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Griffin’s Superstardom Raises Pistons’ Ceiling

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Mediocrity. Stuck in limbo. Running on a treadmill. Describe it however you like, the Stan Van Gundy era in Detroit left fans with a bad taste in their mouth. It also left the team with a serious s***-show of a salary cap sheet. If you follow the team closely, or even if you don’t, you probably know there is very little financial flexibility for this team nowadays. Whether by trade or free agency, the contracts Detroit gave out/took in under the SVG regime have hamstrung them in the present.

Undoubtedly the most high-risk move of them all was last year’s mid-season acquisition of Blake Griffin. We’re about a month away from the one-year anniversary of this transaction. A trade that appears to have impacted both teams positively, something you don’t see often in the NBA, a win-win swap. The Clippers have gained flexibility, some youth and dreams of landing bigger fish. Detroit, well, they’ve landed themselves a bonafide superstar.

Yes, Blake Griffin. The one who’s about to turn 30 years old. The one who owns the long list of injuries you’ve heard about hundreds of times. But most importantly, the one who supposedly had his best NBA days while he was out jumping over cars and onto posters everywhere is still a superstar. Don’t agree? Well the numbers don’t lie and it’s time to face the facts — he’s better now than ever.

Superstar Impact

The term “superstar” gets thrown around in the sports world, so much so that it has become watered down. It’s a tough thing to quantify — what makes a superstar? Pedigree and consistency are two of the first things that come to mind, Griffin checks both boxes. Despite his injury history, his impact on the court has always been elite. For his career, Griffin sports averages of 21.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. It is undeniable when he is on the court that he’s extremely difficult to stop. But it’s not just the numbers that tell this story. As Detroit beat writer Rod Beard would put it, the “MOET” index is useful here. If you are unfamiliar, “MOET” stands for “My own eye test.”

A superstar demands the attention of the opponent, in ways that often lead to opportunities for teammates. Whether that be by posting up and drawing defenders away from a Reggie Bullock or Langston Galloway lurking around the perimeter or finding a streaking Bruce Brown as he cuts through the passing lane. Griffin consistently creates these chances, more importantly (and much less appreciated), he seemingly always makes the correct basketball play. You’ll notice that as a consistent theme in the highlights below.

The other impact every superstar has on the game comes down to the respect they’ve earned with the NBA’s referees. Some fans may watch Griffin’s style of play and be left wanting even more foul calls than he gets now. Despite his improvements to mold his game to the modern-day NBA, at his core, Griffin is a bruising big man who thrives with contact. On average, Blake shoots 8.1 free throws a contest — a number that would tie him with Jerry Stackhouse for the most FTA per game ever as a Piston. At this rate, he will finish tied for 7th all-time in Pistons franchise history for free throw attempts in a season. That’s an impact Detroit hasn’t seen since the days of Stackhouse and Grant Hill before him.

Better Than Ever?

That’s right. Despite everything you’ve heard about the injuries, despite the admittedly gigantic contract, Griffin has managed to make the 2018-2019 his best campaign so far. A modernized, three-point centric league has pushed him to improve his game and has alleviated any and all concerns about his fit next to Andre Drummond. Through December, Griffin is averaging career highs in points per game, 3PT%, and true shooting percentage (a percentage that weighs the value of the type of shot, 1/2/3 point value). What is even more impressive? He’s doing it all (quite literally) with the highest usage rate of his career — over 29%, good for 14th in the entire NBA!!

One of the most telling statistics of them all is Blake’s unassisted FG’s made percentage — a sky-high 61% –, a number comparable to one of the NBA’s most elite point guards in Kyrie Irving. Irving scores about 62% of his points unassisted. The unveiling of “Point-Blake” has made this possible but it’s Griffin’s superstar ability that makes it work.

What does this all mean?

For the Pistons, it may not seem like it on the surface, but Blake’s development as a player changes their outlook. When the trade was first made questions were posed about the frontcourt fit between Drummond and Griffin. Those questions are answered but the question now is how far can the pairing take the team? An Eastern Conference playoff appearance shouldn’t be the goal anymore. Instead, this team has a higher ceiling they can reach by putting the right pieces around their star big men. The goal should be to maximize the talent around them and win a playoff series.

Coming into this season under Tom Gores ownership, Detroit has made the playoffs just once. So it’s understandable that his mandate to the front office is to get back to meaningful Spring basketball. It’s also reasonable to assume that this leap by Griffin as a shooter and immediate success as a primary playmaker was somewhat unexpected. There’s no time to simply enjoy what they have in Griffin. He is in his prime and a case could be made that his best years of basketball will be with the Pistons — something not many predicted last January. The Pistons need to take full advantage of this short window.

Does that mean simply finding shooters to spread the floor around them or making a bigger splash for a third star-level player? Whatever they decide to do, one thing should be clear, the window to win is now for the Pistons– and the clock is ticking.

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