March 17, 2018, 1:05 pm
OPPONENT: Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 30-38 (9-24 on road, 2-8 last 10 games)
MEASUREABLES: 104.0 offensive rating (22nd), 105.6 defensive rating (13th), -1.7 net rating (21st)
INJURIES: Reggie Jackson (right ankle sprain – questionable)
WHEN, WHERE, HOW TO WATCH: 10:00 EST, Moda Center (Portland), NBC Sports Northwest/FOX Sports Detroit
Remember when the Detroit Pistons won the first four games of the Blake Griffin era? Neither does anyone else. Stan Van Gundy’s team is just 3-12 in the interim, with two of those victories coming against teams on the second of back-to-backs – just like each of the Pistons’ wins immediately following the Griffin trade. The other was over the Chicago Bulls, who were in unabashed tank mode, sitting both Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday after a first quarter they won by five points.
Needless to say, Detroit has struggled immensely since swapping Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris for Griffin. There’s also no clear means of needle-moving individual development already on the roster that could rescue this team from years of mediocrity. In a way, perhaps it’s a good thing starting point guard Reggie Jackson has yet to play with Griffin and Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ new big three. Isn’t it fair to submit that Detroit might have a more realistic assessment of its depressing league-wide standing after six weeks of play without a key starter? Jackson is solid when healthy and motivated, and brings a playmaking dynamism to the table his team has sorely lacked of late with the exception of Griffin, but he’s hardly the type of player who will jumpstart the Pistons into Eastern Conference relevance. Any measure of greater success they could have enjoyed with him in the lineup, we now know, would have been smoke and mirrors.
Detroit’s big-picture problems matter not to the Portland Trail Blazers. Despite winning a league-high 11 straight games, Terry Stotts’ club is still just one and-a-half games ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for fourth-place in the Western Conference, and two and-a-half games in front of the fifth-place Minnesota Timberwolves. The Blazers’ upcoming schedule is rough; their next five opponents after Saturday’s game are against playoff teams or those fighting like hell for a spot. If a two- or three-game losing streak looms, which it very well may given the ebbs and flows of an 82-game regular season, Portland could easily find itself out of position for home-court advantage in the first round by next week.
That’s why a superior team beating objectively inferior foes is so, so crucial this time of year. If the Blazers show up against the Pistons, doing so shouldn’t prove too difficult.
Most discouraging about Detroit’s play is that it hasn’t even managed to outscore the opposition when both Griffin and Drummond, organizational linchpins, for better or worse, share the court. That tandem has a net rating of -0.7, per NBA.com/stats, despite Griffin being far more efficient playing next to Drummond. The opposite is true vice versa, by the way. The Pistons’ encouraging play at the beginning of the season was marked by Drummond owning a larger share of the offense, not with additional post-up opportunities but by playing as a fulcrum from the elbows and top of the key, running dribble hand-off after dribble hand-off and dotting cutters with passes from the perimeter. Griffin operates from those spots now, relegating Drummond to a role of finisher more than anything else – and mitigating the surprising development he showed before Christmas.
The tricky nature of fitting two true big men next to one another isn’t Van Gundy’s only issue. Stanley Johnson still can’t shoot, and has barely compensated by upping an anemic free-throw rate. Rookie Luke Kennard hasn’t quite disappointed, but certainly isn’t Donovan Mitchell, who Detroit gave serious consideration to selecting on draft night. Ish Smith exacerbates existing space issues on offense and is simply too small on the other end of the floor. The lone, unobstructed bright spot for the Pistons this season has been the performance of Reggie Bullock, who’s emerged as a reliable 3-point shooter and versatiledefender during his fifth year in the league.
The Pistons have the league’s fourth-worst halfcourt offense, per Cleaning the Glass. They’re collective lack of off-dribble verve forces them into way too many mid-range jumpers, just more evidence of Griffin, 29 and locked in for at least the next three years for more than $30 million, being overstretched in his role as alpha dog. Detroit allows four fewer points per 100 possessions with Drummond on the bench, but doesn’t have the personnel on either side of the ball to play small for extended stretches. Its net rating on the road with Griffin in the fold is a thoroughly demoralizing -15.2.
This is another game Portland should win. A loss wouldn’t only be a major disappointment, but also lessen the Blazers’ chances of hosting a first-round series at Moda Center, where they’ve won 17 of 18 – and will hopefully extend their winning streak to 12 games on Saturday night.