There’s not really a way to empirically prove this, but I’d posit that the Detroit Pistons have been the NBA’s most inconsistent team this season.
The Pistons began the season with a four-game winning streak, then promptly lost five in a row in response. They won nine of their next 11 games before sliding right into a six-game losing skid. They did not win consecutive games for over a month between the beginning of December and the middle of January, then promptly got hot and won six of their last eight games heading into the All-Star break. They carried the momentum out of the break by winning eight of their first nine and 11 of their first 15; so, naturally, they have come to a screeching halt down the stretch by losing seven of their last nine games, including each of the last four, and are now in danger of potentially missing the playoffs.
And it’s not just the team’s overall performance that has been scattershot. Even the players who comprise what we think of as “The Pistons” have been all over the place.
Glenn Robinson III opened the season as a starter and is now only in the rotation in theory. Second-round pick Bruce Brown didn’t see the floor in seven of the first 15 games of the year but was thrust into the starting lineup in December and has been a rotation mainstay ever since. Jon Leuer barely played in November, took on a sizable backup role for most of December and January, and has since been banished again. Jose Calderon was getting nearly 15 minutes a night until the end of January and has gotten 30 total minutes since. Reggie Bullock was swapped out at the deadline and essentially replaced by Wayne Ellington. Stanley Johnson was shipped out, too, and the addition of Thon Maker dramatically changed the construction of the team’s bench. Even Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, two of their regular starters, have each essentially had multiple seasons inside of this one season. (Drummond was incredible to start the year, slowed down mightily about midway through, looked insanely good for about six weeks, and more recently has just been pretty good again. Jackson … has been Jekyll and Hyde his whole career.)
Amidst all this chaos, it would be nice to be able to say that Blake Griffin has been a shining beacon of consistency, but the truth is, that’s not really the case, either. Griffin has been outright spectacular at times, and merely very good at others. It’s those spectacular runs, though, that put the Pistons in position to chase a playoff spot in the first place.
Griffin has never carried a greater offensive burden in his career. The ball is in his hands all the time. Among 265 players who have played at least 1,000 minutes this season, per Second Spectrum data on NBA.com, 60 have had the ball in their hands for a greater percentage of their time on the floor than Griffin; but only four of those 60 are forwards. Two of those four (Evan Turner and Justise Winslow) played point guard for significant stretches of this season and the other two are LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. It’s not unreasonable to say that most of the Pistons’ offense amounts to, “Give the ball to Blake and see what he can make happen,” whether via isolation or post-up or dribble hand-off or something else. (It should come as no surprise that the offense completely falls apart when he leaves the court, with the Pistons’ scoring rate dropping by more than 8 points per 100 possessions.)
Watching Griffin handle the ball up and down the floor, operate like a point forward in the half-court, and dish both from the post and on the move, it’s difficult to believe he was once the subject of relentless “all he does is dunk” campaigns. The Second Spectrum era neatly coincides with his improvement as a playmaker, and even a cursory look at his numbers in stats like time of possession percentage, seconds and dribbles per touch, potential assists, and points created via assist shows a very nice, steady progression across the board.
Griffin has rewarded the Pistons for their immense faith in his ability to create all kinds of offense. His 30 percent usage rate represents a career-high figure, and with that burden has come the second-most efficient shooting season of his career. (He’s a mere tenth of a percentage point away from it being the single most efficient season.) He’s gotten there by launching more 3s than ever before — seven per game, connecting at a 36 percent clip; and parading himself to the free-throw line with regularity once again — 7.4 attempts per game, his most since his age-24 season. While Griffin is not the completely absurd athlete he was at the start of his career, he is still almost always the most athletic player on the floor, and that allows him to largely get wherever he wants to go on the floor, whenever and however he wants to get there.
He has been an absolute menace off the dribble, driving to the rim with greater frequency than even players like Kyle Lowry, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant. And more often than not, those drives have been very successful. Among the 111 players averaging at least five drives per game, Griffin ranks fifth in field goal percentage on the drive and first in the rate of drawn fouls — ahead of even James Harden. Most bigs simply can’t stay in front of him, and the ones who can tend to just get bowled over with a shoulder to the chest. Teams that dare guard him with a smaller, quicker forwards just see him head down to the post and go to work.
His Isolation efficiency is on par with that of James and Antetokounmpo, making him one of the more dangerous one-on-one scorers in the game. He’s one of 79 players finishing at least three plays per game as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, and the only one who comes anywhere close to being reasonably described as a big man. Oh, and he’s been the ninth-most efficient per-play scorer among that group. The Pistons’ 4-5 pick-and-roll with Drummond screening for Griffin is remarkably tough to stop, even when originating from cramped spaces down near the block.
For about half the season, throwing the ball to Griffin at the extended elbow and having him work dribble hand-off action with Bullock was the Pistons’ go-to play anytime they needed to get a basket. Since he’s been gone, Griffin has worked a lot of that action with Ellington, but he’s also been trusted to do more on his own and to pick out cutters and shooters from his perch near the elbow a bit more often. As a result, he’s assisting on more than 27 percent of his teammates’ baskets while on the floor. That’s a higher number than any of the Pistons’ point guards (Jackson is the closest at 24 percent); and the only qualified forwards or centers ahead of him on the leaderboard are Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, the latter of whom might already be the best passing big man in the history of the league. In other words, Griffin is in elite company as a frontcourt playmaker.
And yet, for all this excellence, the Pistons are just 39-41 and in a heated battle to even slip into the postseason and earn the right to be smacked around by the Bucks or Raptors before heading back home. Some of that is owed to the team’s wildly inconsistent defense. Some of it surely stems from the shuttling of players in and out of the rotation. Almost none of it traces back to Griffin, who has carried them as far as he reasonably could.