There’s 8:31 left to go in the fourth quarter, and Blake Griffin is hobbling over to the scorer’s table to balance himself. He just grabbed his own rebound – twice – to drop in point 27 against the Eastern Conference’s best team. The play resulted in a rolled right ankle, and the All-Star forward wincing in pain. His opposite leg is already braced to bionic proportions. Motor City’s newest star is laying it all on the line in Game 3.
Of course, the valiancy of the whole scene cheapens when you remember his team was trailing 84-102.
Then again, Detroit never really had a chance. Going down 0-3 in their series with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Pistons tied an NBA record for 13 consecutive playoff losses.
Detroit’s seasons have ended in predictable disappointment for a while now. Since drafting Andre Drummond in 2012, the franchise has had just one winning season. Their reward for going 44-38 in 2015? A sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers and four years of Reggie Jackson. The club was destined for high 30-win seasons and a place in obscurity.
This always-the-bridesmaid fate is what’s called “NBA’s Treadmill of Mediocrity.” These are the teams that win enough games to barely make/miss the playoffs and then draft in the teens, a recipe to stay in this situation long term.
Over the last seven years, Detroit has never finished higher than eighth or lower than 12th in the East. While we can debate the nuances between Luke Kennard (No. 12; 2017), Henry Ellenson (No. 18; 2016), and Stanley Johnson (No. 8; 2015), it’s clear none of them will lift an eight-seed into the next tier.
The Pistons have ran on this treadmill for years. The only difference now, is that Blake Griffin captains their long, stressful journeys to nowhere.
Griffin can lift this Pistons team into greener pastures singlehandedly. He did so this year.
A jackknife of a player, Griffin can run an offense, score on the drive or on the block, make clever reads, and shoot the three at high-volume. This year, he had a career-year, which earned him a trip to the All-Star Game after a four-year hiatus. His 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game should net him All-NBA honors also.
But in all of this success, emerges a problem…
This was an abnormal year for Blake. In his age 30 season, he scored the most points per game of his career, shot the highest volume from three of his career, raised his 3-point percentage by 17 from last year, and played in a whopping 75 games. And still, Detroit just limped into the postseason with a 41-41 record.
Two questions immediately arise: Had Griffin missed more games, would they have still survived? and, Can we expect the same level of production next year and beyond?
If you’re a Pistons fan, question one should irk you. “He didn’t miss more games, so why should we worry about it?” and that’s a good point. Here’s something to think about instead: will he play 75 games next season?
This was the first time he’s played in over 70 games since 2013-14. Without Griffin this year, the Pistons were 2-5.
And even with his great health throughout the regular season, the injury bug eventually caught up with him. A left knee strain from early April has limited his playing time (i.e. the bionic brace) and his team was left to fend without him for the rest of the regular season and first two games of the first round.
Blake’s injury history and Detroit’s current roster are the strongest connectors in their marriage of mediocrity together.
There are pieces, but, without Griffin, none of them fit all that well. Among Detroit’s 20 five-man combinations listed by basketball-reference, four do not include Griffin’s name and scored more than they gave up. This year, the group as a whole held a -0.4 net rating while Blake himself owned the team’s best box-plus minus (+4.6).
He does much of the club’s heavy lifting. So, while we cannot know the answer to question two – if Blake will maintain this All-NBA production into his 30s following this knee strain – the answer needs to be yes if the team wants to return to the postseason, let alone take the next step in contention.
And who knows how far away that next step is. During Milwaukee’s 35-point Game 1 beatdown of Detroit, the TNT broadcast team chatted about a potential Griffin return when Greg Anthony said this:
“And partner, let’s not kid ourselves.They were 0-4 with him during the regular season, so… Obviously, he’s going to make a difference. They’ll look more like an NBA team. You know? But this is a Bucks team that has a chance to be special… and I’m not going to sit here and be disingenuous and say they’ve [the Pistons] got a chance in this series.”
Yes, they were facing a high-powered Bucks team. But still, GA’s reluctance in teasing the idea of the Pistons having a chance – even with Griffin – speaks volumes. Would they have had a chance against any of the East’s top-four? To tango in the playoffs, you need a more dynamic co-star than Drummond and a competent bench, preferably one that looks like an NBA team.
For this group to work around Griffin, wholesale changes need to be made. And right now, the Pistons do not have a ton of options this offseason. While some minor role players come off the books, the bulk of the team will remain intact through next year, most notably the core of Griffin, Drummond, and Jackson.
Jackson’s $18-million left on the remaining year of his deal is not a total albatross. Expiring deals have value, Jackson is a talented guard, and the Pistons could attach next year’s pick to him as bait at the deadline – after all, there’s a good chance it will land in the lottery.
However, Drummond has a player-option for $28-million at the end of next year that he will likely pick up, as the market for his skillset should generally shrink. The Pistons should basically pencil in $65.5-million going to the services of a 32-year-old Griffin and Drummond tandem in 2020-21.
Although this combo lacks in bite, Detroit will have space to retool the edges of their 2020 roster. Making smart investments and drafting well could seriously impact the Pistons’ bottom-line and propel them into more serious territory. Of course, there’s always the risk that even if the front office nails all their decisions, Griffin may not be on the floor to join his new teammates.
Doomsayers, hunched around the proverbial red button, will suggest a full-rebuild and scream “Blow it up!” But for the Pistons, it’s a little more complicated.
What’s occasionally lost in Detroit’s story is the fact the city only recently opened the Little Caesar’s Arena in 2017. Making this the Pistons’ home is an investment in reviving a once louder and prouder fanbase.
Back in 2009 the franchise ranked number one in attendance. Since, they’ve experienced a steep decline in game-goers. By 2012, they ranked 28th and were the worst in the league at filling their court’s capacity (65.3%). In 2017, before the move to the new arena, the Pistons were 25th in attendance. After the relocation, they climbed to 18th but have regressed back to 24th this year. The stands are regularly empty at tip. A tumbleweed could blow to start the half.
The franchise is no doubt desperate to get butts in seats. Plus, postseason basketball naturally nets teams great exposure, regardless of how long they stay.
To tear the whole thing down would mean to lose any momentum these inaugural playoff games gained. It could mean sending away one of the team’s biggest stars since Chauncey Billups for a shot at winning even less games than usual.
In a cold, analytical world, this is absolutely one of the best choices for creating the highest ceiling’d Detroit team the fastest. But in our emotional reality, a full-scale rebuild probably isn’t in the cards for at least a few years.
Instead, they’ll probably just keep spinning their wheels.
At least, that’s what they did on Monday. After a hard fought final game, Detroit fell to Milwaukee and were swept off their home floor. This was their 14th straight playoff loss, and a new NBA record.
Eventually, the Pistons will need to decide if an annual moral victory is worth extending one of the league’s most depressing postseason accolades.