• Blake Griffin has embraced the three-pointer and is off to a promising start this year in Detroit. But one major question remains unanswered: Will his efforts be enough to revive the Pistons?
By Michael Shapiro
November 06, 2018

Blake Griffin doesn’t consider his recent three-point explosive to be particularly new. It’s true that Griffin is having a career year from beyond the arc, leading the Pistons in points and assists while shooting 45.7% from three, but he doesn’t think his start to the season is an outlier. Rather, it’s a progression dating back to 2017.

The former No. 1 overall pick signed a five-year, $173 million deal with the Clippers in June 2017, two days after Chris Paul was traded to Houston. With Griffin committing to Los Angeles long term, the message was clear: the Clippers offense would run through the prized big man.

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Griffin’s newfound playmaking responsibilities created a need to extend his game past the three-point line. Griffin never cleared one made three per game before Paul left, but upped his average to 1.9 made threes in 2017–18, continuing the ascent this year and making 2.6 threes per game, a career high.

“Growing as a shooter is something I’ve been focusing on for a couple years,” Griffin said following Detroit’s overtime loss to Brooklyn on Wednesday. “So this year isn’t really new. I feel more comfortable now, but it’s not an extreme change.”

Griffin’s three-point output has been an increasing trend dating back to 2017–18, yet the statistics don’t illustrate just how significant a reform he has undergone this year. He’s no splash brother, but Griffin has become Detroit’s premier three-point threat, showing no hesitation taking shots behind the arc late. The Oklahoma product isn’t dipping his toe in the water. He’s diving right into the deep end.

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In the last nine minutes of the Pistons' 120–119 loss to the Nets, Blake Griffin shot 5-of-8 from the field, scoring 15 points. He hit a trio of threes including two made triples in the final two shots of regulation, and canned another three to tie the contest in overtime. Griffin even had a chance to ice the game at 119–117 with 20 seconds remaining, but his final three-point rattled out. While the Los Angeles version of Griffin would bury his head toward the tin or pull up at the elbow, the new Blake is all-in on the game’s three-point revolution. It’s a stark contrast from the Lob City era, and Pistons head coach Dwane Casey wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Blake did a great job down the stretch carrying us, he made some big threes down the stretch,” Casey said. “He’s been this kind of guy all year, and we need that from him. He’s handling the ball, making good decisions. He’s expanded his game, now people are starting to notice.”

Casey’s three-point prodding didn’t start with Griffin. He followed a similar route last season in Toronto, coaxing DeMar DeRozan to his first season of averaging more than one made three per game. Despite DeRozan's regression behind three-point Luddite Gregg Popovich this year, it’s hard to argue with Casey’s results. Toronto grabbed the East’s top seed last season and won a franchise-record 59 games.

While Griffin’s three-point evolution has been the headline of Detroit’s season thus far, it doesn’t paint a full picture of just how integral Griffin is to his team’s attack. Casey has fully embraced Point Blake, letting Griffin run the offense on the break and often in the half-court.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Griffin’s best work has come in semi-transition. He scans for open three-point shooters upon passing half court, recalibrating if Detroit’s perimeter options are covered. Griffin is quick to recognize a scrambling defense. He relishes facing a smaller defender, as he ranks No. 7 in the league in post-up frequency and No. 1 among non-centers.

The post-ups are particularly valuable due to Griffin’s vision. Known as a savvy passer in Los Angeles, Griffin has continued his progression with Detroit. He’s formed an impressive mind meld with center Andre Drummond, feeding the two-time All-Star a platter of lobs and dump-offs in tight spaces. Drummond has even been the beneficiary of Griffin lobs in transition, remaking Lob City in the Motor City.

“I always knew [the vision] was a big part of his game, but it’s been great to see it each night,” Drummond said. “We started to figure each other out last year, and playing with Blake makes things easy. If you’re there he’ll find you”

Griffin is in the midst of a career year through eight games. He is averaging career highs in points, true-shooting percentage, three-point percentage and usage rate; on pace for a fifth All-NBA campaign. But will it be enough to vault Detroit to its second playoff appearance in nearly a decade? That remains unclear.

Outside of Griffin and Drummond, Detroit’s roster is deeply flawed, devoid of reliable playmaking and perimeter shooting. Reggie Jackson, who is more suited for added scoring pop in a secondary role, is miscast as a lead guard. He hijacked a string of late-game possessions in Brooklyn and shot despite being swarmed by three defenders as time expired in regulation. His 2018–19 assist rate of 17.5% is a career low, and Jackson sports an effective field-goal percentage that ranks fifth worst of all guards averaging more than 25 minutes per game. Expecting Jackson to provide a steady hand in the backcourt is not a recipe for success.

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The rest of the team is a collage of secondary pieces. Stanley Johnson remains a disappointing lottery selection, and Reggie Bullock’s shooting slump to start the season hasn’t helped matters. Casey seems committed to playing Ish Smith more, which seems like a prescient move. His jitterbug energy can provide a boost to Detroit’s movement, a nice antidote to Jackson’s plodding isolations.

Casey’s presence has stabilized last year’s volatile bench presence, with the clock ticking on Stan Van Gundy’s tenure as the season crawled to the finish line. Casey’s relationship with Griffin has spawned one of the best stretches of Blake’s career. For the Pistons, the best path to relevancy runs directly though the five-time All-Star. In a depleted East, Griffin’s brilliance should be enough to secure a bottom-tier playoff spot. 

The Pistons’ gamble to acquire Griffin will likely pay off and quiet the snickers that emerged when Detroit took on his expensive contract midway through last season. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the cast around Griffin will ground Detroit in NBA purgatory, consistently on the playoff bubble with the conference finals light years away. Griffin is pulling off a solid Superman impression to start the season. But it won’t be enough unless the Pistons’ roster undergoes a significant makeover.

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