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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.

Rudy Gobert re-energized ahead of Jazz at Thunder

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Rudy Gobert didn’t hide his disappointment at not making the NBA All-Star Game for the first time despite averaging 15.2 points and 12.9 rebounds while leading the league in field-goal percentage.

But coming off the 10-day break, the Utah Jazz center says he’s re-energized heading into Friday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Just recharge, completely — mentally, physically,” Gobert said. “For me, I was able to get a little bit of sun and feel a lot better when I get back.

“The next two months, I feel like, will be a lot better.”

The Jazz, who have won 13 of their last 16 games, come out of the break sixth in the Western Conference but with one of the NBA’s easiest schedules down the stretch.

Utah plays just eight of its final 25 games against teams that are above .500.

One of those, though, is Friday night’s game in Oklahoma City, which sits third in the West after winning 11 of 13 before the break.

The Thunder, on the other hand, have one of the league’s most challenging schedules moving forward. Oklahoma City plays 17 of its remaining 25 games against teams above .500 including each of the first five out of the break.

The Thunder have won the first two meetings between the teams, including a 122-113 win on Dec. 10 in Oklahoma City.

An Oklahoma City win would clinch the season series for the Thunder after Utah eliminated Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs last season.

The Thunder’s Russell Westbrook has a streak of 10 consecutive triple-doubles. During that stretch, he’s averaged 21.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 13.5 assists.

Utah is hopeful backup point guard Dante Exum, who has missed the last 17 games with a left ankle sprain, will be able to return against the Thunder.

“I think when he’s playing well, he can have a big impact for us and having him back soon is going to help us a lot,” Gobert said.

The Thunder could have forward Markieff Morris available for the first time. Morris signed with Oklahoma City over the All-Star break after being waived by New Orleans following his trade from Washington on Feb. 7.

Morris was averaging 11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds for the Wizards this season before suffering a neck injury in late December that has kept him out since. Morris was cleared to play two weeks ago.

“We got a big piece in Markieff that we’re excited for, and we’re going to be ready for the second half after this break,” Oklahoma City’s Paul George said.

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said, “We’ll see,” when asked Thursday if Morris would play against the Jazz.

The Thunder also figure to have both starting forward Jerami Grant and backup point guard Dennis Schroder back after each missed the last two games before the break, Grant with an ankle injury and Schroder after the birth of his child.

Friday’s game is the start of a back-to-back for both teams, with the Jazz hosting Dallas on Saturday and Oklahoma City hosting Sacramento.

 

Raptors fans welcome DeMar DeRozan back with loud, standing ovation

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DeMar DeRozan was the greatest Raptor ever. He was an All-Star, he presided over the best seasons in franchise history, and he’s the one guy who re-signed and stood up for a city that has an inferiority complex around its basketball team.

Toronto fans understood the trade that brought Kawhi Leonard to the team — it’s an upgrade on the court — but their love for DeRozan is real.

They showed that on Friday night when DeRozan returned to Toronto for the first time as a member of the Spurs — he got a raucous ovation upon his introduction.

Early in the game he gave them a taste of what he did for them for years, getting the and-1 bucket on the drive.

Marcus Smart hits halfcourt shot at practice, celebrates with a back flip

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The celebration is more impressive than the shot.

After a tough loss to Milwaukee on Thursday, the Celtics traveled to Chicago to take on the Bulls on Saturday. Friday they had a practice in the Northwestern University facility.

It’s there Marcus Smart drains a halfcourt shot. Impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the backflip celebration.

I did not know Smart had that in him.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer reportedly tells organization he still wants playoff push

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When the Clippers traded their best player — Tobias Harris — right before the trade deadline, it was a move generally seen as throwing in the towel on this season’s playoffs, but it was applauded around the league because of the haul it brought back to L.A. It set the Clippers up with one max cap slot this summer and a reasonable path to a second one, plus the Clippers landed rookie shooting guard Landry Shamet, Philadelphia’s 2020 first-round pick (lottery protected) and the Miami Heat’s 2021 first-round pick unprotected.

Except then the Clippers not long after traded for Garrett Temple and JaMychal Green — boosting the roster’s depth in needed spots. Not a move a team looking to fall out of the playoffs makes.

That’s because owner Steve Ballmer doesn’t want them to fall out of the playoffs, reports Sam Amick of The Athletic.

Sources say Clippers owner Steve Ballmer has let it be known throughout the organization that he wants to keep making this playoff push. Never mind that such an accomplishment would cost them their first-round pick this season.

The coach and players should never be told to lose games, they need to go all-out every time they are on the court. That goes to the culture of an organization. If a decision is made to focus on the future, then it’s about roster decisions at the GM level. That is what the Clippers did, and there is nothing wrong — or even strange — about the owner telling them to push and try to make the playoffs.

Either way, it works for Los Angeles.

Make the playoffs as the eight seed and the Clippers are likely just the first-round appetizer for the Warriors as they chase a three-peat, but it shows potential free agents the role players on the team have grit and just need a star and leader. Their young stars would gain a little playoff experience. While the Clippers would lose this year’s first-round pick, giving up a late teens pick in what is considered a down draft (especially after No. 1) is not that painful a loss. It’s one less asset to throw in a potential trade (Anthony Davis anyone?), but it’s not devastating.

Miss the playoffs and they get a late-lottery pick and things go as expected.

Make or miss the playoffs, the Clippers are focused on July 1 and landing a couple of free agents, with Kawhi Leonard at the top of the list (and a lot of sources around the league think that’s where they are headed).