February 15, 2019

The Detroit Pistons turned the page on a bygone era when they acquired Blake Griffin from the Los Angeles Clippers via trade. One of the final few teams attempting to craft a winner without the benefit of a bonafide star, the Pistons threw in the towel on that philosophy when they sent Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley and a protected first and second round pick to the Clippers for Griffin, Willie Reed and Brice Johnson.

While Griffin is injury prone and has a mammoth five-year, $173 million contract that will almost surely be an albatross of historic proportions by its end, his on-court impact can’t be overlooked as an element in this deal. The Pistons have been in need of somebody who can handle the ball, create his own offense, finish around the basket and get to the free throw line, and distribute and make plays for his teammates.

The Pistons have found such a player in the form of Blake Griffin. He’s quickly had a dramatic impact with his new team on both ends. In fact, while the sample is small and is sure to regulate quickly, in his first two games the Pistons are outscoring their opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor and are being outscored by 13.9 points per 100 when he is off the floor. This differential of 37.9 points per 100 possessions is downright comical.

The starting lineup, long a maligned unit no matter who happens to be in it over the last couple seasons, has a net rating of +15.9 thanks in large part to sturdy defense.

Bear in mind that these net rating numbers should be taken with a grain of salt given the Pistons’ opponents in the first three games. They faced the Memphis Grizzlies in Griffin’s first game, a squad with Marc Gasol and a bunch of G League players now that Tyreke Evans has been shut down until the trade deadline, and escaped with a hard-fought two-point victory at home. They also struggled with the slumping Miami Heat, who were playing their third game in four nights. They did obliterate the Portland Trail Blazers, but the Blazers were coming in at the end of a long road trip.

Wins are wins, especially at this point in the season where the Pistons are scraping and fighting for every last one in order to get into the playoffs. The Pistons have been the walking wounded for some time now, and as they heal and Griffin integrates further and picks up more of the playbook, they should be less likely to need superhuman efforts from the starters in order to squeak out tight wins against overmatched foes.

Of all that Griffin brings to the table, perhaps nothing is more compelling than his ability to get to the rim and the free throw line. Prior to the trade, the Pistons were 28th in free throw attempt rate, shooting just .219 free throws per field goal attempt. Over the three games since the Pistons have a respectable 10th-best free throw attempt rate at .267.

Other than Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons have nobody who can get to the free throw line reliably. In a league where scoring is essential, they have been unable to get easy points from the stripe, and it’s hurt their offense since Reggie Jackson went down in late December. Thanks to Griffin and his relentless drives to the rim, that’s a simple but new aspect that should only benefit the offense.

Griffin and Drummond’s fit together is another compelling element. Rebounding had been a significant deficiency over the past couple months as the Pistons had been 22nd in the NBA in rebounding percentage at 49.2 percent between Dec. 1 and Jan. 31, and even worse when Drummond was off the floor. Over that span when Drummond was off, the Pistons had a woeful rebounding percentage of 47.8.

In this three-game sample, the Pistons have a rebounding percentage of 58.1 and a staggering net rating of +28.5 when Griffin and Drummond are on the floor together. While this is quintessential small sample size theater with just 44 minutes together, it’s a promising early display. Regardless of the combination this season, it’s been virtually impossible to put any rebounding help around Drummond, and being the best rebounder in the NBA has been barely enough to keep them afloat on the boards.

The big man duo has already developed a knack for finding each other around the rim for layups and dunks. While Griffin has long been a virtuosic playmaker, Andre Drummond has developed quickly as a passer and facilitator this season. While the Motor City isn’t likely to quite take on the Lob City mantra, there may be no better big man passing duo in the NBA at this point.

Griffin has an assist percentage of 26.5 percent this season, a rate which would have him third on the Pistons’ roster behind only Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. Among all rotational forwards in the NBA, only LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Tyreke Evans and Draymond Green have higher assist percentages. On a team battling injuries and ill-fitting roster components, another facilitator who can handle the ball is of vital importance.

While the prime complaint about the acquisition of Blake Griffin was that his contract was onerous, especially relative to his ability to avoid injury, that’s a risk with most players in their late 20’s on max contracts. The Pistons made a desperate win-now move to get a star in the hopes of pushing themselves into both relevancy and the playoffs, and it’s a big gamble.

The Pistons may find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in, all while watching the Los Angeles Clippers use their draft pick in the lottery as a result. Griffin could miss time with injuries, which is something that has afflicted just about every Piston this season.

But there is significant upside. The fan base has already become more energized than any point since the peak of the Going To Work Pistons in the mid-to-late 2000’s. Blake Griffin’s jersey sold out the first day it was on sale at a rate that hasn’t been seen since Rasheed Wallace was acquired via trade in 2004, the year the Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals. Griffin’s debut had the highest share of local televisions tuning in since 2008 in the Metro Detroit area and ESPN has flexed the Pistons’ matchup with the Clippers on February 9th.

Most importantly, the Pistons have begun winning again after a dreadful eight-game losing streak littered with matchups they should have fared well in. They were three games out of eighth in the East when the trade was announced, and as of February 3rd they have crept back to just half a game back. They’re just three and a half games behind the Indiana Pacers for fifth now.

The first few days, weeks, or even season are often too early to produce a verdict on a trade, and that’s surely the case here. While there may be a high price to pay down the road, the Pistons are winning and fun to watch, and at this point that is likely good enough for the organization and a large swath of the fan base.


Duncan Smith

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