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On the complications of Pistons’ new Blake Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing

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DETROIT – The Pistons acquired major star power in Blake Griffin.

Now, they’re rolling out the red carpet for him.

“We’re not going to ask him, quite honestly, to adapt to us,” Pistons president/coach Van Gundy said. “He’s going to be our best offensive player. So, I think with those guys, you build around them and what they do.”

That could be a tough adjustment for Detroit’s top incumbent player, Andre Drummond.

More than anything, Griffin’s durability will determine whether he justifies the $141,661,920 remaining over the next four years of his contract and the package the Pistons traded the Clippers (Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a lightly protected first-round pick and a second-round pick). But Griffin’s fit with Drummond looms large.

Drummond has been the Pistons’ best player since his rookie year, when Lawrence Frank stubbornly kept him coming off the bench behind Greg Monroe. Frank, now running the Clippers’ front office, has once again undercut Drummond. By trading Griffin to Detroit, Frank dropped Drummond to second in the pecking order.

Griffin brings massive marketing appeal and a track record of success Drummond hasn’t neared. In his sixth season, Drummond has made the playoffs only once and never won a postseason game. Unless something goes horribly wrong, Griffin will be the best-playing teammate Drummond has had.

“I’m looking forward to building this new empire with him,” Drummond said Tuesday after getting named an All-Star then posting 21 points, 22 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and three blocks in a win over the Cavaliers – maybe his last game as Detroit’s preeminent player.

The Pistons are confident the Griffin-Drummond partnership will work because both are good passers, a skill that lends itself to unselfishness. Griffin’s 5.4 assists per game rank second among power forwards (behind Draymond Green), and Drummond’s 3.9 assists per game rank fifth among centers (behind DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Nikola Jokic and Marc Gasol).

Griffin and Drummond are good passers, yes. But they don’t specialize in the quick keep-the-ball-moving dishes that would allow them to thrive as passers simultaneously. They each like to hold the ball and survey the defense as teammates cut around them. Griffin adds superior ball-handling ability, which twists defenses even more. That’s why he’s getting lead duty in Detroit. But both look most comfortable as offensive hubs.

Griffin ranks No. 1 and Drummond ranks No. 8 among bigs in average seconds per touch (minimum: five games), per NBA.com:

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Pistons backup center Eric Moreland also cracks the leaderboard, but that seem to be less about his unique skills and more about Detroit trying to maintain continuity in its offensive system when Drummond rests. That suggests an opening for the Pistons to stagger Drummond and Griffin, maybe even enough to remove Moreland from the rotation. Drummond could keep his current role while Griffin sits.

But that still leaves plenty of time where Griffin and Drummond share the court.

“We have played through Andre on virtually every possession all year long,” Van Gundy said. “And now we’ll play through Blake a lot. And so Andre will have to adjust a little bit. But I think the adjustment will be relatively easy and painless.”

It sounds as if Drummond will no longer have carte blanche to operate from the high post/elbows, where he could look for teammates cutting to the basket:

Flip the ball to a teammate behind him while effectively serving as screener:

Dish to an open teammate spotting up away from the attention Drummond draws:

Or just drive to the basket himself if everything else is overplayed:

Instead, the ball will go through Griffin – who can do all those things and more. Griffin can also bring the ball up court himself, run pick-and-rolls as the ball-handler, isolate and post up. But where does that leave Drummond other than mucking up spacing? A non-shooter, Drummond isn’t pulling a defender out of the paint off the ball.

That’s why leaving Drummond as the primary big-man playmaker would be the easier adjustment. Griffin has grown into a competent 3-point shooter (34.2% on 5.7 attempts per game). He can spread the floor and cut off the ball as Drummond controls it.

But the Pistons’ didn’t trade for Griffin to keep the ball out of his hands.

