A 20-point loss to the Celtics Saturday night substantiated much of the concern and skepticism surrounding the Pistons’ 4-1 start, which included narrow wins over the Nets, Bulls, Cavaliers and shorthanded Sixers. Detroit is good enough to plow through the bottom of the lackluster Eastern Conference; proving themselves against more robust competition is a standard still to be met. The Pistons are still figuring out what they are and how to best deploy the talent on their roster around Blake Griffin, the catalyst they tied themselves to in a trade midway through last season.
This team will go as Griffin does, a fact borne out both in his 50-point explosion against Philadelphia and in a 2-of-13 shooting performance against Boston. At his best, Griffin injects dynamism and creativity into an offense that has little without him. Dwane Casey has yet to make a defining imprint, and a system supported only by Reggie Jackson pick-and-rolls and Andre Drummond post-ups can only take a team so far, especially with a supporting cast as fickle as Detroit’s. The Pistons are light on playmaking and perilously thin on the wing. Venture past Griffin and Drummond and the frontcourt becomes unsteady.
Detroit will vacillate between the best and worst versions of itself, and the team is counting on Griffin to offer more stability. So far, he has looked the part of a reliable offensive fulcrum, facilitating possessions and providing crucial motion to a team that otherwise tends to stagnate. More than a mere ball-mover, Griffin has real passing vision and creativity and makes every Piston on the floor more threatening. His versatility unlocks possibilities that simply aren’t available with other big men, and Casey is helping to maximize his every capability. The Pistons simply put the ball in Griffin’s hands and follow whatever creative line of action he determines. Often, it comes in the form of a handoff that flows into a pick-and-roll with Jackson or an open look for a shooter like Reggie Bullock:
If an opponent denies that exchange, Griffin keeps his dribble alive and patiently works his way into the paint, where he overpowers most any power forward hoping to defend him. He is the NBA’s preeminent foul-drawer, and avoiding hacking comes at the risk of being physically overwhelmed:
The season is still nascent, but the Pistons have scored at a top-five rate with Griffin on the floor and absolutely imploded when he sits. He and Drummond occupy much of the same real estate, a factor could become problematic as opponents dare one or the other to venture outside of his comfort zone, but Griffin has helped mitigate those concerns by spacing the floor – though a 55.6 percent clip from deep is hardly sustainable.
A resurgence from Jackson might be the variable that keeps Detroit’s best lineups tenable against superior competition. The former Oklahoma City castoff is used to operating with the ball in his hands but has never scored at an efficient enough rate to justify star usage. Thus far, Jackson has operated capably as a third option, taking and making more 3-pointers than ever. The volume of Jackson’s shots – and, critically, how he gets them – will likely be a bellwether of the Pistons’ offense as a whole.
Drummond’s experimental 3-point shooting has thus far been unfruitful, though, like Griffin, he has expanded the rest of his game to become a more versatile weapon. Last season, before Griffin’s arrival, acted in much the same way his frontcourt partner does now, facilitating through handoffs in the high post and bruising his way to the rim. This year, Detroit will need him to seize chances to create when teams too insistently try to deny Griffin:
The underlying question of that pairing is whether it can keep up with smaller, more modern frontcourts on defense. Neither provides sufficient value as a rim protector, and both struggle to defend in space for prolonged stretches. Teams are slicing the Pistons up within five feet of the basket, and Detroit has defended at a league-average rate despite its hot start.
A more versatile frontcourt option capable of stretching the floor and defending multiple positions in bench units would offer recourse on both ends of the floor and allow Griffin to play center when Drummond leaves the floor. Casey, however, as few options at his disposal. Stanley Johnson fits the physical profile but has always been underwhelming in practice. Bullock and Luke Kennard are likely too small to slide up to power forward, and Glenn Robinson III hasn’t yet gotten the opportunity.
This rotation is fragile, and Casey likely hasn’t found the right balance yet. It will come as Detroit gets healthy and roles become clearer. The sample with which the Pistons, and the entire NBA, are currently working is but a fragment of the larger picture that materializes over the course of a season. This season, they and Griffin have the benefit of starting from the same point, with the hope of ending at a better one.