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Boys, Bye: The Pistons Are Out of the Playoffs. What Comes Next?

Detroit is a middling team and seemingly out of options. What could the team do with Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond, and the little wiggle room it has to make another run to the playoffs next season?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Be careful what you wish for. If there’s a lasting message from this Pistons season, which came to a thumping end Monday night as the Milwaukee Bucks took Game 4 127-104 and swept the first-round series, that is it. The Pistons wanted to make the playoffs, and last year, when they made a blockbuster trade that brought Blake Griffin and his five-year, $171.2 million contract to Detroit, they sold out in an effort to get there. That dream petered out in 2018, and though it came to fruition this season, it felt like a special type of cruel irony that the reason they made the playoffs could only stumble to the finish line hurt, his left leg wrapped up like it something out of The Mummy.

Reaching the playoffs is a shiny, admirable goal, especially for a team that had not been there since 2016. But it can also be a cold, harsh dose of reality. After getting swept by an average of nearly 24 points per game in the series, it’s safe to say the Pistons, who reached the postseason with a 41-41 record, didn’t really belong. The fact that they scraped their way into the eighth seed by two games then got swiftly taken out by the Eastern Conference’s best team (their third first-round sweep in their last three playoff appearances) like they were an exhibition squad, was not an inspiring picture of their present. Here’s the especially bad news: Their future doesn’t look so bright, either.

Now that their season has ended, here are three questions facing the Pistons this offseason.

Where does Blake Griffin go from here?

Griffin turned 30 this season, but his age didn’t preclude him from putting together an All-Star campaign—his first since starting off his career with five-straight appearances in the game. Griffin averaged a career-high 24.5 points, thanks in large part to his explosion from the outside, where he averaged seven 3-point attempts per game and made them at a 36.2 percent clip. He’s come a long way from his days as Lob City’s resident highflier, but though inverting his game was a product of the modern NBA, it has also been a necessary response to his deteriorating health. Griffin hadn’t played more than 61 games in any of the three seasons preceding this one, and he sat out the first two games of the Bucks series due to an ailing left knee.

Continuing to improve his 3-point shot should help Griffin avoid some future injuries, which is paramount for the Pistons. They need an All-Star to stay in contention for one of the East’s bottom spots, as depressing as that goal may be. And because Griffin still has over $110 million remaining on his deal the next three seasons, he and Detroit seem to be stuck together. Though it’s tough to envision his production getting better than it did this season—unless he starts shooting at 38 to 40 percent from deep—given the way Griffin has already evolved his game, I’m not ruling that out.

What kind of leap can Andre Drummond make?

The fact that Drummond is only 25 years old is shocking. The fact that this was the second season where he averaged over 15 points and 15 rebounds a game yet rarely got national attention? Not that surprising. Drummond’s numbers have been gaudy for a while, but it hasn’t often translated to team results. His talent is undeniable, but in big spots—like say, a series against the Giannis-led Bucks—he’s wilted. After having 30 games of 20 points or more and 18 games of 20 rebounds or more this regular season, he couldn’t break either mark all series. Moreover, he was dominated by Giannis in the paint. So, what’s Drummond’s deal going forward?

His actual deal will be paying him $27 million next season, and then he has a player option for $28 million in 2020-21. While Detroit’s capologists may be hoping he turns that down, it isn’t likely—the only way he could get more money or a new deal that gives him long-term security is if he takes another leap next season. Drummond’s numbers will always stand out, but improvements in his effort, contributions to a winning basketball team, and the self-awareness to not worry about taking 3s (he took a career-high 38 this season and only made five) may be more important signs of growth. Winning more games would help too.

How can the Pistons’ front office build this team a brighter future?

General manager Ed Stefanski and the rest of Detroit’s front office need to find some diamonds in the rough. They’re projected to be nearly $9 million over the cap next season, which would be 11th-worst in the NBA. The Pistons are still paying Josh Smith, who is no longer in the league (and will do so again next season), and they have a number of other contracts that have underperformed (Reggie Jackson—an expiring $18 million next season) or are just straight-up bad (Jon Leuer). But they have also made some savvy moves in the past, like acquiring Wayne Ellington after the deadline.

Ideally, the Pistons will find ways to get creative and add ancillary pieces like the Bucks did last offseason—i.e., finding their own Brook Lopez. They have already made a recent coaching change, and their style—running nearly everything through Griffin—still feels like the best possible course of action. Ish Smith is set to be a free agent this summer, and even though he’s just served as a backup in Detroit, the advanced numbers favor him over Jackson: The Pistons have a better net rating with him on the floor. While Jackson is clearly the more talented of the two, his and Drummond’s connection was nonexistent until Griffin showed up. And even then, that group has not been good enough to win a single playoff game. This isn’t a franchise that wants a full reboot, but maybe flipping Jackson (hello, Suns) could be a way to free up some cap room should they bring back Smith. We have enough evidence to know Jackson is not Detroit’s answer.

Of course, the Pistons need a whole lot more than just a solution at point guard. The problem is that they don’t have too many ways to get it. So barring some quiet, savvy moves around the edges, patience and acceptance may be what they need the most.