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We’re Not in Lob City Anymore

The Pistons, with a dynamic big man in the middle and a raspy-voiced coach on the sideline, may look familiar to Blake Griffin at first. But as his athleticism fades, the veteran forward will need to find different ways to dominate in order to take Detroit to another level.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Stan Van Gundy needs Blake Griffin to become the best version of himself for the blockbuster trade he made Monday to work. The odds are against it. Griffin is a nine-year veteran who hasn’t made it through a season healthy in three years. He’s more likely to get worse than better going forward. There is a chance that a change of scenery will revitalize his career, though, and it’s likely better than the chance Van Gundy had of keeping his job otherwise. If Griffin doesn’t work out, he was probably going to be fired anyway.

Griffin is coming to the charred remains of a basketball team. The Pistons have been in a 3–12 tailspin since losing point guard Reggie Jackson to an ankle injury in late December. He was the only player on their roster who could create his own shot and run an NBA offense. They had to gut what was left to get Griffin, sending their leading scorer (Tobias Harris) and best two-way player (Avery Bradley) to the Clippers. Andre Drummond is their only other above-average starter. Jackson isn’t expected back until mid-February at the earliest, which would have been too late to save the Pistons’ season if they hadn’t made this trade.

In the meantime, the next few weeks will be the closest anyone has come to re-creating Russell Westbrook’s one-man MVP campaign. Griffin won’t average a triple-double, but he will get every chance to put up huge stat lines on a nightly basis. Detroit will give him the ball and let him loose. The team doesn’t have anyone else who needs it. This is Drummond’s best season, and he has a usage rate of only 21, which means he uses a little more than a fifth of the team’s offensive possessions when he’s on the floor. Ish Smith, now the Pistons’ third-leading scorer (minus the injured Jackson), is averaging 10.1 points per game. Harris, Bradley, and Jackson combined to take 41.4 field goal attempts per game this season. There aren’t many candidates besides Griffin to fill that void.

Griffin will be taking those shots in a different way. The 28-year-old is changing with age. He is no longer as athletic as he once was, but he’s a much more intelligent and well-rounded player. He rarely operates in the midrange anymore. He takes the majority of his shots either at the rim (43.1 percent) or behind the 3-point line (32.4 percent). Griffin is averaging a career-high 5.7 3-point attempts per game and shooting a career-low 48.8 percent from 2-point range. The two numbers even out. His 55.3 true shooting percentage is less than one point below his career average.

Griffin can be effective without jumping over people. The question is whether he can be dominant. He’s shooting better than he ever has, but 34.7 percent from 3 and 78.5 percent from the free throw line are still only average numbers for a power forward these days. Can he continue to increase his skill level as his athleticism fades? Has he reached his ceiling as a shooter, or is even this level unsustainable over the long term? How good could Griffin become if he starts shooting 40 percent from 3? It seems impossible, but it didn’t seem possible that he would shoot even this well a few years ago.

It only feels like Griffin has been in the NBA forever. He turns 29 in March, the same age Charles Barkley was when he was traded to Phoenix. Griffin was on a Hall of Fame track before his body started to break down. He was an All-Star in each of his first five full seasons in the NBA, and he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game on 51.1 percent shooting in the 2014–15 playoffs. He has played in only seven playoff games since. For a guy who has spent so much time in the gym polishing his skill set, the past few seasons had to be incredibly frustrating. If there are any miles left on his body, being shipped halfway across the country should energize him.

The roles have reversed for Griffin. He’s now the wise sage instead of the impossibly athletic young big man. Drummond is where Griffin was when Chris Paul came to Los Angeles in late 2011. Griffin has become the mentor, and he can build with Drummond the type of relationship he never had with Paul. The two will be seeing a lot of each other. Drummond is signed until 2020 (with a player option in 2021), and Griffin is signed until 2021 (player option in 2022), and both contracts will be almost impossible to move. Drummond has every physical tool imaginable, and despite constant hand-wringing over his free throws, he’s willing to put the work in to get better. His improvement as a passer, free throw shooter, and defender this season is proof.

