A seventh of the way into the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Detroit Pistons currently hold a 7-6 record, good for 6th place and a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference were the season to be only 13 games long. Fresh legs for everyone!
Most predictions had the Pistons finishing somewhere in the eight to ten range when the season was over. And it was easy to see them finishing worse if things meshed as poorly as expected. The Pistons have a lob-sided roster lacking in both play-making and shooting. In today’s NBA, that’s a recipe for a ceiling so low that Spud Webb would be uncomfortable standing under it.
At least, that’s how it appeared.
I didn’t account for “Blake Griffin: LeBron James 0.75.”
Revising a Role
I admit, I was locked into a vision of who Blake Griffin was on offense: a hyper-athletic and talented low post player with great vision and a willingness to use it, but lacking the shooting and playmaking to be a consistent threat outside of 15 feet.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been able to shoot well. He boasts a career 51% field goal percentage along with a 33% career three point percentage–nothing to snuff at! And the year Chris Paul left the Clippers, his attempts from beyond the arc increased from 1.9 to 5.4 per game. He was free to become (and needed to be) more of a play maker in the void Paul left.
Until this year, that was a neat fact about Blake Griffin’s game. It was not necessarily a feared weapon, and it was expected that a Pistons roster lacking in both playmaking and shooting couldn’t thrive with a focal point being two big men built on ancient archetypes of NBA past.
So far, that has been far from the case. Blake Griffin has simply become the changes the Pistons roster needed.
Blake the Composer
The new Pistons offense has been built around Griffin in a point-forward role, with the emphasis on the “point.” Under new coach Dwyane Casey, Griffin is initiating the offense a substantial portion of games.
He’s never been ill-equipped to do so necessarily. There are plenty of instances, though more isolated, from the past where you see Griffin utilize the ball-handling skills and orchestration he has brought to the forefront this year.
Here he is running a basic point guard set– getting a screen, reading the defense on the move, and making the simple pass for an open shot.
But he has been so versatile with his skill-set and so good with his decision making this year that it seems almost revelatory. It makes you wonder why he hasn’t been initiating offenses for years.
Simple, easy, and natural. Once he gets inside the three point line moving towards the basket, he becomes a massive threat to score without help. He knows this, and you can see him patiently wait until the defense makes a help decision before he reacts.
One of my favorite actions the Pistons have utilized this year is combining Old Blake and New Blake. Always a dangerous pick and roll player, Griffin is able to pick and choose where to initiate that action with the ball in his hands, and he punishes anyone caught on his back.
Other times, he can dribble himself right into the post matchup he wants instead of relying on an entry pass.
And if he gets the ball on the move? Forget about it. One of the best things the Piston’s can do is get the ball to Griffin in semi-transition with a head full of steam to simply overpower the defenders in his path.
As of November 15th, even after a rough couple of games, Griffin is enjoying career highs in points per game (24.5), three pointers attempted and made (2.2-5.9), and three point percentage (36%).
This was quite surprising. I never could get my head around him being an elite jump shooter due to his (old) shot looking like that moment in NBA Jam where you forget to let go of the button when going up for a shot.
Griffin’s shot looks much better now, with a release much closer to the peak of his jump. And even if it isn’t perfect visually, you can’t argue that he has found his groove this year. He demands his defender close the space between him and the three point line. Otherwise, you will pay.
And going under the screen to prepare for a driving assault by Griffin is simply not a viable play. He’ll take the open three without hesitation and bury it with no doubt.
This is the aspect of Griffin’s game that has really opened up this opportunity for him to handle the ball as much as he has. Without it, his work at the point would be useful yet easy to scheme against. He would not be afforded the defensive attention away from the basket needed to open up those crucial windows for other Pistons, especially Andre Drummond, to find room to work.
Instead, his feathery touch opens up the avenue to LeBron James 0.75. (We have to give him 0.75 because, of course, no one is or has ever been as good at what James does as the orchestrator of an offense).
Though this new Blake Griffin has been an unstoppable monster so far this year, himself a nightmare to deal with, this isn’t to say the Pistons offense aren’t on their way to the offensive struggles that were predicted before the season.
Fixing the Piston’s offensive holes himself has been an impressive endeavor short way into season. But the NBA is a league of adjustments. And as expected, teams have already started scheming to get the ball out of Griffin’s hands before he has room and time to operate.
And this will likely be a challenge the rest of the year. The Pistons simply don’t have the firepower to limit these double teams. They are shooting 31.3% from three, good for dead last. And this number is actually substantially increased due to Griffins accuracy so far. Reggie Jackson is the only player taking more threes per game than Griffin while making less (he takes almost seven threes per game, shooting 31% on those looks in route to a dreadful 37% from the field). Beyond that, their best three point shooters are Luke Kennard (who takes less than one per game) and Henry Ellensen (who plays only 8 minutes per game).
It’s safe to say the Pistons have their woe’s ahead of them. They will likely find themselves scratching and clawing to stay afloat in the race for the Eastern Conference 8 seed. But unleashing Griffin in the manner they have opens up doors they didn’t know existed. And if they can make a couple moves to surround their two big men with a some competent shooters, the Detroit Pistons could be a team you don’t want to see come the Playoffs.
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