Explorers have collapsed and died on the blue ice sheets of the Arctic, drowned first in air then water as their balloon sunk toward the Pacific with no land in sight, starved bearingless in the jungle, exploded in spacecraft, disappeared into caves, hung themselves from the beams of lost ships, and Isiah Thomas once fielded a frontcourt rotation of Zach Randolph, Eddy Curry, Jared Jeffries, and David Lee. ““Everyone’s trying to get smaller and faster,” he once told an agog Bill Simmons, poolside at a Vegas resort. “I want to go the other way. I want to get bigger. I want to pound people down low.” He was fired for doing this.
Getting big hasn’t worked in 20 years; it’s just not that kind of league anymore. It would seem that you can zig when everyone else zags and bully modern fours who in any other era would be small forwards or even shooting guards, but once you see a seven-foot, 250-pound goofus trying to operate in space on the defensive end—chasing shooters around screens, getting switched onto point guards at the top of the key—you quickly realize the downside. You’ll rack up deep paint touches, dominate the boards, and lose by 15.
The Pistons have four centers on their roster. (Well, five at the moment, but Dewayne Dedmon’s getting waived.) The thing that makes them centers is not their height or heft so much as the fact that none of them—for the record: Mason Plumlee, Tony Bradley, Jahlil Okafor, and Isaiah Stewart—shoot threes. There’s no Al Horford type in the bunch. These are block-bound pivot men in the circa 1996 sense of the term. The curious thing is it’s not as if the Pistons are acting as a waystation for bad contracts and future picks, or they’re overloaded with fives because they’re going to move one or two of them in the near future. New Detroit GM Troy Weaver has apparently done this on purpose. He acquired all of these big fellas, including Dead Man Dedmon, in the past week, while letting Christian Wood and Luke Kennard walk in trade deals that netted only a modest return. Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin stand forlornly studying these developments, texting their agents, vets they know on the Lakers and Sixers.
This is the franchise that Jerami Grant is so enthusiastic to join. They’re going to pay him a lot of money—three years, $60 million—but reports out of Denver indicate that the Nuggets were willing to match that figure, and Grant skipped town anyway. He wants an expanded offensive role, which he’ll surely find because the Pistons don’t have much in the way of scoring, but he will also discover a nettlesome paradox: when Jerami Grant is your third or fourth option, he isn’t happy, and when Jerami Grant is your first or second option, he isn’t happy, because he’s playing on a team where Jerami Grant is the first or second option, and they stink. It’s up to Grant whether he’s less unhappy with the wins or the opportunity to put up more shots in the airless second halves of blowouts. We know what his best guess is, though it’s hard to imagine he’ll feel like he nailed it a season or two from now.
If this is the wrong decision, we can at least understand how Grant arrived at it. He came into the league as an early second round pick. The then-Process Era Sixers were betting almost entirely on his physical characteristics: 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds with long, long arms. Quick enough to guard the perimeter and strong enough to put up a fight in the paint. Hardly shot a single three at Syracuse, where he was merely a solid starter. These guys wash out of the league all the time, and Philadelphia, despite their efforts, were not exactly Spurs East in terms of polishing rough talent. It took Grant five years, split between Philly and Oklahoma City, before he really made something of himself, but what bloomed in the middle of the 2018-19 season was what every team in the league is looking for: a rangy, versatile defender who can knock down open shots and attack closeouts.
The shooting boost—39 percent from deep in 2018-19—was the most spectacular improvement, and that was thousands of hours in the gym by itself, but Grant did much more than that. This is obvious, but doing anything at an NBA level is hard, and Grant came into the pros doing most things at a Pretty Good ACC Player level. (At a program that famously plays an extremely college-ass defense.) Closing a gap that large is painstaking.
When you’re not a natural playmaker, and your coaches are trying to get you to a point where you’re not a liability with the ball, they teach you one pass at a time. You catch the ball at a particular spot, the defense moves in a particular way, and you know that you’ll have an open teammate on the far wing. Split-second if this, then that stuff. And you just drill the move over and over again in workouts. The head coach tells you to let it fly in games, even though you’re not confident with it. It’s totally possible you never will be, and that’s the kind of shortcoming that gets you benched or cut from the roster entirely. But let’s say you become competent. Now you have to learn another one. (And another, and another.) Again, this is all merely so that you are not actively hurting the team when you’re on the floor. The same process applies to help defense, pick and roll coverages, etc. It’s like building a tower out of Lego, if you had to construct each of the bricks by hand.
It’s no wonder that it might take a raw athlete four or five years to hone enough discrete skills to become as good as Jerami Grant has. And it might be incredibly irritating if for the bulk of your career, the folks in charge have been hounding you to get better at this thing or that, or you might not have a place on the team anymore, and then one day you eclipse their expectations, and they start telling you to do less. You are feeling the exhilaration of your own growth. You can do things that didn’t seem to be within the realm of possibility when you were in your early 20s. And the bosses now want you to, literally and metaphorically, stand in the corner? It makes your blood itch.
That must be how Jerami Grant felt, watching Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić run screen and rolls last season. Apparently it bothered him enough to leave a Western Conference Finals squad for a team that wasn’t even invited to wrap up its season in Orlando. It makes sense, but we don’t have to like it. Grant has dented the Nuggets’ already fragile title hopes, and in Detroit, he will get to cook, and they will lose, and lose, and lose. Unless he is much more capable than everyone else thinks he is. That’s been true before. The odds remain long that he’ll be right a second time.
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