Detroit Pistons fans know that things are never quite as easy as they might look. So with a playoff likelihood of 99 percent for weeks now, per FiveThirtyEight, it hasn’t been a matter of if something would go wrong, but what would go wrong and when.
What eventually went wrong was perhaps the most likely thing all along.
Blake Griffin had been a true warrior for the Pistons all season, carrying a monstrous workload on his shoulders. He has played more than 67 games for the first time since his age-24 season in 2013-14, making major strides to shake his injury-prone reputation and appearing in 72 of the Pistons’ first 75 games. None of those three missed games were due to injury. (They were all planned rest games.)
However, that good injury fortune hit its first snag of the season Saturday at home against the Portland Trail Blazers. Griffin was a very late scratch, ruled out with a sore knee right before tip-off. Pistons coach Dwane Casey indicated that it wasn’t expected to be a long-term thing, so the hope was that he would be back Monday against the Indiana Pacers.
Instead, Griffin didn’t even make the trip to Indianapolis.
By Wednesday night, concerns grew further as Griffin was ruled out a just couple hours before tip on the back end of a home-and-home with the Pacers. Casey insists there is nothing structural—that it’s more of a pain and recovery issue—and there is a belief that if the Pistons were playing true must-win games, Blake Griffin would be on the floor.
As for the Pistons’ performance without Griffin over the last three games, it’s been a problem.
Perhaps as a result of discombobulation caused by the late scratch decision, the Pistons only scored 11 points in the first quarter and 31 points during the first half of the Blazers game. The Pistons won that game 99-90 against the shorthanded Portland squad, who’s also missing C.J. McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, but it was primarily a defensive effort.
Conversely, they got off to a good start against the Indiana Pacers on Monday, scoring 33 points in the first quarter, but it was all downhill from there. Similarly on Wednesday in the rematch, the Pistons never really got going and were fighting from behind en route to an ugly 108-89 loss.
The absence of Blake Griffin from the lineup leaves glaring holes in the Pistons’ rotation. In spite of Andre Drummond’s continued blossoming on both ends, Griffin remains the team’s best offensive player by a wide margin. Losing him from the lineup removes the best scorer and key ball handler on a team not especially laden with either. And while Griffin is no defensive stalwart, he at least possesses the strength to hold his own position against opposing bigs.
Nobody is strong enough to overwhelm him around the basket.
With Griffin out, the Pistons started Thon Maker at the four alongside Reggie Jackson, Bruce Brown, Wayne Ellington and Andre Drummond. Maker is young and raw, but incredibly long. He stands 7’1″ with a 7’3″ wingspan, so he serves a purpose on defense in that he simply gets in the way of passing lanes and a lot of shots. When matched up on a physical big, however, Maker can’t stand his ground like Griffin. He can be (and usually is) exploited and pushed around in extended court time.
That said, the Pistons’ starting lineup with Maker in place of Griffin has fared reasonably well this season, and its success can be credited entirely to defense. Conversely, the offense has been anemic in its 82-minute sample, scoring a paltry 97.6 points per 100 possessions—the NBA-worst New York Knicks are scoring 102.2 points per 100 possessions as a comparison—but the defense has been excellent, allowing just 93.5 points per 100 possessions.
Mind you, playing two of the last three games against the Pacers and their third-rated defense is going to drag these offensive numbers down quite a bit, considering the bulk of the Maker Lineup minutes have come in these most recent games. But the lineup composition suggests that difficulty scoring figures to be the trend more often than not.
Outside of the de facto starting lineup, non-Griffin lineups have tended to be disastrous. The five-man unit that has gotten the most run so far—Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, Luke Kennard, Maker and Zaza Pachulia—has gotten outscored by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. The next most-used lineup, swapping Pachulia for Drummond, has been outscored by five points per 100 possessions.
While it’s reasonably clear that the Detroit Pistons’ current starting lineup is the one that makes the most sense in Griffin’s absence—given its ability to at least grind and hold games close while they’re on the floor—it complicates bench rotations significantly.
Andre Drummond got a big minutes bump on Wednesday against the Pacers—playing 43 minutes and logging 28 points, 19 rebounds, 3 blocks and 3 steals—but the Pistons’ margin for error is reduced as things currently stand. When foul trouble arises for Drummond, the Pistons are in the unenviable position where they must give Pachulia and Jon Leuer extended minutes (they played a combined 14 minutes Wednesday), some of which will come against starters and bigs with front-end talent.
Some of the scoring issues that have plagued the Pistons in Griffin’s absence existed when he was playing as well. A week ago, Detroit scored just nine points in the first quarter against the Denver Nuggets before roaring back to nearly tie the game at the end of regulation time, thanks largely to their defense.
Since the All-Star break, Griffin himself has struggled mightily on the offensive end. He has shot just 40.3 percent from the floor and 33.6 percent from 3-point range: His true shooting percentage has dropped from 59.6 percent before the break to 52.4 percent after.
While Griffin’s own production has suffered, almost certainly due to the wear and tear and general fatigue of his heavy workload, the Pistons as a whole have played better over that stretch. As an indicator, his own net rating was -1.3 before the break, and is +3.3 since the break.
Needless to say, a worn-down Blake Griffin dragging himself and his team to the finish line is going to be better than your average player, but the evidence of physical issues has been clear even before this time missed due to injury. It’s possible that with this extra time off Griffin may return refreshed and with a second wind that he takes into the playoffs. If anything, assuming the Pistons are able to close strong enough to actually lock up a playoff spot, maybe this break will end up being a net positive.
That’s something this beleaguered fan base can get behind: something bad on its surface that ultimately (and rarely) works out for the greater good.
Duncan loves the pick-and-roll and good defense. He’s a long-suffering Pistons fan who observes the wider NBA with an analytical eye. You can follow him @duncansmithnba on Twitter.