It feels like ages ago, but it was only last summer that Blake Griffin was courted during free agency with a T-shirt design that placed him next to Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Albert Einstein, among other “Pioneers.” He was sold on being a “Clipper for Life,” signing a five-year, $173 million contract that seemed to all but guarantee that he would be the team’s cornerstone until at least 2021. But that engagement lasted all of six months before Griffin was traded to the Detroit Pistons prior to last season’s trade deadline, ending his eight-year stint with the Clippers. It was a surprising end to the Griffin era, as he was one of the last vestiges of the team’s Lob City period—one that was ultimately defined by growth in the team’s national profile, but stagnation in its championship aspirations.
This week, Griffin returns to Los Angeles to play the Lakers on Wednesday and the Clippers on Saturday. It will be his first time playing on the Clippers’ home court as the opposition. As a Piston this season, Griffin is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game and 8.5 rebounds a game, his best mark since his 2013-14 All-Star season. The production has not exactly translated to wins for Detroit, whose 17-21 record currently has the Pistons on the outside looking in on the playoffs. Griffin didn’t have a say in being traded to Detroit, and it’d be hard to convince most that he’s better off on a team below .500 than on one above, but there is something to be said for being in a situation that allows a player to stretch his limits. In Detroit, Griffin has found a team that hasn’t just enabled his exploration, but embraced it.
Griffin’s game has matured, and is now a prime example of the NBA’s contemporary style. He’s no longer the high-flying asteroid destroying defenders around him; he’s not imprinting unsuspecting big men on posters nearly every night. He’s become more calculated, actualizing the theoretical “Point Blake” alter ego many thought he was capable of becoming on the Clippers: Griffin leads Detroit in assists with more than five per game, as the team has emboldened him to showcase his probing play and dynamic passing. Griffin has also adapted to the 3-point shot in a drastic way: He’s taking 6.4 3s a game this season and making 36.6 percent of them. For reference, Griffin has attempted 235 3-pointers in 37 games this season, more than he did in the first 461 games of his career. Griffin can still bully people in the paint, and does, but he’s also doing what his position demands in order to play around a traditional big man like Andre Drummond. It’s an evolution that is both fascinating and commendable. Griffin has transformed as the game has changed and as his physicality has waned. He’s added guard skills to a big frame and smoothed them out, becoming a prime example of how to adapt as a big man instead of being phased out of the league. And the numbers haven’t dropped through it all: Griffin is still playing at an All-Star level, and he’s scored 50 points once and over 30 points 11 times already this season.
“This is the first year I really feel like I’ve gotten a little bit of credit for that from a larger group,” Griffin told ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz.
Of course, it’s hard to posit that Griffin is better off in Detroit when the team around him is a bit of a conundrum. The Pistons’ solid frontcourt with Griffin and Drummond—the two have a net rating of 2.3 in two-man combinations—is hampered by their inconsistent backcourt, a unit helmed by Reggie Jackson and sometimes Ish Smith. Jackson, after all these years, is clearly still not the answer at point guard, and their lack of wing depth has continued to haunt them year after year. Their cap situation doesn’t allow them to pursue any other big names, and Jackson’s trade value isn’t exactly high. Remember: This is a team that had a chance to draft Donovan Mitchell and took Luke Kennard instead.
It’s possible to draw some parallels between where the Clippers were during Griffin’s last years and where the Pistons find themselves now. Detroit’s ceiling isn’t as high as L.A.’s was with Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan, but the Pistons are feeling the uncomfortable limitations of a team in limbo, with the same group of of players hitting the same limits (even with new head coach Dwane Casey). They still have a strong shot at making the playoffs, but this is a league where teams can’t be carried by solitary stars anymore—unless maybe that team has James Harden.
Griffin was, at one point in time, that kind of transcendent talent for the Clippers. They took off once Griffin did, his high-flying style giving the futile franchise an identity that it happily leaned into following a series of tough years. It looked like a marriage that could last a whole career. But the Clippers, once they were bought by Steve Ballmer and once they hired Jerry West as a front office consultant, had and have bigger plans. Even if Griffin hadn’t been traded when he was, it’s hard to believe the Clippers could or even would keep him when they pursue bigger free agents like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard this summer.
Griffin returns to Staples Center a different player in a different situation. It might not be perfect, but it’s something like home: A place where he can shine, even if his team can’t win. A place away from the spotlight where he can continue to expand his game, refine it, and surprise us with his evolution.