Beard: New roles suit former Pistons thriving in NBA playoffs

Detroit News

Reggie Jackson and Khris Middleton were remarkable. Blake Griffin was rejuvenated. Marcus Morris was reveling.

Welcome to the reborn former Pistons, scattered about the NBA playoffs and looking like they’re world-beaters. It’s become an underlying theme among Pistons fans just how many of the players they used to root for are making strides and winning more playoff games with other teams this season than any of them did during their time in Detroit.

Jackson, Morris and Luke Kennard have the Clippers in the conference finals for the first time in their franchise history. Middleton defended Kevin Durant and held off a late charge by the Nets to push the Bucks into the conference finals late Saturday night. Griffin, in his quest to bolster the Nets, fell short after a healthy-looking bounce-back postseason.

Many fans are asking: “Why couldn’t all that talent come together to help the Pistons?”

The simple answer is that most of them are playing in different roles with scaled-back expectations. Each of their new teams has found a nice niche for them to operate and to complement their superstar players.

Jackson isn’t the franchise centerpiece, as he was in Detroit, running countless pick-and-roll plays with Andre Drummond. With the Clippers, he’s able to find a happy medium between scoring and facilitating. Middleton has emerged as a two-time All-Star and the finisher — on both ends — to complement two-time Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Bucks. Griffin, who was the all-everything for the Pistons in 2019 before his knee injury, was able to play residually off of Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

It’s not rocket science.

One could argue the Clippers wouldn’t have made it this far without Jackson — and that’s after they went out and paid a huge price to get Rajon Rondo from the Hawks, sending Lou Williams and two second-round picks. Williams had been their valuable sixth man in previous seasons, but Jackson has played even better than that, rendering Rondo as mostly a third option this postseason.

Having Rondo’s championship experience — including last year with the Lakers — has been valuable, but at 35, he’s not the player he once was. With Jackson’s rebirth as a volume scorer and setup man, the Clippers were able not only to withstand Kawhi Leonard’s absence due to injury in Games 5 and 6, when Jackson contributed 22 and 27 points, respectively.

Morris added 25 points in Game 5 against Utah, his third 20-point game in the playoffs this season. Although Terance Mann grabbed most of the headlines in the series clincher, Morris’ solid play all season — in a similar role to the one he had with the Pistons — has been the key.

New scene, new success

There has been much more vitriol about what Griffin did with the Nets, especially after getting a buyout from the Pistons and heading to the title favorites — ring-chasing from injury faking, as some have commented — but it was the right role for him. Griffin didn’t have to handle the ball on almost every possession, and he wasn’t the focal point of every defense on every play.

Even Drummond, who took a buyout from the Cavs to go to the Lakers, found a better team that needed his skill set, though the final product didn’t work out as well, as he was supplanted by Marc Gasol in their first-round exit.

Sometimes, it’s a change of scenery that reveals a player’s best traits. Sometimes, it’s coaching. It wasn’t that Stan Van Gundy was a horrible coach, but the times were different. His offense was heavy in running the pick-and-roll and for that, the Jackson-Drummond combo was what he could cobble together, unable to attract a better option in free agency. Even when Van Gundy did get a superstar in Griffin, the rest of the pieces around him didn’t fit anymore.

Even before Troy Weaver’s arrival last summer, the Pistons had determined that they needed a new direction, and they started to dismantle that construction of the team. It was a rebuild that was needed — and was overdue, given the playoff results up to that point.

Despite their dismal past couple of seasons, there’s a new outlook for the future, with a new crop of younger players, and just Sekou Doumbouya remains from the 2019-20 roster. Those players have moved around the league, but they’re still fun to watch in the playoffs.

If things keep going as they appear to be headed, the fans won’t have to cheer for former Pistons in the postseason — they’ll be current Pistons.

rod.beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @detnewsRodBeard

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