Griffin should make Drummond even better. He’s the first former All-Star still in his prime with whom Drummond has played in six seasons in Detroit, and he warps defenses in a way none of Drummond’s teammates ever have. Griffin has been drawing double-teams his entire career. There’s nothing they can do that he hasn’t seen a million times before. He will create a couple of easy dunks a game for Drummond just by attacking the rim, drawing his man, and throwing him a lob. DeAndre Jordan made a living on those plays in Los Angeles. There will be a lot of 4–5 pick-and-rolls over the next couple of years in Detroit.

The difference between Drummond and Jordan is that the former can return the favor. Griffin won’t be just making passes to his frontcourt partner anymore. He will be catching them, too. Drummond’s assist rate has more than tripled from last season, and Van Gundy revamped the Pistons offense to feature him. Drummond has the freedom to read the defense and make decisions on the fly from the high post, whether it’s running a dribble hand-off or hitting a cutter. Griffin’s newfound ability to shoot will allow Detroit to keep those sets. Big men as skilled and athletic as those two allow a coach to go deep into his playbook.

Doc Rivers rarely staggered the minutes of his starting big men, but Van Gundy may not have a choice. The Pistons just don’t have enough talent to keep both off the floor for long. Van Gundy should pair Smith, who has been starting at point guard in Jackson’s absence, with Drummond, because the big man needs a guard to set him up, and Smith’s poor shooting makes him a tough fit with Griffin. When Griffin is by himself, Detroit could pair him with a 3-point-shooting big man like Anthony Tolliver or second-year pro Henry Ellenson. Opening as many driving lanes for Griffin as possible is the best way for the Pistons to create offense.

Like just about every team in the NBA, the Pistons will be looking for 3-point shooting and defense on the perimeter. Their only semireliable source of both is Reggie Bullock. The former Clipper is a 6-foot-7 wing who can slide among multiple positions, and he is shooting 44 percent from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game this season. Dwight Buycks and Langston Galloway can fill it up from outside, but neither has the size to match up with bigger wings. They could both thrive in a role similar to what Patrick Beverley had next to Griffin and James Harden, where he spotted up off the ball and guarded opposing point guards.

The X factors in Detroit are Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard, a pair of recent lottery picks. They are polar opposites. Johnson is the rare 21-year-old who is already an excellent perimeter defender, but he can’t buy a jumper to save his life. Kennard is shooting 43 percent from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game as a rookie, but opposing teams routinely target him on defense. Combine their strengths into one player and the Pistons would have something. They are both young enough to be intriguing trade options at the deadline. Detroit has been linked to Rodney Hood, and the Utah swingman would be a more reliable 3-and-D option for a team trying to win now.

The best-case scenario is that Griffin allows Detroit to remain in the playoff race until Jackson returns. The team would then stagger Griffin’s and Jackson’s minutes so that at least one is on the floor the entire game, and they would take turns running the offense with Drummond as the sidekick. The East is wide open. No front line in the conference has the horsepower to bang with Griffin and Drummond. A lineup of Jackson, Hood, Bullock, Griffin, and Drummond is at least interesting enough to make a higher seed worry about facing Detroit in a seven-game series. Make a run in the playoffs, and suddenly the Pistons are relevant again.

The worst-case scenario is ugly. Drummond and Griffin may need time to mesh, and there aren’t many good players around them to keep the team afloat until then. A franchise in playoffs-or-bust mode could go bust. Detroit will be capped out for years to come, and there isn’t much young talent left on its roster, especially if it trades Kennard or Johnson. The Pistons are also counting on Griffin and Jackson to stay healthy, which is far from a given. Griffin has four seasons and more than $140 million left on his contract after this one. If he plays as few games the next four years as he did in the past four, the Pistons are in serious trouble.

The second act of Blake Griffin’s career has begun. It can go in a number of directions. He might end up like Amar’e Stoudemire, playing out the string while hobbling on one knee. Maybe he’ll become like Karl Malone, keeping himself in great physical condition and knocking down jumpers until he’s in his late 30s. Trading for Griffin lowers the floor and raises the ceiling for Detroit. He is the biggest star Detroit has had in a decade and the best player Van Gundy has coached since Dwight Howard. If this is his last season in the NBA before joining his brother on TV, at least he can say that he went down swinging.