2019-20 Previews: Detroit Pistons

Losses: Jon Leuer, Ish Smith, Glenn Robinson III, Wayne Ellington, Jose Calderon, Zaza Pachulia.

Additions: Tony Snell, Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, Christian Wood, Tim Frazier, Sekou Doumbouya.

Likely Starters
Guard: Reggie Jackson (Derrick Rose?)
Wing: Luke Kennard, Tony Snell
Big: Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond 

Predicted Record: 38–44 | 21st in NBA | 9th in East

There are 30 NBA teams. That’s a lot! One thing you can say about the 2019-20 Detroit Pistons: they are one of those 30 teams. Miserably competent, the Pistons have been within four games of .500 in each of the previous four seasons (after a string of six seasons in which they were demonstrably worse than that). In my expert opinion, Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond are two of the most depressing players in the league—talented and capable of stellar moments, but generally unable to access the upper reaches of their potential selves.

For Drummond, in particular, things just never seem to break right. Prior to the Pistons’ acquisition of Blake Griffin during the 2017-18 season, Drummond was starting to become a sneakily effective playmaker, and the Pistons were having a little success running the offense through him. Blake’s presence as a far better playmaker pushed Drummond back into a lesser role, and Drummond has never managed to turn himself into the elite defender his rebounding and athleticism suggest he should be.

You can understand, of course, why the Pistons made the play for Griffin’s monumental contract. He’s a tremendous basketball player, and he has been working his ass off to evolve with the NBA over the past few years. Griffin’s elite combination of usage rate, 3-point rate, and free throw rate last season was equalled only by James Harden and Luka Doncic—basically, Griffin has fully evolved into an entirely different kind of offensive hub than he was earlier in his career. He creates shots for teammates, too. He has completely modernized his game, and while he seems like an awful fit next to Andre Drummond in 2019-20, the Pistons (per nba.com/stats) were +5.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents when those two shared the floor (as opposed to -0.3 overall).

Still, you have to wonder whether the Pistons are missing an opportunity to unlock the potential of Griffin in a Draymond Green-type role as the only big on the floor. Griffin played (per nbawowy) as the only big on the floor for just 55 minutes last season, and the Pistons were outscored 152-137 over those minutes, which doesn’t look great, but surrounded by the right kinds of defenders and deployed against the right kinds of lineups, maybe it could work? Maybe it wouldn’t, but what, exactly is at stake?

In a larger sense, the Pistons are a team in desperate need of some desperate thinking. Going .500 every year isn’t inherently bad—of course, there are teams that have been far worse—depending on what it suggests. There are occasional bright spots; for instance, they snagged a promising rookie in France’s Sekou Doumbouya with the 15th pick in this summer’s draft. In the bigger picture though, hovering around 41-41 each year means the Pistons are perpetually out of the running for truly game-changing stars. They need some stylistic inspiration. They are playing bully ball while the league is getting faster, bouncier, and more versatile, and they don’t seem to be doing this out of some contrarian (read: Spurs-ian) ethos, but rather because they are stuck in the past.

Instead of pushing towards anything new, Detroit’s big offseason splash was signing Derrick Rose, who tops out at this point, as far as I’m concerned, as a slightly worse version of Reggie Jackson. They lost Wayne Ellington and added Tony Snell. Maybe Svi Mykhailiuk pops? Maybe Thon Maker is something? Bruce Brown’s solid defense last year was a nice story. You look at all of this, and it feels endlessly boring, and instead of creating a new system around their one special player—Griffin—they’ve decided to just run it back, hope to sneak in the playoffs, and…what, exactly? Maybe they’ll luck out, somehow be better than the Orlando Magic, and get swept by the Bucks in the first round again!

Paul Valéry ponders the implications of putting Blake at the 5.

The French poet Paul Valéry once wrote, “It would seem that one risks losing one’s talent in attempting to explore its infernos. But what of it? Would we not discover something else?” You get the sense, sometimes, that NBA teams are afraid of losing what they have—even when they have nothing. The Pistons are about to have another season where they are entirely average, and Blake Griffin is 30 years old. It’d be nice if they’d see if they might be able to discover something else for a while.

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