The Detroit Pistons have fallen into the black hole of mediocrity: They’re not good enough to be in playoff contention but not bad enough to be a relevant player in the tanking race. Andre Drummond and Friends are in bleak basketball purgatory.
The Pistons entered the season with a roster built for the playoffs. Then they made a gamble and traded for Blake Griffin in late January. On paper, Griffin was a golden ticket to the postseason in the form of a 6-foot-10 borderline superstar. But his addition never moved the needle. Griffin got his numbers, but didn’t substantially elevate the team.
Detroit has gone 21–34 since starting the season 14–6. The Pistons are five games below .500 and five games out of the 8-seed with seven games to play. Their playoff chances are slimmer than the layers of a peeled onion.
On Thursday night, Griffin didn’t play due to an ankle injury that will sideline him for at least a week, so Drummond stepped in and posted his eighth double-double of his last nine games and his seventh 20–20 showing this season. The big man has improved markedly this season, but it hasn’t been enough. Even Detroit’s 103–92 win over the playoff-bound Wizards on Thursday had a dark side; it was the Pistons’ third win in a row, a feat they accomplished four times before trading for Griffin, and only twice since.
Injuries have affected Detroit for most of the season: Reggie Jackson’s sprained ankle kept him out of 37 games, which disrupted the chemistry he and Drummond had developed. And the vaunted offense that we thought Stan Van Gundy had installed, with Drummond as the lynchpin, regressed quickly after the All-Star break. Before the interlude, the Pistons had a not-great-but-respectable unit that was scoring 104.6 points per 100 possessions, good for 19th in the league. Since the break, Detroit has dropped to 102.9 points per 100 possessions, 20th in the league. Eight of Detroit’s nine most-used lineups have a negative net rating, and their two most-used lineups since the break combine to produce minus-4.2 points per 100 possessions.
In a way, watching Tobias Harris run with the Clippers has provided a small glimpse into how the Pistons fell off the map and lost to teams like the Magic and Hawks. Harris was traded to L.A. as part of the Griffin package, and he’s continued to thrive alongside a new dynamic big man, DeAndre Jordan. Harris has improved in nearly every statistical category since moving to the Clippers, whereas Griffin has achieved an effective field goal percentage that’s nearly seven points lower than Harris’s since moving to Detroit.
It’s not all bad for the Pistons. Luke Kennard has shown flashes of shooting prowess (39.5 percent from 3) to give at least a little bit of credence to Van Gundy’s choice to pick him over, say, Donovan Mitchell. Stanley Johnson still can’t shoot consistently, but he improved his scoring slightly, and has displayed the defensive potential that made him a top-10 pick in 2015. Both are rotation players, if not tradable assets.
But the reality is that flashes of brilliance won’t cut it for a team with playoff expectations. But if the Pistons had squeaked into the playoffs, how seriously would we be taking them? And does sneaking in by half a game mean that the season was successful and that their moves were worth it?
Playoff appearances are a measure of success, especially for storied franchises like the Pistons. But when Detroit hired Van Gundy in 2014, it likely envisioned more than a fringe playoff appearance. And when the team traded for Griffin in January, it thought it would be getting at least that much.