Niyo: Pistons see upside to managing Blake Griffin's minutes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — Dwane Casey can’t help himself sometimes. The Pistons’ 62-year-old head coach spent most of the first half of his life in Kentucky, and when it comes time to make an analogy, he often ends up talking about thoroughbreds.

Monday’s media day offered a slightly different twist, though. When the subject inevitably turned to Blake Griffin and the plan to keep the Pistons’ star forward healthy this season — all the way through the finish line — Casey chuckled.

“We rode him like a cheap horse last year,” he said. “But if we didn’t, I don’t think we would’ve made the playoffs, because he was that special to us.”

"...I'm a believer in science," Pistons' Blake Griffin says.

Griffin is no cheap horse, obviously. And after watching him limp down the homestretch last April, hampered by a left knee injury that ultimately required surgery after the season to repair a torn meniscus, Casey and the rest of the Pistons’ brass know they can’t afford to let that happen again.

The 30-year-old Griffin, who missed six of Detroit’s final 11 games last spring, including the start of that brief playoff series with Milwaukee, seems to understand that as well.

“For me, personally, I’m gonna let our staff and our front office and our coaching staff lead the way on that,” said Griffin, who was a third-team All-NBA selection last season. “It’s not gonna be me going to them and asking for games (off), and it’s not gonna be them fighting with me. I’m gonna listen to them, because that’s what they’re hired to do. … My role is to be a player. It’s not to decide how much I play or how much I practice.”

As is the case all across the NBA, the discussion of “load management” is one the Pistons were openly having Monday as they bid one last farewell to their old practice facility in Auburn Hills and then headed for a weeklong training camp at Michigan State’s Breslin Center. (When the team returns to tip off the preseason against Orlando next Monday, they’ll officially move in to their new Henry Ford Pistons Performance Center in Midtown.)

“I’m old school when it comes to guys playing a little nicked up or whatnot, but it’s a new day,” Casey said. “To take care of players and make sure they’re healthy and they’re fresh at the end of the year — it has changed me somewhat, reading and listening to the doctors and our medical people. We want to be prudent.”

Less is more

While generations past might scoff at the notion — ex-Lakers star Kobe Bryant went so far as to call it “crazy” — load management has become an accepted practice in the NBA. Teams must notify the league of their plans but avoiding back-to-games or other sitting out due to other unusual circumstances is allowed.

“I think that the way the NBA is moving, there’s so much more emphasis and resources and even money put into our training staffs and the science behind the sport,” Griffin said. “And I’m a believer in science.”

And Griffin admits he took note of Kawhi Leonard’s comments last spring when the two-time NBA Finals MVP credited his own load-management plan with allowing him to carry the Raptors through the playoffs and to a title. Coming off a serious quadriceps injury that cost him the 2017-18 season, Leonard played just 60 regular-season games and never played on consecutive nights.

Don’t expect anything that drastic with Griffin this season. He doesn’t have the same injury concerns coming into the season, for one thing. And the Pistons likely won’t have a secured playoff position, for another. (They also don’t have the luxury of alienating fans by regularly sitting their primary box-office draw.)

“But with the addition of some other talented guys on our team, hopefully we don’t have to use him as much,” Casey said. “I’m not gonna put that in concrete. But I have to be smarter as far as usage, because he takes a beating, he takes a pounding. And it took a toll on us at the end of the year.”

That last part is inarguable. Griffin’s knee problems over the last month of the regular season coincided with a season-ending swoon that saw the Pistons lose 10 of 15 games before scrambling to clinch the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference on the final night.

Even with the late-season injury, Griffin’s 75 games played were the most for him since 2013-14. That’s a credit to the Pistons’ revamped medical and training staff, including Arnie Kander, the team’s longtime former strength and conditioning coach who was brought back as a consultant last summer. But it’s also a product of a rare healthy offseason that preceded it for Griffin.

Be creative with Blake

For what it’s worth, Griffin said this summer wasn’t much different, even with the surgery in late April. Unlike previous years where he found himself sidelined from on-court workouts until late July or August, Griffin says he was back to work in the gym in mid-June and aside from a little less conditioning work, he kept the same detailed training regimen that set up him for a career year.

Griffin averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists, while shooting 36.2 percent as a high-volume 3-point shooter. And as Casey noted, Griffin’s usage rate was a career high at 30.2 percent of possessions.

Too much? Maybe, which is why Casey’s talking about finding ways to “be more creative with how we use Blake” in games this season, in addition to easing his practice workload and, perhaps, giving him a few nights off.

Some of the offseason roster moves Pistons senior adviser Ed Stefanski made should help with that as well.

He added a frontcourt veteran in Markieff Morris, who’ll provide toughness and rebounding and a defensive presence backing up Griffin at the four, something that was noticeably missing a year ago.

The Pistons also signed a backup point guard in Derrick Rose who’ll add scoring punch off the bench — and perhaps another fourth-quarter closer as well — provided he, too, can stay healthy. Rose averaged 18 points a game last season for the Timberwolves, but only played 51 games — due to bone chips in his elbow — and just 25 games two years ago. That’s also why they signed a third point guard in Tim Frazier to spell both starter Reggie Jackson, who played all 82 games last season, and Rose.

“There’s no question our depth has improved,” Stefanski said. “But there’s ifs with any team, and we have ifs. Health is a big thing for us.”

And as they head to the starting gate, that’s something they can’t forget.

“It’s a marathon,” Stefanski said. “It’s not a sprint.”

Twitter: @johnniyo