The biggest “what-ifs?” of the Detroit Pistons’ season

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 09: Blake Griffin #23 of the Detroit Pistons reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on December 09, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 09: Blake Griffin #23 of the Detroit Pistons reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on December 09, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Pistons 2019 – 2020 season didn’t play out as planned, what are going to end up the biggest what-if questions from this season?

Any sports franchise worth their salt has a catalog of heartbreaking “What-Ifs”. The Detroit Pistons certainly have their fair share.

These are the moments that fans replay in their heads and argue over in sports bars and basements. These are the moments that leave fans shaking their fists at the cruel sports gods asking, “Why do I even care? Why do I do this to myself?”

The “what if we drafted Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony over Darko Milicic” or “what if Rasheed Wallace didn’t leave Robert Horry open in Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals?” or “what if Larry Bird doesn’t steal Isiah Thomas‘s inbound pass in the 1987 Eastern Conference Finals?”

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As torturous as these moments are, we can’t help but relive them.

Some, we argue and defend,  “the Pistons already had Tayshaun and Rip, so Darko actually made sense.” And some, like Rasheed leaving Robert Horry wide open to trap Manu Ginobili, are indefensible. (We still love you, though Sheed!)

This current NBA season may end up with the most “What-If” moments of all time because of the most impactful “What-If” in the history of the NBA – “What if the NBA season didn’t come to a grinding halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic?”

For the Pistons, the season was over before it went on hiatus. After the Andre Drummond trade and Reggie Jackson buy-out, it was clear the Pistons’ had their eyes set on the upcoming draft rather than the playoffs.

But the Pistons’ season didn’t start that way, it’s hard to imagine now, but there was hope. There was hope that the Pistons could be a frisky playoff team if everything fell into place.

There was hope that Blake Griffin, a top 15 player in the league just the previous year, could lift the Pistons beyond the 8th seed if he had a healthy supporting cast.

Which leads us to the biggest What-If of the Pistons’ season:

What if Blake Griffin Stayed Healthy?

Whoo boy, this is a can of worms. First, for context, let’s start by revisiting Blake Griffin’s All-NBA 2018 – 2019 season.

Blake posted a stat line of 24.5 points per game along with 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 asssts with true shooting percentage of 58 and 3rd Team All-NBA honors.

This was awesome, awesome play from Griffin and maybe the singular best statistical performance from a Piston since Grant Hill donned the teal pony.

Unfortunately, Blake strapping the team to his back and dragging them to the playoffs would come at the cost of his body. As the Pistons regular season began to wind down, it was clear Griffin’s workload was just too much.

Just like an over-revved engine, you can see Griffin’s workload redline in January with 39 minutes per game and then steadily decline the rest of the season with just 33 minutes per in February, 32 in March, and 28 in April.

Griffin played 72 of the first 75 games of the ’18 – ’19 season. He would go on to miss 6 of the last 10 games, including the first 2 playoff games.

His workload prompted another knee surgery in the offseason. The hope was that he would be back and ready to play All-NBA level ball early in the 2019 season.

This did not happen.

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Griffin played, but was clearly still hobbled, and was unceremoniously shut-down for the season.

The Pistons, in a rare moment of self-awareness, realized their minuscule chance at relevance had just disappeared and promptly had a firesale, trading Andre Drummond for a less than stupendous return and buying out Reggie Jackson‘s contract.

So, what happens if Griffin stays healthy? Do the Pistons part ways with Jackson and Drummond and reset the direction of the franchise?

Let’s assume Blake returns to an All-Star level and Reggie Jackson makes an earlier return – since he actually has a reason to compete. That Pistons team is realistically capable of a 41 win season, like the one prior.

But when the ’19 Pistons managed to sneak into the 8th seed, they had a glaring lack of depth. Wayne Ellington was playing 39 minutes in a must-win playoff game.  No disrespect to Wayne Ellington but you really don’t want him starting against the Milwaukee Bucks in a must-win situation.

Before the season ended, he was averaging just 15 minutes a game for the New York Knicks.

But the 2019 – 2020 iteration of the Pistons sported one of the stronger bench units in the league, featuring Markieff Morris, Derrick Rose, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhiliuak, Langston Galloway, and Christian Wood.

There’s a real case to be made with that bench, the Pistons could have added 4 to 5 wins to the prior season’s total of 41. Accounting for the shortened season, this would leave the Pistons at a 56 win percentage, just below the 60 percent of the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers.

This places them snugly in the 7th seed which sounds about right, better than the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets but not quite as good as the 76ers or Pacers. It also possibly tees up a spicy first-round matchup with the 2nd seed Toronto Raptors, Dwayne Casey’s revenge tour.

Let’s be honest, Tom Gores is not pulling the trigger on selling off the team’s core if they were on pace for 46 wins and a playoff berth, even if it seemed likely they would lose in the first round.  The Griffin injury truly seemed to be the turning point for the organization.

One of the other biggest takeaways from this past season was the emergence of the Pistons new young core, so do Wood, Svi, and Sekou Doumbouya become real assets so soon if Blake goes down?

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Christian Wood‘s emergence was buoyed by Blake Griffin’s inability to stay in the lineup, but he didn’t fully break out and start receiving starter-level minutes until Drummond was dealt. If everyone stayed healthy, it’s likely that Drummond wouldn’t have been traded and Wood would’ve continued to thrive in his 6th-man role.

Svi, on the other hand, received his noticeable increase in playing time after Luke Kennard went down. Griffin’s injury probably allowed for Dwayne Casey to be more liberal with the Ukrainian Gunner’s minutes but either way, Svi was already showing enough flashes to prove that he deserved real rotation minutes.

He made huge strides as a player this season, he likely does not receive enough minutes to make the same progression if the Pistons are aggressively competing for a playoff spot.

Sekou, is an interesting case because he started receiving minutes as a direct result of Griffin’s injury. It felt like the Pistons organization was like, “Well the season is over, let’s kick the tires on the rookie.”

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Without Griffin’s injury, I think there’s a real chance that Sekou continues to perform well enough in the G-League that the Pistons have to bring him up for an extended stretch.

But with a healthy roster competing on a nightly basis, he may have been relegated to the end of bench minutes for quite some time.

Would that have been a better scenario for the young Sekou? We saw his confidence and performance waver over the season as his role was re-calibrated. Does he make a more linear progression if he’s eased into the lineup?

The most famous What-Ifs are the type where you can clearly imagine the diverging paths and their outcomes. Take the aforementioned Darko draft. If Carmelo was chosen, would the Pistons still have gone on to win the championship that year?

There’s no doubt that Carmelo was a much more talented player than Darko but do the Pistons still trade for Rasheed Wallace? That’s the move that ultimately pushed the roster over the edge, do they still win the 2004 Finals with a rookie Carmelo?

Or an even more painful butterfly effect for Pistons fans to imagine: Do the Pistons go on to win multiple championships if they pick Carmelo or Dwyane Wade?

The Blake injury allowed the Pistons to reset the franchise, something they’ve needed to do for over a decade and move on from a stale core. Next year, we may have a fully healthy Griffin at the helm of a very young and feisty Pistons team.

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We may be asking in a few years’ time – in the same way we mention the Darko draft or the Grant Hill trade, “Man, what if Blake never got hurt?”