At the beginning of the season, I was very excited about a piece I had called “Over-Matched or Under-Rated?” as a season preview for the Detroit Pistons, this coming from the largely negative national odds and opinions on season predictions. Between the roster improving in key areas and having one of the leagues easiest schedules before the All-Star Break, I was ready to take a stand and call the Detroit Pistons the surprise team of the east… IF they remained healthy, and as we were all very aware, that was a big “if”.
While injuries in the NBA are inevitable, the Detroit Pistons worst-case scenario has become their reality 33 games into the season. As of December 26th, there has been a combination of 89 games missed by players on the roster, with notable missed time from Reggie Jackson and Blake Griffin.
After a strong, near All-Star level 2015-16 season and being a key factor to the Pistons first playoff appearance of this decade, Reggie Jackson seemingly quieted many of his critics after receiving a 5-year, $80-million dollar contract from the organization led by Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower.
Jackson may not have been a top-10 point guard in the NBA but he put himself in the conversation of being in the better half of the league’s starting point guards. It was unfortunate that during most of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, Jackson was sidelined with knee and ankle issues that caused him to lose the quickness and athleticism that made him successful in 2015-16.
The speedy point guard was able to use the summer of 2018 to re-implement strength back into his game and impressed many who claimed he was “injury prone” by playing all 82 games in the 2018-19 season. The difference was, this time, he was sharing the court with Blake Griffin — but more on Griffin later. There’s been an interesting correlation that when Jackson is healthy, the Pistons are a playoff team. While he’s regained many of his critics since signing his large contract, it’s been clear he’s an important part of the team’s success.
This made it all the more unfortunate, and strange, that Jackson acquired a mysterious stress-reaction in his back, causing him to miss all but the first two games of the season. In those first two games, it was clear there was an issue, from his stiff movements to a few air-balled threes.
Since reports of Jackson being reevaluated in mid-December, updates have been scarce about his return; this adds an interesting storyline to consider since Jackson’s contract is expiring this summer. One would think he’d want to be on the court to help lead this team back to the playoff picture and play for his next contract because as of today, he’s lost much of the value he once had.
Let’s move onto Blake Griffin, the engine that drove the Pistons to the 8th seed last season. However, we all know what happens to an engine you push too hard; it breaks down. Griffin had surgery on his left knee after the playoff series against the Bucks and initially it seemed like this wouldn’t slow him down on his offseason training.
Before his All-NBA season with the Pistons, Griffin had a fully healthy summer in 2018 to improve his game and he was able to display it in all facets during 2018-19. Therefore, the news that his timeline wouldn’t be knocked too far off by his spring 2019 surgery was promising for Detroit. Fast-forward to the preseason, and it was clear that Griffin wasn’t ready, and he ended up sitting out the first 10 games of the 2019-20 season.
Many outside of Detroit wanted the Pistons to trade Griffin last season to get him on a team with more depth established. However, the team governor, Tom Gores, had said publicly that he’s committed to making this a winning team with the guys they had and building around them. Personally, based on what Gores was looking for, I was in support of adding a high-level player next to Griffin to share the load. Unfortunately, that did not happen, and while the excitement for playoff basketball to be back in Detroit was evident, the outcome was not as planned.
It was recently announced that Blake Griffin underwent season-ending surgery to correct the soreness he was experiencing. It seems that the surgery was well-needed because he was posting career-lows in a few statistical categories. A major factor was his limited mobility that was restricting his offensive versatility that he displayed last season.
He wasn’t getting much lift on his shot, leaving his threes short, which draws him back to a post-up game that’s also not succeeding for the lack of athleticism he’s showing. While this sounds bad, he’s still valuable on the court as one of the smarter players who can still make a positive impact. However, since his trade value is at the lowest of his career, the organization looks to be married to his contract for the time-being.
The best outcome is for Griffin to take a full rehabilitation cycle from this surgery and utilize this upcoming off-season to find some of the magic he found during the 2018-19 season within the limitations of his left knee.
In recent news, Luke Kennard, the 3rd-year shooting guard who is having a career year for Detroit, was announced to miss at least two weeks with knee tendonitis. He seems to have had some knee issues here and there this season, which adds another question mark on the year as the team goes into an important stretch of games.
While I won’t be going into the “blow it up” or “go all in” conversations for the Detroit Pistons, it is clear they’ll need to make some decisions on their roster. They have veterans that could have some value on playoff contenders, expiring contracts that could be helpful toward the deadline, and young players to help in planning for the future.
Assistant GM Malik Rose was recently a guest on the TV broadcast during the Detroit-San Antonio game and said, “We’re waiting for this team to regain its health so we can properly evaluate what exactly we have.” This is very reasonable for a front office which has had lots of excitement for the roster they put together. You don’t want to make a panicked decision and think of the “what-ifs”. This front office is also thinking that they’re only 1/2 a game out of the 9th seed with many games left in the season and time to turn it around.
With the sustained injuries, the Pistons now have a chance to see what their young players look like on a nightly basis. Therefore, they have a direction to look towards regardless of what’s portrayed to the masses. While things haven’t all been pretty for the Pistons this season, they have some bright spots as they look toward the future. In part 2, I’ll break down the Detroit Pistons building a youth movement.