You sort of knew it would end badly for Blake Griffin in Detroit. The sheer weight of it all—the bad vibes of the Clippers’ legacy-dangling bait-and-switch; the immediately apparent jankiness of his fit with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson; the pressure to perform to a level that justified both his massive salary and the package of young players and draft picks that Stan Van Gundy traded for him—just seemed like too much to bear, even for someone with good knees.
Griffin did his best, and he had his moments. He was legitimately incredible during the 2018-19 season, earning well-deserved All-Star and All-NBA third team selections as he fireman’s-carried Detroit to the postseason for the first time in three years. But he re-injured his knee right before a playoff matchup with Milwaukee, eventually requiring another surgery, and that was pretty much that; he’s looked like a shell of his former self over the past two seasons, an unfortunate object lesson in how difficult it is to age gracefully in an NBA moving faster and more unforgivingly than ever.
A Pistons team rebuilding around Jerami Grant and a slew of youngsters has little use for a 31-year-old power forward due $75.6 million over the next two seasons, and an 11-year vet who hears the clock ticking has little use for a team unlikely to sniff a deep playoff run anytime soon. So the Pistons put Griffin on ice in mid-February while they searched for a new home for the six-time All-Star; when that search evidently (and understandably) came up empty, the parties agreed to terms on a buyout that ends his tenure in Detroit, and allows Griffin to begin his own search for a new home.
It might not take long. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Stein of The New York Times both report that the Nets, Heat, and Warriors all have interest in his services. Woj also adds the Trail Blazers to the mix, while Stein chips in the Lakers, Celtics, and Clippers, though the hard-capped Clips would have to shed some salary to get into the running. As you might expect, given the constellation of stars it already employs and its rise to within a half-game of the top of the Eastern Conference standings, Brooklyn appears to be the favored destination in the buyout market, though that could change; the ink’s barely dry on the buyout agreement. (There’s probably no ink. Likely more of a DocuSign sort of arrangement at this point, right?)
The Brooklyn fit would make some sense. With Kevin Durant slowly working his way back from the hamstring issue that’s kept him sidelined for nearly a month, and with Jeff Green limited by a shoulder injury over the past couple of weeks, head coach Steve Nash has taken to playing Bruce Brown and Joe Harris as ostensible 4s alongside James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and DeAndre Jordan. It’s been working; the Nets are torching people with those sorts of small-ball looks. But having the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Griffin in the fold to provide spot minutes at the 4 could help bolster a thin frontcourt rotation. Even more enticingly: Adding Griffin, who’s averaging 4.4 assists per 36 minutes this season, to split time with Green as a small-ball 5 could provide even more playmaking juice to some of Brooklyn’s best lineups come playoff time.
The opportunity to play in units where he’d be surrounded by elite scorers, playmakers, shooters, and off-ball threats could rejuvenate Griffin’s game. Running pick-and-rolls with Harden and Irving (or even 4-5 pick-and-rolls with Durant!) would give him the chance to pop for wide-open 3s, or survey the floor on the short roll before spraying the ball to open shooters in the corners. While his effectiveness as a low-post scorer has waned with his athleticism as injury and age have taken their toll, Griffin could be yet another source of offense for Brooklyn passing out of the post, with the likes of the Big Three and Harris spreading the floor.
How well he’d fit on the defensive end, though, might be a different matter. Griffin’s never been a particularly disruptive defensive force: His block and steal rates have routinely graded out as below-average for a big man, and opponents have shot 65 percent or higher against him at the rim in four of the past five seasons, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. In his younger days, he was at least a consistently reliable defensive rebounder, snaring more than 22 percent of opponents’ misses through his first seven seasons. As time’s worn on and opposing power forwards have pulled him farther away from the rim, though, he’s grabbed just 17 percent of available defensive boards over the past two seasons. I’m not positive this version of Blake has quite the quicks or versatility needed to make positive contributions in Brooklyn’s increasingly switch-heavy scheme; then again, the Nets have started making strides on that end even with Griffin’s giant former Clipper teammate Jordan switching assignments, so perhaps hope springs eternal.
No other prospective suitor offers quite the same level of surrounding firepower as a Nets team that has the NBA’s no. 1 offense since the Harden trade, but some could put Griffin in similar positions to succeed. He could be the sort of playmaking 4 that Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have never had, giving the Blazers an outlet when opponents try to trap the ball out of Dame’s hands with the size, touch, and smarts to pick out the right pass and beat a scrambling defense in a four-on-three situation. Imagine him as a backup 5 in Miami, giving Erik Spoelstra another savvy-passing big man to run the sort of high-post/elbow-oriented dribble handoff offense in which Bam Adebayo has thrived over the past two seasons. Or in Golden State, slotting in behind (and maybe even alongside) former antagonist Draymond Green to provide the Warriors another smart screener and ball mover to help Stephen Curry rain down fire. Big men who can pass are worth their weight in gold come the playoffs. If he can serve as a top-of-the-key connector, keeping the ball moving from one side of the floor to another and helping create a few easy buckets per game, Griffin wouldn’t have to play like an All-Star to make an impact.
Interested bidders should probably temper their expectations for just how large an impact, though. There have been many different versions of Blake Griffin: the precocious and towering inferno who made “Mozgov” into a verb; the Kia-clearing celebrity who had the world at his feet; the superlative all-court talent who, for a second there in the 2015 playoffs, looked like the closest thing to LeBron James this side of Cleveland; the resurgent star who, for a few months before the 2019 All-Star break, looked like he might just bring Detroit back into the sunshine after all. The version we’ve seen over the past two seasons, sadly, lacks the explosiveness to impose his will off the dribble and in the air, the consistent shooting touch to stretch the floor from deep, and the lateral quickness to credibly defend in space.
In a vacuum, this version of Griffin doesn’t seem like much of a needle-mover. The question, then, is whether a change of scenery and a different offensive context could reveal that he’s still got enough left in the tank to help. From the sounds of it, teams that believe themselves to be within hailing distance of a serious playoff run might be willing to find out—which, after the way the past few years have gone, would be pretty cool. Things always seemed like they’d end badly in Detroit, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story; there might be time yet for Blake Griffin to write a new chapter.