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Pistons pay big price to find out whether Blake Griffin is still a star

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Blake Griffin arrives in Detroit a proven star.

He entered the NBA with the fanfare of being the No. 1 pick, the first top pick to eventually join the Pistons since Kwame Brown in his journeyman phase. Griffin raised his profile higher by winning Rookie of the Year, and he’s the first former winner of that award in Detroit since a washed-up Allen Iverson. Griffin made five NBA All-Star games by age 25, a feat otherwise accomplished by only Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers.

Playing in L.A., Griffin parlayed his fame into a budding show-business career. He stars in commercials, appears in movies and books stand-up-comedy gigs.

The Pistons haven’t had a player of this profile in quite some time, maybe ever.

“Blake Griffin is one of the NBA’s elite players, and when you get an opportunity to add that kind of talent, you take it,” Pistons owner Tom Gores – who grew up in Michigan, but is now an L.A. guy – said in a statement.

The Pistons just traded a load – Tobias Harris and his team-friendly contract, Avery Bradley on an expiring contract, Boban Marjanovic, a first-round pick protected only for the top four and a second-round pick – to the Clippers and agreed to assume the whopping $141,661,920 over four years remaining on Griffin’s contract.

Detroit gains someone with a monster reputation. Can Griffin still live up to it?

The endorsements might not come as quickly in Detroit, but nothing affects a player’s stature more than on-court performance. The buzz around Griffin and now the Pistons, who’ve struggled to fill their new downtown arena, will persist only if he helps the team.

Griffin has missed the last three All-Star games, a precarious trend. In the lasts 20 years, 18 players have been multi-time All-Star by their age-26 season then missed three straight All-Star games. Just two of the 18 – Al Horford and Rasheed Wallace – returned to All-Star status.

Here are those 18 players on an aging curve. Players’ first and last (or, with active players, current) seasons are marked with gray bars. All-Star seasons are marked with red stars. The three years between Horford’s All-Star seasons and four years between Wallace’s are marked with blue squares.

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Players on that list lost their star status for numerous reasons, many of them suffering major injuries. But that’s precisely the point. In the last four years, the 28-year-old Griffin has missed 99 games – and counting. There are plenty of signs of his body is breaking down.

Griffin has compensated for declining athleticism with significantly improved skills. He has developed as a ball-handler and now 3-point shooter, and he’s one of the NBA’s best-passing bigs (behind Draymond Green).

Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy has raved about Griffin’s passing ability, and there are shades of it in how Detroit has used Andre Drummond this year. Drummond has mostly stopped posting up, an ugly play that appeared to serve little purpose other than make Drummond feel involved. Instead, Drummond now often serves as a passing hub from the high post.

But that’s also Griffin’s specialty. Can the two coexist?

Griffin’s improved outside shooting helps, but it will likely take time to develop chemistry. Having lost eight straight, the Pistons are 2.5 games out of playoff position. This trade could jolt a subpar status quo, but that’s a tough ask while Reggie Jackson remains sidelined. More likely, Detroit spends the rest of this season getting Griffin and Drummond – and Jackson, once he returns – acclimated to each other. With many players under contract for next season and little maneuverability below the luxury-tax line, the Pistons could remain stable through the summer.

It all sets up for next season, which not coincidentally is the final year of the five-year contract Van Gundy initially signed with Detroit.

Making the playoffs this year would be nice, but next season is probably his make-or-break year. The Pistons haven’t won a postseason game under his leadership (or going back, since 2008).

This franchise is desperate – maybe for a spark Griffin will provide.

That probably contributed to Van Gundy getting ownership approval for this trade. But from Van Gundy’s perspective, if the surrendered first-round pick becomes an impact player or Griffin becomes a liability on his mega contract, that might be the next guy’s problem. Van Gundy must make it past next season first.

Trudging toward a murky future with someone whose best days were so far in the past rarely works out well. The Pistons need Griffin to be as exceptional as they’re touting him to be.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.