluate Griffin's play, they first had to weigh the likelihood of his missing games against the costs of the trade itself. Once they were comfortable with the package of players and picks it would take to get a deal done, the Pistons then had to square Griffin's inconsistent availability with what remains of the five-year, $173 million contract he signed last summer.
"Our thinking was this: The hardest thing to do in this league is to get a proven star," Pistons head coach and team president Stan Van Gundy said, per ESPN.com. "It's just very hard to do. It's hard to do in free agency. It's hard to do in trades. You get very few opportunities to do it."
"If there were no risk involved—if Blake didn't have any injury history—he wouldn't be available. So we take the risk to get that high-level talent."
And in doing so, the Pistons remind us that any calculated risk is specific and deeply contextual. Van Gundy, in his fourth year on the job, was staring down a third losing season with Detroit. To invest so much of the team's resources in two bigs wasn't a philosophical zig against the zag of a perimeter-oriented league; it was a desperate grab for high-end talent, wherever the Pistons could find it. Opportunism was the order of the day.
That shows in Griffin's pairing with Andre Drummond, which is the sort of imperfect arrangement a team lives with for the sake of acquiring a star. Drummond offers some of what a team would look for in a frontcourt partner for Griffin, and vice versa. Yet there are enough gaps and redundancies between them to bring the Pistons' ceiling just overhead. Their union should be productive and relatively functional—it simply might not ever be capable of contending-level play.
It is a strange, cosmic coincidence that Griffin would be traded to a team with the league's closest thing to DeAndre Jordan. But with that, all the same concerns about Griffin's pairing with Jordan apply. The spacing can get tight when Griffin ventures inside, though his passing helps alleviate some of the clog. The Clippers' defense with those two bigs was also fairly middling—capable of a stout month or so, but rarely more. Consider it foreboding evidence that Drummond is so similar to Jordan, only a bit less active and less focused.
Still, this kind of partnership will work on a night-to-night basis because both Griffin and Drummond are so imposing. A league leaning small doesn't have much answer for Griffin's physicality, much less the efforts of a finisher and rebounder like Drummond. Thursday night against Memphis, they'll get their first test drive. Expect some lobs from one big to another, along with some heady high-low feeds after forcing the defense to commit. Griffin and Drummond don't have any real experience playing together, but they already know the shorthand for a working relationship. Plays like this one:
Have mirrored nicely in Detroit:
Those similarities can't fully stand in for the 7+ years of chemistry Griffin and Jordan had built, just as they won't cleanly address all that Detroit lost in this trade. Drummond's reinvention as an offensive hub changed the arc of his career. But the majority of his assists this season went to either Tobias Harris or Avery Bradley, both of whom were shipped to Los Angeles. Compromise is implicit. Drummond will have to plug into the rhythms of different teammates, Griffin included, and sacrifice some of his control of the offense. Griffin will need to accommodate his starting center at times, whether by letting him run some offense or deferring to his positioning. The continued development of Griffin's long-range shooting will be essential.
Should there be any doubt, Griffin gets priority. Detroit doesn't make this trade without the intention of putting the ball in Griffin's hands; you don't give up what the Pistons did and take on a contract like Griffin's only to continue business as usual. For all of Drummond's remarkable improvement as a shot creator, Griffin is still the better, more dynamic option.
But also: Why not rely on both? There's time enough for Drummond to set up shop at the elbow, even if Griffin works as the team's first option. It's not like Jordan never ran dribble hand-offs with the Clipper guards. Diversification elevates an offense. The more Detroit can change its look over the course of a game, the more difficult it becomes for opponents to respond.
What matters most is that both bigs stay involved. Drummond has come too far to completely abandon his work as a playmaker, even if playing alongside Griffin shifts its parameters. Some of Drummond's touches will come in that familiar space, while others will be duck-ins opposite a Griffin drive. Others could be dunks off a big-to-big pick-and-roll like this one:
Or, to mirror again, like this one:
The structure of Detroit's offense was always a contrivance—a means for a team without a superstar creator to generate quality looks. It still will, albeit with Griffin providing a looming threat at all times. Players of this caliber offer a sense of structure. The Pistons will surely miss Harris' random scoring at times, along with Bradley's bustling activity. Yet the game changes when you have a player who can consistently collapse a defense. Griffin offers that. It's not in his game to be alpha and omega, but to manufacture points of entry. It's not perfect. It's a start.