Blake Griffin experienced a career renaissance this season. Can the Detroit Pistons build around him and on their playoff experience?
This was the season Blake Griffin found his career’s second wind.
Griffin, 30, averaged 24 points and played in 75 games for the first time since the 2013-14 season — when he finished third in MVP votes at 24-years-old. He will end up on an All-NBA team for the first time since 2015, and returned to his All-Star form after a three-year interlude in which it looked like Griffin’s prime was over, at an age when most players’ primes are just getting started. Griffin, however, bounced back from injuries to remake his game and remind people why he was so much fun to watch in the first place.
The Detroit Pistons were swept in the first round by the Milwaukee Bucks. The series wrapped with a 127-104 loss Monday night. Griffin had 22 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, and did most of it on one leg after he landed awkwardly on a dunk midway through the first quarter. He left the game only to return with a ginormous brace on his knee. It was an exaggerated way to illustrate the fact that his once Kia-leaping athleticism has long since left him. Griffin instead relied on his newly-developed shooting range, going 4-of-6 from 3-point range and dishing out assists as he has all season as Detroit’s de facto point guard.
“Blake played his heart out with basically one leg and he gave everything he could for our team,” said Pistons head coach Dwane Casey. “He fought through a lot of pain and swelling, just so he could support his teammates.”
The game was an abbreviation of Detroit’s season. Andre Drummond did the two things he does well, Reggie Jackson was good for spurts and a danger to those around him for others, and Griffin tried to drag everyone to his level. Griffin’s fit during his past life in Los Angeles was never perfect, but at least he had another high-IQ baller to collaborate with. That’s not the case in Detroit, and he sometimes looked like an impatient high school teacher trying to coax his students into learning something, anything.
In The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons argued that great players have multiple primes. The basic principle is that a player coming out of one peak may adjust his sliders in order to maintain his overall rating. Griffin’s first prime came early, between the ages of 21 and 25, when he averaged 21.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.0 assists while racking up regular-season awards. Then the injuries set in. Left knee, right knee, a torn quad, back spasms, his big right toe — it all contributed to keeping him off the court. The Clippers signed him to a $170 million contract extension, got buyer’s remorse and traded him to the Pistons a few months later.
Griffin worked to get his body right. During his first offseason in Detroit, he got into massage therapy to improve his range of motion and more evenly disperse his lower body strength. The biomechanical enhancements made him less susceptible to injury. His 75 games played were the most since 2014 while stronger legs led to a more consistent jump shot and his second prime. This season, Griffin averaged 24.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 36 percent on 3s to earn him his first All-Star game appearance since his fifth year in the league.
The Griffin trade turned out to be a win for the Pistons, but making the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and earning the right to get clobbered by Giannis Antetokounmpo for the next half decade won’t be good enough to sell out Little Caesars Arena. Detroit will allocate 50 percent of its cap space to Drummond, Jackson and the incomparable Jon Leuer next season, and that’s before you add in Griffin’s $34 million salary. The only practical means to improve the roster will be via trade or the draft.
“This is going to be a huge summer for our development coaches and ourselves, to develop the weaknesses of some of our players, because we like to grow from within,” Casey said. The Pistons can look to the summer of 2020, when Jackson and Leuer’s contracts expire, providing them with $40 million-plus in cap space to rebuild the team around Griffin.
Griffin, however, will turn 32 that season. Will this second prime last that long? Will he still be able to lead a playoff team?
“As a player there are always things you want to build up. This year I think I showed some different parts of my game,” Griffin said. “But there is still a lot of growth that I can do.”