The narrative surrounding the Detroit Pistons this offseason seemed to be fairly universal. The Andre Drummond era of 8-seed contention had come to a close, with all but four members of the 2019-2020 team departing either via free agency, trade, or being cut from the roster altogether, leaving 6-time All-Star Blake Griffin seemingly stranded in Motown with little around him. To put it one way, this season Blake has as many teammates on the roster not yet old enough to legally drink as he does teammates who have started a playoff game (four). The expectation, even with shiny new $20 million a year signing Jerami Grant in the fold, was that the supposedly fully healthy Blake Griffin would put up numbers similar to his outstanding 2018-2019 All-NBA campaign, while dragging the Pistons to somewhere between 20-to-25 wins. The hope was that he’d be able to prove his health and ability were still there, allowing the Pistons to potentially trade him at the deadline to a contender.
While the results have been as advertised, (the Pistons are currently 1-6 with losses to the lowly Timberwolves, Cavaliers, and Warriors) it’s how they’ve gotten there that has been surprising. As currently constructed, the Pistons are a noticeably better team when Blake Griffin isn’t on the court. In fact, after seven games, Griffin owns the second worst ON/OFF splits of any Piston, at a shocking -12.8 (not counting Rodney McGruder’s comical -77.2 points per 100 possessions in only five minutes of playing time). But unlike last year when he came back from an injury too early and clearly wasn’t physically able to play at a high level, this season Blake’s issues haven’t been so simple.
While his style of play creates issues at both ends of the floor, it all starts with Griffin’s oldest and most noticeable weakness, defense. Even when at his fully-motivated peak, Blake Griffin has never been a prodigious defender, mostly relying on his size and uncanny ability to draw charges, finishing second in the NBA in charges drawn just two seasons ago. This year, however, he’s been visibly slower on that end, something Boston Celtics head coach Brad Steven’s clearly took advantage of during their final offensive position on Sunday, when Jayson Tatum switched onto Blake for a nearly automatic game-winner.
This is in direct contrast with the rest of the 2020-2021 Pistons, a long, athletic bunch who swarm the ball and sprint around the court to cover their assignments. It’s early, but the results are pretty stark. The Detroit Pistons currently have a team Defensive Rating of about 113 points per 100 possessions, not great, but not atrocious when considering they’ve played four of their games against the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee Bucks, three of the league’s top six most potent offenses. With Blake Griffin on the court, however, that number skyrockets to 119.2 points per 100, by far the worst defensive rating of any team in the league. Without Griffin on the court, that defensive rating plummets to 108.8, exactly the 15th best defensive mark in the NBA. Essentially, the difference between the Pistons defense with Blake on the floor versus Blake off the floor is the difference between an above league average defense, and the worst recorded defense in NBA.com’s database going back to 1996. The blame doesn’t solely rest with Griffin, but it’s clear his deficiencies are costing the Pistons dearly on defense.
Additionally, while his on-ball defense has never been stellar, Griffin seems incapable of doing anything else to help his team on that end either. Detroit is a middling rebounding team overall, but once again with Blake on the floor their numbers are shockingly awful, only pulling down 47.3% of all available rebounds. If there is one single positive to be found, Griffin is still drawing charges as well as ever, with two already in just four games. Overall, however Blake not only brings very little to the table defensively, but his presence also turns this defense into one of the very worst all-around defensive units in the entire NBA.
While Blake Griffin’s defense has been problematic, it’s been his contributions on offense, or more accurately lack thereof, that have made him nearly unplayable for Coach Dwane Casey (not that it’s stopped Casey from playing him 30 minutes a night whenever Griffin is healthy, or bizarrely leaving Blake on the court for last minute defensive assignments, but I digress).
The first issue is pace. Much like on defense, the Pistons are behind the middle of the pack overall in pace, at 100.51 possessions per game. Without Blake Griffin on the floor, their possessions per game rise to 103.17, again placing them among the top seven teams in the league in pace. With him on the floor, however, they stall to a tortoise paced 97.5 possessions per game, slowest in NBA. This comes at the expense of their top-ten rated transition offense, and leads to increased half-court pick and roll, and isolation scoring, where the Pistons rank in the bottom of the league outside of off-season signing and early-season revelation Jerami Grant.
The second issue is quite literally where Blake is playing when he’s on the floor. When he attempted 16 threes against the Cleveland Cavaliers, many pointed to it as a sign of his increased versatility. After Sunday’s game against the Celtics where 10 of Griffin’s 14 field goal attempts came from outside the line, it’s become clear that Griffin has actually become significantly less versatile. Not only did Griffin’s first attempt in the paint against the Celtics not happen until under three minutes remaining in the first half, he barely stepped inside of the three-point line at any point on offense.
Hypothetically, this is good. It frees up opportunities for Jerami Grant to play isolation without Griffin clogging the paint, and Blake can use his superior passing ability to find athletic cutters like Josh Jackson. Killian Hayes should be able to run pick and roll with either him or Mason Plumlee, making the rookie point guard’s job easier. In reality, however, it’s largely consisted of Blake passing the ball around the perimeter or slowly pump-faking until his defender makes a mistake. When he’s off the floor, they hum with energy and excitement, when he’s on the floor, that energy sputters to a halt.
The third issue with Blake offensively is that his skills have become redundant on this roster. The Pistons have other good passers, even another good passing big man in Mason Plumlee, who complements Jerami Grant in a way he can’t for Griffin. While Griffin stands at the top of the three-point line, often only passing to other perimeter players when he can’t find his own shot, Plumlee will hang out at the top of the key, shooting bounce passes to cutting players like Josh Jackson, or dumping off drop passes to the open man whenever the defense doubles him in the post. These are good passes in any system, but with the Pistons’ athletic, lanky forwards and guards, Plumlee’s skills become even more useful. Grant has also made Griffin expendable, as a natural stretch power forward who not only can run, shoot, and play defense, but has shown the ability to play high-level isolation offense. Grant is nearly 90th percentile in the NBA for isolation offense so far this season, and can punish defenses in a manner Griffin doesn’t seem able to replicate at this point.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Pistons just LOOK BETTER without Blake. Their feisty performance against Atlanta and their upset win over Boston were some of the more entertaining basketball games the franchise has played in a while. Even their fairly comfortable loss to the Bucks showed a level of pride and resiliency that has defined the Pistons franchise for so many decades. While the Pistons have to play Blake Griffin in order to entice potential trade partners, there should be increased urgency to move him after these first few games. He almost certainly can still help another team win, but not this team. The Pistons are almost guaranteed to finish with one of the worst records in the league this season, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a displeasing team to watch.