Nylon Calculus: Can Detroit facilitate a productive Griffin-Drummond tandem?

The Blake Griffin trade comes with substantial risks for the Detroit Pistons. Over the past few years, Griffin’s athleticism has waned, with fewer dunks and other high-value scoring opportunities near the rim, and his physical decline is bound to continue as he approaches his 30s. He has counteracted these trends by adding a 3-point shot. But, while his jumper is now a legitimate part of his arsenal, his effectiveness around the perimeter is still limited (his 3-point percentage hovers around just 32 percent), and the threat of yet another injury always seems to loom large. He’s only several months into a five-year $170+ million contract — one that, combined with the deals for frontcourt teammates Andre Drummond and John Leuer, ties up $67 and $71 million in each of the ensuing two seasons.

If the Pistons are to extract any value from the trade, it is likely to come from the playmaking infusion that it brings to the power-forward position. Griffin is a talented passer for his size. It’s one reason why, in the aftermath of Chris Paul’s move from Los Angeles to Houston, Griffin assumed some point-guard duties for the Clippers. He can perform similar functions in Detroit, especially during Reggie Jackson’s recovery. And he can do so alongside Drummond, who’s a capable facilitator in his own right.

Big men can provide facilitation in a couple of different forms. They can, of course, help move the ball, delivering passes that ultimately lead to good scoring options. But they can also use their size and strength to loosen defenders from teammates and create space for open shots. Like the conventional pass assists, these “screen assists” are available at NBA.com under the “Hustle Stats” banner, with Griffin and Drummond standing out for their relative proficiencies in both categories.

The following chart presents pass and screen assists per 100 possessions for every player who’s logged at least 500 minutes thus far this season. Ball handlers dot the area near the x axis, while screen setters reside next to the y axis. Players who facilitate with both their passing and their physicality occupy the middle zone, and we can see Griffin and Drummond there.



Griffin clocks in at roughly 8 pass and 4 screen assists per 100 possessions, both of which are above average. His pass assists are particularly noteworthy, placing him in the top five among forwards (alongside Kevin Durant) and marking the fourth consecutive season that he’s been at this level. One might have expected it to represent an increase from previous years, since he’s in possession of the ball for about a minute more per game. But such an uptick simply translates to handling the rock during 12 percent of his minutes, as opposed to 10 percent. His actual activity has been flat. He’s passing and generating potential assists at the same rate, and his overall usage is in line with career averages.

Drummond is a different story. He averages 6 pass and 8 screen assists, making him one of just a handful of players with at least 5 of each per 100 possessions. His screen assists rank in the top 10 and is consistent with last season’s mark. But his pass assists reflect significant growth from the 2 that he used to compile, and it’s indicative of his expanded offensive role.

Though Drummond’s usage remains right around his career average, his touches have risen from 38 to 57 a game, and their locations have shifted farther out in the perimeter. He now has twice as many touches at the elbows than in the post — a ratio that more or less flips what he previously recorded. At the same time, his passes have gone up from 23 to 40 per game, with higher volume matched by increased productivity. In 2016-17, only 16 percent of his passes led either to an assist, a secondary assist or a potential assist; this rate has climbed to 28 percent.

Drummond has, quite simply, emerged as a central component of Detroit’s offensive attack. Nothing emphasizes this point like the changes in team play types. As I noted a few weeks ago, the Pistons are the preeminent purveyors of dribble handoffs, leading the NBA with a 12 percent frequency rate while the league average is at 5 percent. It’s the offensive area where they’ve seen the most year-to-year change. Drummond is at the core of this strategy, and while the public data don’t show how often he initiates in it, video breakdowns and teammate testimonials provide ample qualitative evidence.

So, given the strengths that Griffin and Drummond bring to the table, can the Pistons actually reap the potential benefits of the trade? It’s certainly possible, but there are legitimate concerns that might be difficult to overcome.

First, Griffin’s value is maximized when the offense runs through him. As Scott Rafferty points out, he tends to operate in comparable areas of the floor as Drummond does. This combination likely spells a reduction in the latter’s playmaking duties, particularly when Jackson returns to action. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because, if all goes well, perhaps Drummond’s passing and screening are simply scaled to optimal levels. But the adjustment is complicated in light of the compressed regular-season timeline, and even Stan Van Gundy himself concedes that it will be challenging for Drummond since, up to this point, “literally everything” has run through him.

The Pistons appear poised to consider staggering Griffin’s and Drummond’s minutes.That may address some spacing issues, especially if it results in frontcourt tandems that feature Griffin and Anthony Tolliver, but other hurdles may still exist.

Most notably, Drummond’s production has been intricately linked to Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris, both of whom were moved to the Clippers for Griffin. Prior to the trade, approximately 22 percent of Drummond’s 1,805 passes had gone to Bradley, the most frequent recipient of his passing. Tobias Harris had been his target 18 percent of the time. Unsurprisingly, close to 60 percent of Drummond’s assists had gone to these two former teammates via dribble handoffs, flares and other actions. Without two relatively high-volume 3-point shooters, playmaking opportunities may be harder to come by.

Of course, some of those sets can now involve Griffin, and young players like Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard have a chance to make a bigger impact. But the circumstances are difficult with the Pistons chasing a playoff spot. Time does not seem to be on their side, at least this season. Although Detroit’s frontcourt talent and playmaking abilities may have ramped up, there are substantial accommodations that must be made, many of which are liable to fall on Drummond’s shoulders.