The 2018-19 NBA season is closer than you may think. To prepare, we’re taking a hard look at some of the more interesting players and situations across the league.
Blake Griffin played two final games for two different teams last season, and in both, he saw versions of his past self in the opponents he faced. In Griffin’s last game as a Clipper before he was traded to the Pistons in January, Anthony Davis made Griffin’s 6-foot-10, 251-pound frame look small as he flew past him for a dunk that Griffin didn’t even attempt to contend. Poster dunks used to be Griffin’s thing. In a late-March game before an ankle injury sidelined him for the final eight games of the season, Griffin could do nothing but stumble back as Julius Randle backed him into the post and finished over him with ease. That was Griffin once upon a time too.
“It makes me feel old, but then like also I’m only four years older than them,” Griffin said earlier this summer when a video of young players now in the league (including Randle) reacting to his Team USA practice dunk resurfaced. “It’s crazy how fast it happens.”
Griffin can still impose his strength and size and dunks on opponents—in those two aforementioned games, he scored 27 and 15 points, respectively, and grabbed 12 rebounds against New Orleans. But he’s no longer the shiny, new sports car in the garage. Griffin’s rebounding percentage was the lowest of his career last season, and his field goal percentage has dropped each of the past three years. His scoring averages have remained around the 20-point-a-game mark, but that is more a product of his skill than his extreme athleticism.
Griffin’s transition on offense has been a long time coming. Even as he burst onto the scene by soaring over lumbering centers across the league, he was knocked (often unfairly) for relying too heavily on his dunking ability. The evolution of his position, and the injuries that have limited him to no more than 67 games a season since 2014-15, made change necessary. To his credit, he’s done just that; last season was the closest we’ve seen to Point Blake. But Griffin may have missed the sweet spot, his athletic peak not quite aligning with his improved shot. His status as a perennial MVP candidate, much like the Clippers’ Big Three era, feels like a great “what if.”
Griffin will turn 30 next March, and though being in Detroit should give him a (badly needed) second chapter to his career, some of the same obstacles that got in his way in L.A. persist with the Pistons. Detroit isn’t his team. While there was a time when we thought Griffin could be the best player on a title team, that’s no longer the case. The problem is that no one else on the Pistons’ roster looks to have that kind of talent, either. Reggie Jackson isn’t as good as Chris Paul, and though Andre Drummond is just 25 years old and may have a higher ceiling than DeAndre Jordan, he still needs to improve defensively, not to mention at the free throw line (but I guess he’s shooting 3s now?). Add a new coach to the mix in Dwane Casey—whose biggest indictment during his time with the Raptors was that he couldn’t get over the hump, a challenge Detroit nows faces, to a lesser degree—and the Pistons are one of the more peculiar teams in the league.
Griffin’s fit with his new team will once again depend on his partnership with a young center. Jordan and Griffin coexisted for years, but the league’s emphasis on perimeter play made the paint a bit crowded for both by the end of Griffin’s L.A. tenure. Drummond is also a rebound-hound and a player who shot 93 percent of his field goal attempts last season inside 10 feet. In an ideal scenario, Drummond continues to be used more as a high-screener who rolls to the paint to open things up for Griffin or Jackson. But either way, Drummond’s presence on the floor forces Griffin to have to adapt.
In Detroit, Griffin may make his biggest impact away from the rim. His 3-point shooting took a leap last season—he took almost three times as many as he did the season before, and shot it at a decent 34.5 percent clip. His passing and screening could also be major assets. Griffin’s assist average has steadily increased over his career, and peaked at 6.2 per game during his 25 games with the Pistons. He immediately becomes the second playmaker Detroit needs, and maybe even its second- or third-best shooter. (This probably says more about the Pistons’ roster than anything.)
And yet, there were times last season when Griffin just roamed the perimeter aimlessly, looking for either a pass to come his way or for the play to develop. Drummond’s usage rate last season actually peaked in February (22.5), during Griffin’s first month with the team. The on-court marriage between the two should improve in their second season together, and it will be fascinating to see just how Casey decides to use each player to get the most out of them. Will Casey be willing to play small and sit Drummond, especially in crunch-time situations when he needs shooters? With Detroit last season, Griffin played roughly 30 percent of his minutes at center, per Basketball-Reference, the most of his career.
The Pistons should make the playoffs this season in a weaker East. With nearly $260 million committed to Jackson, Drummond, and Griffin, Detroit has more or less locked itself into a version of this roster for the foreseeable future. But even though highlight dunks may be more a thing of the past, Griffin is still a talented former All-Star who has the tools to adapt to a changing league and an aging body. Using Griffin properly (and hoping he doesn’t get hurt again) could go a long way toward not just revitalizing his career, but breathing life back into the Pistons franchise.