Detroit Pistons: How Blake Griffin and Detroit can Emerge from the Shadows

Only two players amassed three triple-doubles in the 2015 playoffs: Blake Griffin and Lebron James. It was a time when Blake Griffin and Lebron James were mentioned in the same breath and no one batted an eye.

Fast forward to present day and Griffin lurks in Lebron’s shadow.

It’s easy to see Griffin’s athleticism fleeting and conclude human physiology is simply running its course. In 2014-15, 8.04% of his shots were dunks, a stark contrast to 5.18% of last season. He compensated by shooting 83% of his career three total in a single season. Griffin, himself, draws different conclusions.

He explained to Sports Illustrated that the shift in nature was actually a choice, “I wanted to be a complete player, and I felt like the dunks started to overshadow other parts of my game.” True superstars are able to adapt to the era—Griffin does that by emanating a shifty guard, stretch-four, and burly center.

Overshadowing as his dunks were, they were a boon for efficiency. Among players who appeared in 50 games, with usage rates above 28 percent, who averaged upwards of 33 minutes, Griffin trailed only C.J. McCollum in true shooting percentage (the list is littered with inefficient scorers; Lonzo Ball, Andrew Wiggins, Harrison Barnes, Austin Rivers).

When Griffin is selfish in the post, the results are disappointing. Among players who averaged 6.0 post-up touches per game, he and Nikola Vucevic were the lone players to shoot 44% or lower.

Often, when he isolated in the post, he was a black hole, isolating their attack into oblivion:

Although when his post-up total increased, his assists skyrocketed; from 4.1 in Los Angeles to 6.2 in Detroit. He is ready to keep taking steps, and Detroit needs him to. How can he continue on the upward trend?

When he takes a complementary role from the post, he adds more creation to Detroit’s attack.

Extending further from the post, Griffin reached his peak by playing quarterback in handoffs—having the diverse option of tossing it to the running back or keeping it himself.

In these plays, Griffin leveraged his size. When he pitched the ball to the runner, he twisted around like it was a screen, then beelined for the wing. Handing the ball off and retreating to the line keeps defenders on their toes, the floor stretching out like a rubber band as the play unfolded.

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At times, Griffin handed it off from the elbow, where he kept Detroit’s offense running on a wheel. Despite not getting the touches necessary (37% decrease in elbow touches over two seasons), Griffin was successful in scoring from the elbow—third in points per touch in elbow touches.

On the elbow, the water settled and Griffin was left alone to play a destructive game of battleship against the defense. When he staved off the temptation to drift, Griffin was quite effective at isolating. He whipped the ball cross court if defenders gravitated towards him or took it to the rim himself when the sea parted:

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How well Griffin performs in his opportunities lies in the hands of his coach, Dwane Casey. Keeping handoffs, increasing spot-up chances, and implementing more high-low opportunities will improve Detroit’s offense.

When Griffin wasn’t the quarterback in handoffs, he flanked the outside as a spot-up shooter. In that case, Andre Drummond was running handoffs. Losing Anthony Tolliver is a huge blow to Drummond’s operating room and demands Griffin become a sturdier threat from the outside.

At times, Griffin needs to get out of the way to provide spacing gravity for Drummond’s attack. Like Ibaka next to Valanciunas, Griffin is able to stretch the floor next to his counterpart.

He sank 1.19 points per spot-up possession, yet had the lowest possessions of anyone who scored as much. Hinging on Drummond’s growth as a creator, Griffin will get more chances to spot-up.

Van Gundy utilized handoffs to feed his shooters—10.9% of Detroit’s plays were handoffs last season, first in the league. In 25 games, Griffin showed enough creating prowess for that specific play to live on through the Casey era.

On the other hand, once Casey transformed Toronto’s offense, he made everyone on the roster a part of his grander scheme. The bigs filled spots where wings usually occupied and vise versa. Serge Ibaka was sixth in spot-up attempts, tied with current Raptor, Danny Green. Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby combined to spot-up as much as the league leader. Meaning: Blake Griffin will have the green light from day one.

Let’s not bury the lede: Griffin’s synergy with Drummond determines how high Detroit’s ceiling reaches. The optimist in me says Griffin is the puzzle piece that bridges high and low. But the pessimist yells, There’s only one ball!—both players being top 10 in average seconds per touch.

From day one, Casey will try his hand at unlocking the Drummond-Griffin code—and it will be a trying process, one Casey and Motor City faithful must trust.

When Griffin arrived in Detroit, Drummond was already humming along, basking in a career season. Right off the bat, Drummond saw the potential of his fit and was, in his own words, “looking forward to building an empire with him.” But the pair stumbled through the gates. Slowly but surely, Griffin laid a workable foundation—two of his four 10-assist games came in their final four games together.

Varying forms scattered throughout lend credence to my pessimistic side. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner bumped heads in the short corners. Nikola Mirotic stretched the floor for Anthony Davis, but Demarcus Cousins clogged lanes.

Casey should implement high-low actions in his offense to pull the spacing rope to an equilibrium:

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In Griffin’s first four games, the Pistons went unscathed with a net rating of 8.75 (first in the league when stretched out a full season). The quick success was a mirage though and they stumbled to a 7-14 record to end Griffin’s debut.

If Dwane Casey hasn’t yet realized, internal improvement is the only option—10 players tied to $114,677,324 over the next two seasons. The Pistons needs its superstar to start performing like he’s paid, or the future will be dark and gruesome.

All statistics courtesy: NBA.com/stats, Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, and Second Spectrum.