For all the twists and turns the Brooklyn Nets have navigated this season, no spot has run through as many makeovers as the center position.
But with the playoff opener up next, things seem to have stabilized. Blake Griffin, the seventh player to start a game at center for the Nets this season — yes, we’re counting the Bruce Brown start in a five-guard lineup back on Feb. 13 — started the final six games of the regular season for Brooklyn.
“Blake's been great,” said Nets head coach Steve Nash. “Just his IQ, his toughness, his physicality, his willingness to give up his body and be physical. I think it's a different role for him from being the guy that's asked to carry and produce. He's a complementary player now, and he's now accepted that with joy and pride, and has been unbelievable. And leading the league in charges, and just been a guy that's been happy to facilitate for his teammates, score when he needs to, and just play a role. It's such a pivotal role to have guys that give us versatility, he's making 3s, he can post up smaller guys, he can be physical in the paint. So he's been great. And just his maturity and his IQ have been a big help for our team.”
With the Nets, the high-flying former Rookie of the Year and founding partner of Lob City has gone all-in on a rugged and versatile glue guy role while flashing more than a few of the thunderous finishes that hadn’t been seen as much in the previous year.
“His IQ is through the roof,” said Kevin Durant. “He knows how to play the game of basketball on both sides of the floor and on all three levels on offense. In the paint, can knock down that floater in the mid-range and can make 3s now.”
Griffin stepped into the latest stage in his 11-year career when he signed with the Nets during the All-Star break. After seven full seasons with the LA Clippers, he’d been traded to Detroit during the 2017-18 season. In his first full season with the Pistons, Griffin earned his fifth All-NBA honor and his sixth All-Star Game selection, but knee issues derailed things in Detroit from there and he played just 18 games during the 2019-20 season.
With the Pistons pivoting into a rebuild, a buyout was agreed to after Griffin played 20 games for Detroit this season. He found himself in Brooklyn playing alongside James Harden, something he couldn’t have pictured three months earlier when both began the season in different locales.
“It’s a lot of things,” said Griffin not long after about opting for the Nets. “Winning obviously is a huge one, but also the organization. Talking to guys, you get a sense for organizations are run from top to bottom and you want to be a part of an organization that really does things the right way. I know I’ve only been here three weeks but from top to bottom they, no detail is left unnoticed. They do a great job of taking care of their players. Their performance staff is unbelievable. That was a big thing for me. I’m always interested in that. Coaching staff to support staff to everything, they just do a great job. That’s a credit to our owner and Sean (Marks) and how he runs the program and all the way down. That’s in general kind of the whole thing, but winning is definitely important.”
Griffin made his Nets debut on March 21 and a week later, the Nets signed LaMarcus Aldridge and plugged him in as the starting center when he played his first game on April 1. Griffin came off the bench and slid between forward and center on a team still sorting out rotations. At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Griffin gave the Nets a combination of physicality up front with perimeter skills. He’s averaged 4.3 assists for his career and has become a reliable 3-point option.
Griffin’s deep shooting took a big jump when he split the 2017-18 season between the Clippers and Pistons, averaging 5.6 attempts after never averaging even two 3-pointers per game over his first seven seasons. With the Nets, he’s shot 38.3 percent, the highest rate of his career.
“After my rookie year I hired a shooting coach and completely retooled my shot,” said Grffin. “Didn’t really start working on shooting threes until third or fourth year in the league and then by five and six I was starting to take them more and more. And then I’ve had several seasons where I’ve shot a decent amount of threes. It’s just the way the game’s going. It’s crazy but even when I first came in 10, 11 years ago, I was a straight-up post player. The only time I’d be on the perimeter is going up to defend a screen and you roll right back down. The game has changed so much so I’m glad I started doing that early in my career, but still got a lot of work to do.”
In Brooklyn, Griffin found himself with an adjustment period to the Nets’ style of play — a departure from Detroit’s more deliberate pace but not unfamiliar from his time with the Clippers.
“The way we played in LA was a little bit more similar to this where it’s sort of a free-flowing offense and you’re just making reads,” said Griffin. “Anytime you’ve been out of that situation for I guess two-and-a-half, three years there’s a little bit of an adjustment period. But it’s like the style of basketball I played in LA. It’s just reading situations, there’s the action on the first side, action on the second side. The ball has to just keep moving because we have the talent if the ball keeps moving we can play a lot more freely.”
As he got accustomed to the way the Nets play, the lineups around him continued to evolve. Durant returned from a hamstring strain just as Harden was sidelined by the same. Aldridge suddenly retired due to an irregular heartbeat after just five games with the Nets, playing his final game on April 5. Nic Claxton was out of action for two weeks due to health and safety protocols, leaving the center position during that stretch largely in the hands of Brooklyn’s two small-ball options, Griffin and Jeff Green.
Over his 26 games for the Nets, Griffin has averaged 10.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 21.5 minutes per game, shooting 49.2 percent overall. The Nets are plus 130 in his 560 minutes on the floor, a per-minute rate of plus .23 that is third on the team behind Claxton and Durant.
But he’s maybe made the biggest impression with his relentless effort, whether it’s hitting the floor for loose balls or drawing the 22 charges that are tied for the most in the league.
“Blake’s a beast, man,” said Bruce Brown, who played with Griffin in Detroit the last two years. “He does everything for us right now. Post-ups, scoring, hitting threes, getting defensive rebounds. Taking charges, he’s done that since Detroit too. So he just does everything for us.”