Van Gundy drew comfort in Griffin’s fit with DeAndre Jordan in L.A. Drummond has the ability to replicate Jordan’s lob finishing and could become an even more effective offensive rebounder thanks to the attention Griffin draws. Griffin-Drummond pick-and-rolls should be a weapon, just as Griffin-Jordan ones were. In that play and others, Griffin is adept at setting up his high-jumping, non-shooting center.

But Drummond isn’t yet accustomed to playing with Griffin. Even with Jordan, who developed his comfort with Griffin over nine years, it worked far better with Chris Paul orchestrating. Reggie Jackson is not Chris Paul.

Still, Griffin, Drummond and Jackson (once he gets healthy) will learn the intricacies of playing with two more traditional bigs. For the Pistons, two games out of playoff position, it’s probably still more about next season than this season.

There’s another potential long-term snag, though.

“I think I’ve got a little more to my game than DeAndre does offensively,” Drummond said.

In the NBA, there’s a near-constant give-and-take between bigs who want to be heavily involved offensively and their coaches who want them to focus on setting screens, rolling hard and rebounding. Van Gundy went through it with Dwight Howard in Orlando, and Drummond carries similar complications. For years, Detroit practically wasted possessions on Drummond post-ups, seemingly just to have him feel involved.

Using Drummond as a passer from the elbows was a genius adjustment this season. He was no longer sabotaging the offense with low-efficiency shots, and the ball was in his hands more than ever. Drummond clearly worked hard to become a better passer and make good on his new responsibilities.

Now, they’re being reduced for Griffin.

Jordan is exceptional in his contentment with his limited role. Is Drummond cool with the ball going through him less often?

“You’ve got to make adjustments to win basketball games,” Drummond said. “So, if that’s what I’ve got to do to win games, then it is what it is.”

Drummond is saying all the right things. He added he already spoke to Griffin, with whom he shares an agent, Jeff Schwartz.

But Griffin shakes Drummond off his perch, and that leads to major questions.

Is this town big enough for the both of them? Will Drummond subvert his ego and play Robin to Griffin’s Batman? Could Detroit, which has explored trading Drummond before, deal the center for someone who better complements its new star?

For now, the Pistons are just basking in the glow of landing Griffin. But they’re also going from one franchise player to another, keeping both on the roster. That’s never simple.

After hip surgery, Isaiah Thomas not 100 percent for start of Denver training camp

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Isaiah Thomas didn’t want to have surgery at first — he was coming up on a contract summer and the point guard who was fifth in the MVP voting just two seasons ago wanted to prove he was still the same guy. That he deserved to get paid. But after missing the start of the season in Cleveland with a torn labrum in his hip, getting traded to the Lakers, never being himself and being a below average player last season, Thomas decided to get the surgery on his hip last April. He eventually signed a minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets.

He is still not 100 percent at the start of training camp, coach Mark Malone said on Altitude TV, via Chris Dempsey. Sam Amick adds that it may be a while before we see Thomas in action.

That has the Nuggets adding to their training camp roster in the short term.

The Nuggets are a team looking to make a playoff push this season (and if Paul Millsap can stay healthy and improve the team’s defense they should make it, even in the brutal West). Thomas — a healthy Thomas — boosting the Denver bench is part of that. However, Thomas is the poster child for why one doesn’t play through injuries or rush back on the court, there is potential long-term damage that is hard on the body and can be hard on the wallet.

Denver can wait, and if Thomas can be Thomas whenever he gets back, it could be a good fit in Denver.

Lonzo Ball will not be cleared for 5-on-5 at start of Lakers’ training camp

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Lonzo Ball called having surgery on his knee this summer a “last option” — he had a PRP injection first — but ultimately didn’t have a choice. He’s spent a lot of his summer on recovery from his surgery, a partial removal of his meniscus.

When training camp opens, Ball will not be cleared to go 5-on-5, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said on the Lakers’ cable station in Los Angeles, reports Mike Bresnahan.

