On the complications of Pistons’ new Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing
DETROIT – The Pistons acquired major star power in Blake Griffin.
Now, they’re rolling out the red carpet for him.
“We’re not going to ask him, quite honestly, to adapt to us,” Pistons president/coach Van Gundy said. “He’s going to be our best offensive player. So, I think with those guys, you build around them and what they do.”
That could be a tough adjustment for Detroit’s top incumbent player, Andre Drummond.
More than anything, Griffin’s durability will determine whether he justifies the $141,661,920 remaining over the next four years of his contract and the package the Pistons traded the Clippers (Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a lightly protected first-round pick and a second-round pick). But Griffin’s fit with Drummond looms large.
Drummond has been the Pistons’ best player since his rookie year, when Lawrence Frank stubbornly kept him coming off the bench behind Greg Monroe. Frank, now running the Clippers’ front office, has once again undercut Drummond. By trading Griffin to Detroit, Frank dropped Drummond to second in the pecking order.
Griffin brings massive marketing appeal and a track record of success Drummond hasn’t neared. In his sixth season, Drummond has made the playoffs only once and never won a postseason game. Unless something goes horribly wrong, Griffin will be the best-playing teammate Drummond has had.
“I’m looking forward to building this new empire with him,” Drummond said Tuesday after getting named an All-Star then posting 21 points, 22 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks in a win over the Cavaliers – maybe his last game as Detroit’s preeminent player.
The Pistons are confident the Griffin-Drummond partnership will work because both are good passers, a skill that lends itself to unselfishness. Griffin’s 5.4 assists per game rank second among power forwards (behind Draymond Green), and Drummond’s 3.9 assists per game rank fifth among centers (behind DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol).
Griffin and Drummond are good passers, yes. But they don’t specialize in the quick keep-the-ball-moving dishes that would allow them to thrive as passers simultaneously. They each like to hold the ball and survey the defense as teammates cut around them. Griffin adds superior ball-handling ability, which twists defenses even more. That’s why he’s getting lead duty in Detroit. But both look most comfortable as offensive hubs.
Griffin ranks No. 1 and Drummond ranks No. 8 among bigs in average seconds per touch (minimum: five games), per NBA.com:
Pistons backup center Eric Moreland also cracks the leaderboard, but that seem to be less about his unique skills and more about Detroit trying to maintain continuity in its offensive system when Drummond rests. That suggests an opening for the Pistons to stagger Drummond and Griffin, maybe even enough to remove Moreland from the rotation. Drummond could keep his current role while Griffin sits.
But that still leaves plenty of time where Griffin and Drummond share the court.
“We have played through Andre on virtually every possession all year long,” Van Gundy said. “And now we’ll play through Blake a lot. And so Andre will have to adjust a little bit. But I think the adjustment will be relatively easy and painless.”
It sounds as if Drummond will no longer have carte blanche to operate from the high post/elbows, where he could look for teammates cutting to the basket:
Flip the ball to a teammate behind him while effectively serving as screener:
Dish to an open teammate spotting up away from the attention Drummond draws:
Or just drive to the basket himself if everything else is overplayed:
Instead, the ball will go through Griffin – who can do all those things and more. Griffin can also bring the ball up court himself, run pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler, isolate and post up. But where does that leave Drummond other than mucking up spacing? A non-shooter, Drummond isn’t pulling a defender out of the paint off the ball.
That’s why leaving Drummond as the primary big-man playmaker would be the easier adjustment. Griffin has grown into a competent 3-point shooter (34.2% on 5.7 attempts per game). He can spread the floor and cut off the ball as Drummond controls it.
But the Pistons’ didn’t trade for Griffin to keep the ball out of his hands.
Van Gundy drew comfort in Griffin’s fit with DeAndre Jordan in L.A. Drummond has the ability to replicate Jordan’s lob finishing and could become an even more effective offensive rebounder thanks to the attention Griffin draws. Griffin-Drummond pick-and-rolls should be a weapon, just as Griffin-Jordan ones were. In that play and others, Griffin is adept at setting up his high-jumping, non-shooting center.
But Drummond isn’t yet accustomed to playing with Griffin. Even with Jordan, who developed his comfort with Griffin over nine years, it worked far better with Chris Paul orchestrating. Reggie Jackson is not Chris Paul.
Still, Griffin, Drummond and Jackson (once he gets healthy) will learn the intricacies of playing with two more traditional bigs. For the Pistons, two games out of playoff position, it’s probably still more about next season than this season.
There’s another potential long-term snag, though.
“I think I’ve got a little more to my game than DeAndre does offensively,” Drummond said.
In the NBA, there’s a near-constant give-and-take between bigs who want to be heavily involved offensively and their coaches who want them to focus on setting screens, rolling hard and rebounding. Van Gundy went through it with Dwight Howard in Orlando, and Drummond carries similar complications. For years, Detroit practically wasted possessions on Drummond post-ups, seemingly just to have him feel involved.
Using Drummond as a passer from the elbows was a genius adjustment this season. He was no longer sabotaging the offense with low-efficiency shots, and the ball was in his hands more than ever. Drummond clearly worked hard to become a better passer and make good on his new responsibilities.
Now, they’re being reduced for Griffin.
Jordan is exceptional in his contentment with his limited role. Is Drummond cool with the ball going through him less often?
“You’ve got to make adjustments to win basketball games,” Drummond said. “So, if that’s what I’ve got to do to win games, then it is what it is.”
Drummond is saying all the right things. He added he already spoke to Griffin, with whom he shares an agent, Jeff Schwartz.
But Griffin shakes Drummond off his perch, and that leads to major questions.
Is this town big enough for the both of them? Will Drummond subvert his ego and play Robin to Griffin’s Batman? Could Detroit, which has explored trading Drummond before, deal the center for someone who better complements its new star?
For now, the Pistons are just basking in the glow of landing Griffin. But they’re also going from one franchise player to another, keeping both on the roster. That’s never simple.