January 1, 2020, 5:13 pm
The Detroit Pistons sit 12-22 on the year, two and a half games out of the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.
Despite the overall mediocrity at the bottom of the table, the Pistons are still inching closer and closer to the uncomfortable reality that this team will require a detonation and complete rebuild. Unfortunately, this is not a team that had operated like a rebuild would be on the horizon in recent years. Between hiring Dwane Casey, the hottest candidate on the market after a Coach of the Year win, and trading Tobias Harris, then 25, for a 28-year-old Blake Griffin, the Pistons have seemed intent on pushing a flawed core over the hump.
Almost two seasons into the experiment, the Pistons are not at all where they had hope to be. In Griffin’s first half season with Detroit, the team put up a late charge but ultimately finished ninth. Last season, the team’s first under Casey, the Pistons finished eighth in the East and were promptly swept by the Bucks, though to their credit they were one game behind both sixth and seventh and played four of their final seven games without their star.
Which leads to the curious case of Griffin himself, whose persistent left knee problems are putting the Pistons between a rock and a proverbial hard place. When on the court, it’s clear that he isn’t quite himself, whether that’s manifested in the slowed-down version of Griffin that runs up and down the court, the defensive possessions where he’s tucked away on low-usage opponents or the terrible numbers.
Through 18 games this season, Griffin is averaging 28.4 minutes a night and he’s sporting career-lows almost across the board. After perhaps the finest season of his career, Griffin is averaging just 15.5 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks and 1.5 3-pointers per game on a putrid .352 from the field and .243 from behind the 3-point line. All of those counting stats are down from last season’s numbers, both in total and per-minute measures, while the field goal percentage is well below Griffin’s previous full-season low of 43.8 percent – all while maintaining a sky-high usage rate of 28.3. His rebound percentage of 9.3, if it keeps up for the rest of the year, would be the only mark in his career under 10.0 while Griffin has also lost nearly ten percentage points off his assist percentage, dropping from 27.1 to just 17.5 so far.
Unsurprisingly, Griffin’s true shooting percentage has also plummeted to .476, sailing past his previous personal worst of .544, and he’s taking nearly 45 percent of his shots from 3-point range while also shooting less than ever from close to the basket – only 27.6 percent of Griffin’s shots have come within three feet from the rim. To make matters worse, he’s only shooting 56.5 percent on even those looks (with just five dunks), well below his previous low mark of 66.9 percent.
To this point, Griffin’s season has been a nightmare, and it’s shaping up as the first campaign of his career in which he’ll be a negative player by win shares.
This is a player who is clearly not right, and it’s backing the Pistons into an ugly corner.
Griffin is the league’s prime candidate for load management, but Detroit is already falling behind the pack and may not be able to afford extended absences from its core player, even if he’s been a net negative so far. These Pistons were built with progress in mind, but it’s clear that they need Griffin on the court to get any forward momentum at all.
Last season, the Pistons went 2-5 without Griffin in the regular season, and 0-2 in the playoffs. This year the numbers are far worse, with Detroit just 4-12 without its superstar, including losses to the Hawks, Bulls (twice) and Wizards (twice). Odds are there won’t be a playoff addendum this time around.
Now, the Pistons must balance their immediate goals with Griffin’s long-term health. Detroit needs Griffin to have a chance at the postseason, but their playoff odds dwindle with each passing day that Griffin’s knee is ailing. Unless they’re willing to accept what seems like an inevitability and look to the next era, there are no easy answers. Even if the Pistons do commit to a tear-down, it’s not like trading Griffin, whose injury and contract are working to limit his trade appeal, would be an easy sell.
The real shame is that Griffin’s body has begun to betray him right as he’s emerged as a more complete and versatile offensive threat than ever before. Last season he was a total force, able not only to take over games by himself from any spot on the floor but also more than capable of elevating his teammates. Griffin began his career as the sort of player whose numbers outshone his overall impact, but he’s become a player that has his hands in every single aspect of the team’s success.
It’s that level of involvement that has the Pistons walking a very fine line. The team simply cannot expect to win seriously without Griffin, but if they are to ever make a go of it in the near future they will need to embrace some serious long-term risks. Without an easy answer, Detroit’s decisions in the coming weeks could change the course of the franchise for years to come.