Ball has been working on conditioning and getting stronger this summer, plus has undoubtedly tweaked his shot. However, it takes time to recover from a knee operation, and the Lakers have no reason to rush him back.

 

Things have changed this season for Ball and all of the Lakers’ young core. With LeBron James in-house, Los Angeles is a win-now team and all the young Lakers need to prove they can contribute to that today, there is now more patience for slow development. Ball needs to prove he can play well off the ball (he did that at UCLA) and that he has become more of a scoring threat, both with his jumper and finishing around the rim. His ability to move the rock and play at pace can fit with LeBron and the Lakers’ game, but the Lakers are not going to wait around while that slowly develops. It’s sink or swim time, especially for Ball with Rajon Rondo on the roster and Josh Hart looking all-world at Summer League.

PBT Podcast: Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

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Can any team beat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors this season?

It could happen, although the Warriors will need to participate in their own downfall, one way or another — an injury to Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, the lack of regular season focus finally catching up with them, or maybe they become too focused on free agency the next summer. But just how likely is any of that to happen?

Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News, and host of the Planet Dubs podcast, joins us to break down how Steve Kerr will work to keep that downfall from happening, how he will keep this team focused, what DeMarcus Cousins means to the roster, and what it will take for the Warriors to three-peat — and what can trip them up.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Brett Brown on Ben Simmons: ‘His jump shot’s not going to define him’

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are expected this season to join Philadelphia’s Big Three.

No, not as franchise cornerstones – the No. 1 draft picks were already part of that trio with All-Star center Joel Embiid.

But as long-distance shooters, Simmons and Fultz went 0 for the season on 3s; Simmons, the NBA rookie of the year, missed all 11 attempts and Fultz went 0 for 1 from 3-point range.

Sixers coach Brett Brown said both players have put in the work needed on their jumpers, though neither player will ever become defined by his work beyond the arc. Brown said Fultz took about 150,000 shots this summer under the tutelage of trainer Drew Hanlen. Simmons has worked with his brother, Liam, a former college basketball assistant coach, at 3s and shooting from the elbow.

Simmons attempted just one 3 in the postseason and he’ll have to establish some sort of long-range jumper to become a serious all-around threat in the NBA.

“His jump shot’s not going to define him,” Brown said Tuesday. “At some point, it will sure help. But I have aspirations, ambitions for him where I want him to feature on an all-defensive team. I personally want to post him more. I look forward to using him as a screener and giving Markelle the ball and let him roll out of it, that Blake Griffin-sort of half-roll and go to dunk.”

Simmons also needed work on his free throws: He made 191 of 341 for just 56 percent.

“Imagine if he can score one more point, it translates to like three to five more wins,” Brown said. “When I look at how you’re going to do that, that’s one way that interests me, let’s just get him more free throws. Can you finish, can you be a better free-throw shooter than you were in the regular season? He has to be.”

Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft, is bordering on bust territory after just one season. His rookie year was derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of injury, and then was benched in the playoffs against the Celtics. The most baffling moment came when he refused to answer questions about his shoulder, simply staring blankly ahead and rubbing his head.

Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he did play, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA. No one in the organization could pinpoint when Fultz’s form went awry, though he started experiencing soreness shortly after he was drafted.

Brown said he was part of a “Team Markelle” formed this summer to help get the 20-year-old back on track.

“When I see him now come back into our gym, you look at his swagger, his cocky side, his mojo, he’s seeking shots,” Brown said. “He really is not bashful. When I look at the actual form, there are times, from a posture standpoint, he’s a little bit backward. When you look at him rising up, or getting the ball in his shot pocket, sometimes his head will go back and he’ll play more in a fade-type fundamental that we want to try and correct.”

But if Simmons can’t shoot and Fultz can’t shoot, then how are they going to play together on a Sixers team that won 52 games last season?

“At (some) point of the game, is it the start, is it ending, those two guys will play together,” Brown said. “There’s zero doubt we’ll go through some growing pains as everyone expects and should expect.”

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