Detroit seemed a likelier retirement home for Blake Griffin than a place for new beginnings. Yet that seems to be the case for Griffin, who through four games has reminded the world that he, and the undefeated Pistons, exist.
When the Clippers traded Griffin to the Motor City in January, it felt like another layer of cement was being poured onto a Pistons team already stuck in place. Griffin had signed a five-year, $171 million deal in July 2017, but already leaned more toward washed than superstar. He was only 28 then, but over the years he’s seemed to average more injuries per season than blocks. The trade was received poorly, and coincidentally was the last major move Stan Van Gundy made as Pistons president before getting fired. Like Houston, Detroit was fully committing to a win-now approach — without much winning to show for it.
The concerns about Blake were legitimate. Though he had started his 2017–18 Clippers campaign as a more modern version of himself, it was a departure from the Griffin of old — an explosive, power-dunking, midrange-shooting marvel, who was at the height of his physical prowess in 2015. He joined Andre Drummond, a traditional center without a jump shot, and Reggie Jackson, a ball-dominant guard who struggles with outside shooting. It was like watching milk expire in real time.
This summer was Griffin’s first healthy offseason in three years, which seems to be a crucial factor in what looks like a serious career resurgence that is allowing him to lead the Pistons to their best start in a decade. The only major change in personnel entering this season was thought to be that of Dwane Casey replacing SVG — which shouldn’t be downplayed, as Casey won Coach of the Year last season — when it was really Elite 2015 Blake finding enough daylight (and health) to emerge as Elite 2018 Blake. He’s finished the metamorphosis that he began last fall, leaning fully into his identity as Point Blake.
Griffin’s flashy numbers through the first four games are what immediately stand out. He scored a career-high 50 points against the Sixers (his previous career high was set seven years ago), and is averaging 33.8 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists. The way he’s gone about producing those numbers is what’s worth noting. Griffin is, more often than not these days, floorbound. That’s not to say he isn’t still driving to the lane and soaring to the rim, but he’s not making his living on catching lobs anymore. The reputation that has always preceded him is being buried. Griffin has put more emphasis on efficient shooting, attempting more 3s per game (5.8) than Dirk Nowitzki ever has in his 20-year career, and making them at an incredible 65.2 percent clip in his first four games. Those numbers will even out as the season goes on, but most important is the focus on opting out of the midrange for modern sweet spots.
Point Blake has taken a significant amount of ball-handling duties from Jackson, which has allowed the latter to focus on other things. Jackson is a mediocre starting guard in a league overflowing with guard talent, but he’s been contributing in ways we aren’t accustomed to seeing from a ball-pounding guard. For instance, Jackson is spotting up much more than usual, and has been a reliable catch-and-shoot guy behind the arc. Part of turning this team around will be finding new roles for their core pieces. Jackson has found a groove, and the same can be said about Drummond, who doesn’t have to be leaned on as much for points in back-to-the-basket situations when Griffin is taking [looks closer] 22 field goal attempts a game.
Falling head over heels for this Griffin is as easy as it was for his more explosive past iterations. But there’s always the lingering question of sustainability. His unignorable list of injuries — broken kneecap, meniscus tear, partially torn quadriceps, knee bone bruise, sprained knee, strained hamstring, back stress fracture, right elbow staph infection, broken right hand, loose bodies in his right knee, an injury to his right big toe plantar plate, and an MCL sprain — will always be relevant when asking how long Detroit can keep this up. There are two elements working in Griffin’s favor now: There aren’t nearly as many big, bullying bodies in the paint anymore, meaning Griffin isn’t taking as bad a beating when he drives to the rim, and his game is now spending time in the quaint, more peaceful countryside of the perimeter.
I’m not discounting that Griffin is a high risk, but while he is on the court and playing at this level, the sustainability question becomes one about the talent around him. The Pistons aren’t loaded. Their X factors, first-rounders Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard, are still trying to find themselves. Jackson is as streaky as they come. Drummond is a top rebounder, but his skill set is limited, and as we discovered last year, asking him to do too much is asking for trouble.The thought of putting anything on Griffin’s back, even metaphorically, ought to be enough to freak out Detroit’s medical staff. His resurgence shouldn’t not be enjoyed just because history says it might be over soon. But if we’re in the nature of predicting shortcomings, they might have less to do with Griffin, and more to do with the players around him.