With the news that NBA veteran – and current BIG3 MVP – Joe Johnson signed a one-year $2.6 million deal with Detroit yesterday, one thing has become abundantly clear: the Pistons think they are a legitimate chance to make a playoff run.
The 38-year-old Johnson last played in the NBA during the 2017-18 season. He recently led his BIG3 team, the Triplets, to the league championship, and most recently averaged 6.8 points on 40.6% shooting in 55 games for the Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets in 2017-18.
As reported by Fansided, Johnson will compete with 23-year-old forward Christian Wood for the 15th spot on the roster. Given Wood’s non-guaranteed contract can be terminated without any cost to the Pistons at any time prior to the start of the season, whereas Johnson reportedly has $220,000 in guaranteed money, it’s fair to say Smokin’ Joe has the upper hand. Financially, at least.
There’s no doubting Johnson’s NBA credentials; he’s a seven-time All-Star after-all. There’s also no doubt that at some point this offseason some team was going to offer him a deal, with ESPN reporting workouts with the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets earlier this month. He’s also undoubtedly a better short-term option than Michael Beasley, who was released to make room for Iso Joe.
Signing a volume scorer who debuted in 2001 and presumably ditching a 23-year-old backup centre as a consequence is not the move of a team that expects to finish outside the playoffs. We can reasonably assume as a result that interim Pistons GM Ed Stefanski and head coach Dwane Casey are anticipating a deep run in to the postseason.
The roster they have to work with now includes 30-year-old Blake Griffin, 29-year-old Reggie Jackson, 35-year-old Zaza Pachulia 30-year-old Markieff Morris and 30-year-old Derrick Rose – the last two both arriving in Detroit during this most recent offseason.
While there has been some disturbance in the Pistons’ fanbase concerning the merit – or lack thereof – of these recent moves, the rationale behind them is obvious. Detroit surely must know it is nearing the end of Griffin’s prime, and just entering what they hope will be the beginning of 26-year-old Andre Drummond’s best years in the league.
Griffin was an All-Star for the first time since 2015 and played 75 games last season, but it was the games he missed and how he missed them that would be concerning the organisation.
Griffin was absent for four of the last seven games of the regular season with left knee soreness and the first two games of Detroit’s ill-fated first round series with Milwaukee, before returning belatedly and unsuccessfully in a last-ditch effort to avoid the ignominy of a sweep.
He subsequently underwent arthroscopic surgery at the start of the offseason, with the Pistons adamant he would not miss any of the preseason or season proper.
If you’re reading this and thinking that Griffin and left knee issues often appear in the same breath, you’re correct. The then Oklahoma Sooner tore the MCL in his left knee as a freshman, before missing the entire 2009-10 NBA season – his first in the league – as a result of a fracture to his left kneecap sustained in a botched dunk attempt. He also withdrew from the 2012 Olympic squad with left knee soreness.
The right hasn’t fared much better, with a torn cartilage as a college freshman, an MCL sprain in 2017 various minor surgeries on it over his time in the pros, the most recent in 2017.
The six-time All-Star’s bad luck doesn’t stop with the knees, though. Since 2015 Griffin has missed games with: bone bruising to the ankle, concussion, a broken toe, a torn left quadricep (twice) a broken hand and a staph infection. It’s been a rough trot.
Despite the injury troubles, Griffin remains an NBA superstar when he can get on the floor. Last season he played his highest number of minutes per game since 2015 and set a career-high for points per game, dropping 24.5 on 46.2% shooting from the floor. In the first four games of the year he dropped 38 PPG, 11.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists to remind the league how good he can be when fit and motivated.
The thing is, Griffin is ageing in basketball terms. The physical style of his game – so lauded for the way it can bring on highlight-reel dunks and crushing blocks – has taken its toll on his body. He will never play a full 82 game season again, let alone be able to stay healthy for a deep playoff run.
Detroit must surely be cognisant of this fact. They’d want to be, given they’re set to pay their franchise star roughly $110 million over the next three seasons.
Stefanski has no alternative but to build a capable roster around Griffin, and do it quickly. Here’s the thing; he’s not doing such a bad job.
Rose, Morris and Tim Frazier may not be superstars (at least anymore) but are handy free-agent acquisitions to a franchise which could hardly be considered one of the league’s destination clubs.
Drummond set a new career-high in points per game last season, and at the surprisingly-young age of 26, is arguably yet to enter what is considered prime for big men.
Svi Mykhailiuk – who hit 40.9% from 3-point range in his four-year college career at Kansas – and the enigmatic Thon Maker are both young and carry with them big wraps. It’s even been suggested that Mykhailiuk may earn himself some point guard minutes off the bench, and with handles like this it’s not hard to see why.
Luke Kennard also showed glimpses of NBA-level talent last year, whilst Bruce Brown is internally spoken about in hushed, awe-struck tones.
This roster, for all its obvious flaws (a legitimate point guard and a decent back-up centre primary among them) is young and talented. Kennard was recently quoted by the Athletic’s James Edwards as saying “I think we have one of the best (young cores) in the NBA.”
Don’t laugh, he might be right. The Pistons currently harbour 10 players the age of 23 or younger, with the likes of Brown and Maker yet to prove how good they can be at the highest level.
The addition of a veteran presence or three during free agency makes perfect sense when viewed in that context, and with the knowledge that their window to maximise Griffin’s talents will perhaps only be open for the next 9 months at best.
Come opening night on October 23, this is the likely makeup of the team:
PG: Reggie Jackson, Derrick Rose, Tim Frazier
SG: Bruce Brown, Luke Kennard, Khyri Thomas, Langston Galloway
SF: Tony Snell, Joe Johnson, Svi Mykhailiuk
PF: Blake Griffin, Markieff Morris, Thon Maker, Sekou Doumbouya
C: Andre Drummond, Christian Wood
In the newly-Kawhi-Leonard-less East, the power vacuum is pronounced. Milwaukee and Philadelphia clearly have the most talented rosters – by some margin – but after those two the drop-off is steep.
Who’s to say a team like the Pistons couldn’t make a run to the Eastern Conference Finals?
They certainly think they can. Why the hell not. Shoot your shot.
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