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Can Blake Griffin save basketball in Detroit?

With low crowds and struggling to win, what does Griffin's arrival mean for Detroit basketball?

Making his first appearance on the Pistons court, he is the five-time All Star, all-NBA performer, put your hands together, the new Piston to seeee, number 23, Blake Griffin!”

The golden tones of Detroit Pistons PA announcer John Mason rang loud and proud as Blake Griffin, Clipper for life, was introduced as a Piston during his debut Thursday evening against the Memphis Grizzlies.

“Give him a big Detroit welcome!”

The fans present did so. But you couldn’t fail to notice the sea of blue t-shirts draped on top of empty red seats that read ‘Blake Griffin, Welcome to Detroit’.

Even on this night, such a significant occasion, the arena looked as it has all season.

There were cheers when Griffin collected his first defensive rebound, when he scored the Pistons’ first points of the night on an acrobatic layup, and oohs and aahs when he brought the ball up and put a spin move on his defender. He ended with 24 points and 10 rebounds, shooting 13 free throws to the delight of the more analytic fans, and even got a Gatorade shower from Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson afterward.

But that arena. Blue shirts in the premium level, empty red seats in the upper bowl. It didn’t look like a ‘we’re excited to have you’ setting. It looked as if nothing had changed despite the significance of the night.

“Over the past decade, the Pistons have been an uninteresting and non-competitive team with very few exceptions”, says Duncan Smith, who covers the team for The Athletic.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

In that time period the Pistons have lost 479 regular season games, finishing over .500 twice with just three playoff appearances. The move for Griffin is an attempt to change that.

The team are currently one game out of the playoffs and have acquired an All-Star talent in Griffin, 29 in March and someone with a hefty injury history but also with season averages of 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and a career high 34% from beyond the arc. The Pistons are pairing Griffin with Drummond, an invigorated All-Star who is playing off the dribble, bouncing around with energy and shooting free throws like never before.

Griffin's addition could be seen as a desperate move in desperate times, a team who in beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on Tuesday fielded a starting five that included Ish Smith, Stanley Johnson, Reggie Bullock and Anthony Tolliver. But the team wants to win again; it wants to make the playoffs, and it wants to breath life back into a fanbase and brand new arena that is, to say the least, down in the doldrums.

“Detroit is a Lions [NFL] city through and through”, Smith says.

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With that in mind, imagine what the Pistons are up against when you consider that their new home, The Little Caesars Arena, was built for hockey.

Ten years ago, the aforementioned Lions became the first team in NFL history to lose all 16 of their regular season games. In 144 encounters since then, they’ve dropped 79 of them. Regardless of their record, however, the Lions sell.

“With very few exceptions, the Lions sell out every game whether the product is competitive or entertaining or not. Between the Tigers [MLB] and Red Wings [NHL], the Pistons have been just plain bad and easy to slot into fourth for years”, Smith says.

During Griffin’s debut, a courtside fan was waving his arms and shouting ‘let’s go Blake!’. He was wearing a Tigers shirt.

Their dire ranking within the city leads to fans harking back to the good old days, or more precisely the 'Bad Boys' days. Locals of all franchises get nostalgic about great teams of the past, but here they seem starved.

“The average sports fan in Detroit would probably long for the Pistons of the past”, says Shameek Mohile, a fan since 2000.

“The Bad Boys of the late 80s and the Goin’ to Work crew of the mid ‘00s defined eras and created generations of Pistons fans. Since then, they’ve floundered in mediocrity so fans have a generally unfavorable opinion of the team when comparing today’s era to those in the past.”

At the bottom of the totem pole, some locals are quick to criticise and push away the Pistons for fear of being associated with such a poor product. Yet their new arena in downtown is new and cool, much like the millennials who live there. Through this project, the Pistons are trying to show the older generation of fans a sign of growth and direction; the new fans a product to be excited about and invest in.

So far, it’s been a mixed bag.

“When the Pistons were challenging for the Eastern Conference Finals every season, the Palace [of Auburn Hills; former arena] was sold out every night”, Smith says.

“When the Pistons win, the people will come, but they're not interested in uninspiring teams. In essence, the venue likely matters very little, and the product on the floor is essential for fan attendance and attention.”

Griffin is the latest name on the back of the jersey trying to inspire. He is wanted in Detroit where he wasn’t in L.A., six months after witnessing his own jersey retirement ceremony at Staples Center, one of the more oddball and, in hindsight, false, free agent pitches in recent memory.

Now begins a very interesting time at Pistons HQ, where legends of the past have left no mark.

According to ESPN stats, the Pistons are second-last in average attendance at 83.2%, taking up 17,465 of the allotted 20,491 available seats. Many believe those tickets sold are not turning into actual people during games, their first six contests of the season bringing out an average of just 16,214.

"The Palace will forever be the Palace”, says Keith Elliot, a Pistons fan for so long he can’t even remember.

“That’s a legendary arena where we had insane success and won three titles. But the new arena was needed. It’s tough to have a pro sports team that plays 40 minutes from the city. I think the new arena will pay off big time down the line as far as home court advantage for the Pistons.”

The team currently boasts a 15-10 record at home, but players are far more audible than most arenas, easily heard throughout a broadcast. Still, even if spectators don't turn up to the new arena, they do seem to buy the tickets.

“The Pistons are up over 1500 tickets on a per game basis”, says Jake Chapman, host of Wired: The Pistons Podcast.

