The first major trade before the February 8 deadline was a surprising blockbuster as the Pistons (23-26) went all in on reaching the postseason by acquiring Blake Griffin, a five-time All-Star, on Monday as part of six-player deal with the Los Angeles Clippers. The deal saw Detroit send starters Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris west along with Boban Marjanovic and a first and second-round draft pick.
Griffin, who averages 22.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, will now try to lead a Pistons squad who enter play 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the East as well as be the marquee draw at Little Caesars Arena, where Detroit rank 19th with 17,465 fans per game and at 83.2 percent capacity.
“The franchise is storied and has had tremendous success,” Griffin said at his introductory press conference Wednesday. “The history, the fan base, the love from the fans and energy has been unbelievable. Just in this past 24 hours a lot of good will for being on the ground here.”
Before Griffin’s debut, the Pistons snapped a season-worst eight-game losing streak in emphatic fashion by setting a season high in points with a 125-114 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday night. Stanley Johnson scored a career-high 26 points and Andre Drummond added 21 and 22 rebounds as Detroit’s starting five accounted for 108 points.
Memphis (18-32), meanwhile, kicked off a four-game trek versus Eastern Conference opponents with a 105-101 loss at Indiana on Wednesday night. Wayne Selden missed a potential go-ahead shot from close range in the final seconds as the Grizzlies lost for the fourth time in six games.
Selden finished with 24 points and Marc Gasol added 23 for Memphis, who played without Tyreke Evans as he continues to be the subject of trade rumors. The Grizzlies have been talking with multiple teams in hopes of getting a first-round pick in return for Evans, who is averaging a team-high 19.5 points to go with 5.0 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game.
Three keys to the game
What will the Pistons frontcourt look like? – The good news is Griffin is quite familiar playing with an above-average big man after sharing space with DeAndre Jordan, Drummond brings a more well-rounded offensive skill set than Jordan, whose primary offensive move was finishing off alley-oops. Drummond can do that as well, but the seven-footer is also adept at running the pick-and-roll and will undoubtedly take some of the defensive burden off Griffin in terms of rebounding.
What to do without Evans? – The fact the Grizzlies are not going to play Evans is a sure-fire sign he will not be on the team by the time this road trip ends Tuesday night in Atlanta. It also means Selden will likely be the starting shooting guard for the rest of the season, and the second-year pro has responded well by totaling 41 points on 15-of-26 shooting in the last two games while hitting nine of 14 from 3-point range.
The pressure is on the Pistons – Make no mistake, acquiring Griffin is a gamble for the Pistons. Detroit could not do a total multi-season rebuild like Philadelphia because it has to fill a new arena, and before their eight-game losing streak, it was a team that had a blue-collar identity but little else. Now arrives Griffin, who is completing his first season after signing a 5-year, $171 million extension last summer and will now make in excess of $30 million annually in each of the four remaining seasons.
The Pistons are hoping Griffin can make Detroit a free agent destination, a stark contrast for a franchise that has almost always built through the draft since the end of the “Bad Boys” era in the late 1980s. There are some pieces in place in Drummond and Reggie Jackson, but it’s going to take shrewd drafting and perhaps more trades for Detroit to put themselves in a position to contend in the East.
Matchup to watch
PF Jarell Martin vs PF Blake Griffin – It will be interesting to see how much Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy lets Griffin handle the ball. Clippers coach Doc Rivers gave Griffin virtually carte blanche to run the offense, and while his 5.4 assists per game are a career high, his 1.79 assist-to-turnover ratio is too low for Van Gundy to tolerate.
The Pistons have a pair of pass-first point guards in Ish Smith and Dwight Buycks, and Drummond is an underrated passer in the low post. The real challenge for Griffin, and by extension Van Gundy, is to operate in an offense that has spacing for Drummond and Griffin, almost similar to how New Orleans ran their halfcourt sets for DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis before the former tore his Achilles.
Memphis Grizzlies projected starting lineup
PG – Andrew Harrison | SG – Wayne Selden Jr. | C – Marc Gasol | SF – Dillon Brooks | PF – Jarell Martin
Detroit Pistons projected starting lineup
PG – Ish Smith | SG – Reggie Bullock | C – Andre Drummond | SF – Stanley Johnson | PF – Blake Griffin
Gasol was denied at least a double-double for the third straight game as he finished one rebound shy, but the veteran center has still averaged 16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in that span. He had one of the best games of his career last season at Detroit, totaling 38 points on 14-of-17 shooting while adding five rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks.
Gasol has averaged 18.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting 54.9 percent in winning seven of eight career games in Motown.
Griffin averaged 21.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists in three games against Memphis this season for the Clippers while shooting 51.1 percent. He’s recorded ten double-doubles in 24 career contests with the Grizzlies, averaging 18.2 points and 9.0 rebounds.
Drummond notched his fifth 20-20 game of the season in Tuesday’s win over Cleveland and has averaged 20.0 points and 17.5 rebounds during a four-game streak of double-doubles. He has struggled offensively against Gasol and Grizzlies, averaging just 11.1 points in nine career matchups while pulling down 13.8 rebounds per contest.
There are no betting lines established because of the uncertain status of Evans, but the Grizzlies have been a solid play of late as they are 6-2 against the spread in their last eight games as well as 5-2 against the spread in their last seven games playing on the back end of consecutive nights.
The Pistons are 6-1 against the spread in their last seven games versus Southwest Division teams, but they are trending negatively in almost every other betting area. They have covered just once in their last six home games, once in their last six overall and are 1-9-1 against the spread in their last 11 home games versus opponents with a road winning percentage under .400.
“Detroit basketball” has been rejuvenated with Griffin’s arrival, but the question is whether the on-court performance can live up to the hype. Van Gundy has a sharp tactical acumen, and one of the underrated aspects of Griffin’s game is his ability to soak up information.
In that regard, these two are made for each other, and it would not be surprising to see the Pistons use a high-low offense. Such a system gives space for Drummond to work at 45-degree angles in the low post and Griffin to showcase his mid-range game while the guards dive to the basket off hard cuts.
For the Grizzlies, this is a case of riding out the initial early wave of adrenaline and then relying on Gasol and Selden to keep them close. They will miss Evans as they are willing to let both Dillon Brooks and Andrew Harrison cut their teeth offensively with extensive playing time.
This should be a coming-out party for Griffin, who will begin his chapter with the Pistons with a solid performance in a 107-94 victory over the Grizzlies.
The game will be televised locally on Fox Sports Detroit and Fox Sports Southeast – Memphis. Tip-off time is 7 pm EST.