(Editor’s note: Today continues a five-part series on Pistons.com looking at the Pistons at each of the five positions for the 2019-20 season. Today: power forward. Coming Friday: small forward.)
Blake Griffin didn’t fit neatly under the categorical heading of power forward when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2009. Those players who did largely don’t exist any more or, more likely, those players are now centers.
It was considered revolutionary at the time, if you’ll recall – just days before Griffin was drafted, in fact – that Stan Van Gundy took the Orlando Magic to the NBA Finals with Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis as the starting forwards, both career-long small forwards more comfortable at the 3-point line than on the block.
A decade later, Griffin still stands apart from what power forward has evolved to become even though he’s followed the trend line for the position. While time and injury, a quad injury perhaps carrying the most impact, have combined to diminish some of Griffin’s otherworldly athleticism, he’s still a different breed than most power forwards for his combination of strength and skills. Play him with a converted small forward and he’ll punish him on the block; play him with a lumbering power player and Griffin will slice him up from the 3-point line.
Griffin’s vision and ballhandling allow him to serve as the de facto primary playmaker in a half-court offense. He led the Pistons in assists at 5.4 per game a season ago.
The most glaring change in Griffin’s game since his run of injuries began in 2014 has been his drift to the perimeter, particularly his embrace of the 3-point shot. Griffin has taken more 3-pointers in 100 games with the Pistons (657) than he did in 504 games with the Clippers (455). His 3-point attempt rate was 3 percent as recently as 2015-16; it was 38.9 percent last season.
And Griffin became an above-average 3-point shooter (36.2 percent) last season for the first time, as well, even though it’s a shot he only began to make a focus around the All-Star break of the 2016-17 season. He went from shooting one a game before the break that season to three a game after it. In relative terms, Griffin is still a 3-point babe in the woods. Nobody should be surprised if his accuracy ticks up another notch or two this season and next.
When Jon Leuer’s rehabilitation from his 2017 ankle injury was undermined by a late-summer 2018 knee injury, the Pistons were shorthanded behind Griffin at power forward last season and needed to lean on him heavily all year. They addressed that over the summer by signing Markieff Morris, a highly productive player with 331 career starts under his belt.
Here’s a look at the power forward spot for the Pistons in 2019-20:
DEPTH CHART: Blake Griffin, Markieff Morris
The Pistons needed every game – and every minute they could get in every game – they could squeeze out of Griffin last season. They’re better equipped to back off this season for a variety of reasons.
With Reggie Jackson looking rejuvenated over the back half of 2018-19 and the addition of Derrick Rose, Dwane Casey will have three players capable of serving as primary playmakers. Griffin will still lead comfortably in number of possessions as the focus of Casey’s offense, but the gap between him and second and third should be considerably closer this season than last.
Griffin, after a year of settling in with Casey’s offense, understands better now what is expected of him and said as last season ended it would give him a framework to structure his off-season workouts. He wants to be a more efficient pick-and-roll manipulator this season and, of course, a more dangerous 3-point shooter.
Morris was available for a part of the biannual exception only because his productivity dipped last season due to a neck injury that cost him about six weeks. He’ll turn 30 next week, still well within his prime. Prior to last season, Morris had a five-season streak of averaging at least 11.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in at least 25 minutes a game.
Could Morris approach those numbers with the Pistons? If Casey gives Morris a crack at playing backup minutes at both frontcourt positions, it’s not out of the question. How might that work? Morris could enter a game with four minutes left in the first or third quarter for Griffin, playing power forward. To start the second or fourth quarters, he could slide over to center while Andre Drummond sits and Griffin returns.
The Pistons play 13 back to backs this season, one off of the NBA high. If the Pistons decide to be more aggressive in giving Griffin days off this season, that would be a place to start with Morris’ role increasing on those nights.
OPTIONS: Thon Maker, Christian Wood, Sekou Doumbouya, Tony Snell, Svi Mykhailiuk
Maker is probably better suited to power forward than center, but without a sure-fire backup to Drummond – it’s either Maker or Christian Wood as the roster stands now – he’ll see time at both spots. Wood – if he doesn’t win full-time minutes as Drummond’s backup – is another who projects as easily to one spot as the other. His scoring punch could give him an edge if the other aspects of his game check off enough boxes to win Casey’s trust.
Doumbouya is a total wild card. At 18 – he won’t be 19 until Dec. 23 – and making the professional and cultural adjustment to the NBA and the United States after one year in France’s top pro league, it’s not realistic to pencil him in for minutes. But if his immense raw talent gets harnessed soon enough, you can throw him in the mix here.
Snell and Mykhailiuk are options in today’s game simply because so many late-game lineups will have them on equal footing physically with the power forwards who populate small-ball lineups. Snell, in fact, might find himself finishing some games as the nominal power forward – guarding the same player he began the game guarding at small forward.
FLEXIBILITY: Griffin, Morris
Casey went into last season expecting to use Griffin some at center, but that rarely happened simply because he played so many minutes at power forward. It might not be any more likely this season, but the presence of Morris gives him a little more flexibility to do so. If Maker makes gains in strength and 3-point accuracy, he’ll allow for even more latitude.
Playing center will be nothing new for Morris. In fact, 64 percent of his minutes for Washington last season were spent at center. He won’t offer rim protection, but he won’t be bullied, either.
The Pistons would have been thrilled at this time last year if they’d known Griffin would wind up playing 75 games. The kicker was that four of the seven regular-season games he missed came due to a late-season knee injury that also cost him the first two games of their playoff series and limited him upon his return. Injury prevention remains an inexact science, but the acquisition of Morris gives the Pistons a wider berth in giving Griffin days off while still fielding a competitive roster this season. Maker and Wood will fight for whatever role is left and will be in position for expanded roles on those nights Griffin – or Morris, for that matter – is unavailable for whatever reason. All in all, it’s a healthy situation for the Pistons.