“The visuals can be bad on television because people are in clubs and exploring the arena, but more people are going to the games on average, and from what I understand their season ticket base is also up from last year.”

The Detroit News newspaper reported that the Pistons retained more than 80% of their season ticket holders, while the team were second in the league in season ticket sales as of April last year when construction was thoroughly underway.

But it comes at a price. According to theticketingbusiness.com, they have increased by a whopping 43.6%.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

A beautiful arena located in downtown, Little Caesars Arena is unlike anything their old gaffe had to offer. The Palace was home to the Pistons for 29 years and 30 miles north of the new building. Neighbours used to be the Fieldstone Golf Club and I-75 highway, now replaced by never-ending restaurants.

“They build these great restaurants, and everybody goes and eats”, head coach Stan Van Gundy recently said.

“At the beginning of the third quarter, there’s no one in the building.”

Watching the Cavaliers contest, you’d think dinner extended for over two hours. But Mohile is less concerned than the coach.

“The new arena is a thousand times better”, he says.

“They have exceptional bars and restaurants that are not only open to fans, but also the general public. LCA has become a destination for Pistons fans for when the team is both at home and away.”

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

Perhaps that’s part of the problem. In addition to Van Gundy’s point, watching the game on a TV screen while enjoying good company in a comfortable environment is perhaps more fun and cheaper than stepping inside and paying for a ticket. But then, all great basketball cities have draws next door to the basketball.

“The Palace of Auburn Hills was located close to the northern suburbs of Detroit where a huge portion of the Pistons' fan base was located”, Smith says.

“The move downtown seemed like it would bring the team closer to its fans, but in fact may have taken it away from the population base most accustomed to attending Piston games.”

The red seats are a nod to the Red Wings of the NHL, and Drummond tweeted in September that there was barely any Pistons stuff in the building. Reggie Jackson, currently out injured, complained of playing inches above ice, chilling when you begin warmup. The seats are steeply-graded to reflect a hockey setting, while ice legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay have statues where Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars do not.

Detroit Pistons

Griffin is here to challenge this reality. He was previously sold on becoming the greatest Clipper ever, and now, his big presence on social media and passion for stand-up comedy might be a subtle compliment to the array of youngsters that dominate downtown Detroit.

“Blake Griffin is a panacea of sorts for poor attendance”, Smith says.

“Casual fans love Griffin, and those are the fans the Pistons want to draw in the gate. Even skeptics will be interested in seeing how things work with this new-look team, so a decent attendance bump is likely to occur in coming games.”

That didn’t look the case against Memphis, however. But maybe it will change.

“My friends have told me they are now more inclined to go”, Mohile says.

“Detroit has been longing for a star and they will be excited to see the action in person.”

Griffin was needed given that, despite his improved play and All-Star status, Drummond is not viewed, by many fans, as a draw.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

“The more plugged-in fans and observers initially viewed the deal coolly, but we're warming up to the potential advantages that a talent like Griffin can bring in spite of his onerous contract and injury risks”, Smith says.

Only time will tell. The Clippers looked like a different team last November without the imposing and intense Chris Paul barking in their ears and running the locker room, and Griffin was playing his best basketball. Then he injured his knee, the first of many debilitating injuries for not only the Clippers this season, but also Griffin’s nine-year career.

If he stays healthy?

“Blake will definitely put butts in the seats”, Elliot says.

“He’s a high-flyer and that definitely played into this acquisition, no question. His jerseys sold out quickly so if that is any sign of things to come, I’d say much more attention will be on the Pistons.”

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

And then you add Drummond to that puzzle. Against the Grizzlies we were witness to him whizzing passes from the interior to his new teammate in the corner. There were a lot of pick-and-roll plays between the two, a play Van Gundy is already initiating to mess with defenders. Griffin passed up several threes to hit Drummond with a bounce pass as he sealed his man inside, and threw up some lobs for Drummond dunks just like the good old days in Lob City.

Two big bodies like that will have to mesh over time, and the Pistons’ lack of spacing outside could cause issues, but it looked as if each played off the other in the first showing. Chapman believes it will be less of an adjustment for the pair than many have assumed.

“Blake has played with a great pick-and-roll center who doesn’t have shooting range (DeAndre Jordan) and Andre has played with a great power forward who attacks outside-in (Tobias Harris). Obviously these are crude player comparisons, but I don’t believe it will be a massive adjustment for either. I do believe the Pistons will continue to struggle until Reggie Jackson gets back to a healthy, effective level. Or they’ll need to make another move to upgrade in the back court.”

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Griffin cannot solely be relied upon to turn this team’s fortunes around, let alone fill the arena for the rest of the season; he couldn’t even achieve that on his home debut. They may well make the playoffs, considering four-and-a-half games separate them from the fifth-seeded Miami Heat, but roster work should have only just begun.

“I believe that a 50-win programme has the ability to attract fans and possibly sell out the arena consistently. Pistons fans will be content with any semblance of success at this point”, Mohile reasons.

Chapman adds that “Griffin may help with sales but only short-term. A winning team is the only way to ensure consistent sales.”

Blake Griffin, it sounds like, is not the entire answer. Winning is. If healthy, he can provide a lot of help for what the fans are desperate, and his jersey is the quickest selling since Rasheed Wallace. But this is short-term stuff.

Turning around a franchise’s recent history will take, ironically, a Clipper-like run.