Beard: Pistons are better served with Blake Griffin in starting lineup

Detroit News

Rod Beard
| The Detroit News

Blake Griffin isn’t jumping over cars anymore. Those days are long gone.

If anyone is expecting him to be the same athletic marvel that he was for a decade, it’s more wishful thinking than anything else. Father Time remains undefeated — though Tom Brady is giving him a good run for his money — and in Griffin’s case, it was only a matter of time before he wasn’t going to be the player that he once was.

To Griffin’s credit, he diversified his game and became a better 3-point shooter, jumping to 35% on almost six attempts per game, in 2017-18, his first season with the Pistons. The following year, he earned his sixth All-Star selection and was third-team All-NBA with the best all-around season of his career: 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists.

That season, Griffin led the Pistons to the playoffs and it looked like the gamble to trade for him was paying off, but he suffered a knee injury that season, and in coming back for the playoff series against the Bucks, showed his mettle.

It’s looking more and more like Griffin, 31, won’t get back to that level, which was the biggest hope after that season, and a truncated comeback last season. This year doesn’t have any of the same promise, either, with Griffin posting career lows: 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds in 12 games. He’s played mostly within himself and has played within the offense and as well as he can on defense, though teams are starting to target him.

The Pistons — and Griffin — are in a tough spot. He’s making $37 million this season and has a player option for $39 million next year. If he can’t be the 2019 superhero, what’s his value? The Pistons still value his leadership on and off the court, even if he physically can’t do the same things that he once did.

If he’s going to play, he’s going to start. For the status that Griffin has around the league, he’s not going to come off the bench in favor of giving Sekou Doumbouya more minutes. That’s just not how the Pistons’ leadership, or the rest of the NBA works. There aren’t any players with that type of contract coming off the bench as veteran role players.

To some degree, the Pistons have to handle it that way, both out of respect to Griffin and to draw any potential trade interest — if that’s their goal.

Many fans have screamed about trading Griffin for whatever spare parts the Pistons can get in return, even if it means adding assets. The best way to show teams that Griffin is worthy of a trade is to give him playing time, so that teams can see how he’s recovered from the injury. He can’t do that from the bench. At this point, any potential trade likely would require giving up a young player to help offset some of the salary. Is that what’s best in a rebuild?

The likely course is to play through the end of Griffin’s contract and hope that his production improves and that he can continue to mentor young players.

For now, at least, his mobility seems limited and he’s had just one game of 20-plus points this season, as Jerami Grant has taken the reins.

Griffin has rested his knee, playing only one of back-to-back games, a trend that’s likely to continue throughout the season.

That’s the new normal.

The Drive takes a look at some other Pistons hot topics:

►Ellington development: Coach Dwane Casey likes veterans, as most coaches do. There’s something to be said for having players who can run plays with precision and understand many of the nuances in the league. Ellington, 33, is in his 13th season and in his second stint with Casey and the Pistons, after arriving at the trade deadline in 2019. It would be a gross understatement to say that Ellington has been a valuable find for the veteran minimum. In 11 games, Ellington is averaging a career-best 11.4 points and is shooting a ridiculous 50% on 3-pointers (34-of-68), which ranks fifth in the league.

In Saturday’s game against the Sixers, Ellington set a franchise record with 21 3-pointers over a four-game span, with seven, four, six and four makes in his last four games. It’s a jarring development in that Ellington seemed to be a free-agent addition who would bolster the depth and provide some veteran leadership for some of the younger wings. Instead, he’s taken the reins and has ascended to a starting spot and developed into one of their best scorers.

What it could mean is that with the Pistons’ struggles, a contending team could come knocking and looking for his shooting before the trade deadline. If the Pistons could get an asset for Ellington, that could be a nice addition to their rebuild. Having Ellington as a starter could be taking minutes from one of the young players such as Svi Mykhailiuk or Saddiq Bey, but if it contributes to getting a good draft pick or another young shooting guard, it’s worth it.

►Youth movement: Without Griffin and Derrick Rose in Saturday’s game, the Pistons had more minutes to dish out to their young players, with Bey joining the starting lineup for the first time since Jan. 4. Bey had 10 points and three rebounds, including a pair of 3-pointers. His production has waned a bit since his minutes were reduced in the past week, but he showed that he still can be a big-time contributor.

Sekou Doumbouya had his best game of the season, with 13 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes, and Casey lauded Doumbouya’s court awareness and communication in getting everyone in the right spots. The issue continues to be that Doumbouya is playing behind Griffin and Grant, and is competing with Josh Jackson and Bey for minutes.

Barring injuries or a trade, that same dynamic will continue for most of the season.

Pistons vs. 76ers

Tipoff: 7 Monday, Little Caesars Arena

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: The Pistons (3-12) have lost four straight games, including a 114-110 loss to the East-leading Sixers (12-5) on Saturday. The Pistons were without Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose, but the youngsters played well in their absence.

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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