3 goals: Blake Griffin – continue evolution, lead with force, sprinkle in rest
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(Editor’s note: Today concludes a series looking at the 17 players – 15 under standard contracts, two on two-way deals – who comprise the 2019-20 Pistons roster heading into the home stretch of the off-season. Today: Blake Griffin.)
There were two common cautionary refrains in evaluations of the decision by the Pistons in January 2018 to trade for Blake Griffin and the four-plus years of the five-year, $171 million contract he’d signed with the Clippers only six months earlier.
One: His injury history made it unlikely he’d suit up often enough to make an impact commensurate with the contract. Two: He was no longer the otherworldly athlete who could leap over cars so his effectiveness would taper off on parallel lines with his declining athleticism.
The 2018-19 season eased concerns on the first count and obliterated them on the second.
Griffin might be a vastly different player than the one who took the NBA by storm nine years ago, but he’s transitioned as gracefully as imaginable. Griffin turned 30 in March, but with three years left on his contract there should be little to fret about his ability to contribute at All-Star levels as he nears the end of the deal that concludes with the 2021-22 season.
Griffin played 72 of the first 75 Pistons games last season, sitting out only to rest on back to backs on those occasions. But in an important late-March win over Orlando, Griffin suffered an undisclosed injury to his left knee that caused him to miss four of the final seven regular-season games and the first two games of the playoff series with Milwaukee.
Griffin underwent a surgical procedure immediately after the season ended and said at the time he didn’t anticipate it interfering with his off-season routine – a routine he credited with his return to All-Star form after four injury-plagued seasons that prevented a normal summer preparation. Dwane Casey and Ed Stefanski both reported over the summer that Griffin’s recovery was going as anticipated.
So the Pistons would gladly take a repeat of Griffin’s 2018-19 season, minus the late-season hiccup that likely cost the Pistons a few seeding spots and any reasonable chance to throw a scare into the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks in the first round.
Casey’s practice is to present his players with a three-item card with their core values to the team before training camp starts. In keeping with that protocol but with a twist, we’ll look at the three goals for each player on the roster heading into the 2019-20 Pistons season. For Blake Griffin, those are …
ANOTHER STEP IN THE EVOLUTION – Griffin has taken far more 3-point shots (657) in 100 games with the Pistons than he took in 504 games with the Clippers (455). A more dramatic example: With the Pistons, 37.4 percent of Griffin’s shots have come from the 3-point arc; with the Clippers, only 5.6 percent of his shots were 3-pointers. He made 31.6 percent of them with the Clippers, 35.9 percent with the Pistons. Last season, when Griffin shot a career-high 36.2 percent from the arc, he took 7.0 3-point shots a game. So what’s next for Griffin? Not necessarily more 3-pointers. But he’s keenly aware of the way the game is trending and intent on expanding his game to stay a step ahead. That effectively means becoming increasingly comfortable playing farther from the rim – the place where Griffin made a living in his early years. Griffin spoke of becoming a better pick-and-roll operator and working more on read-and-react situations to capitalize on the freedom Casey gives his players in half-court offense. And, of course, even if Griffin doesn’t take appreciably more 3-point shots, he’ll spend hours over the summer working to improve his accuracy, something he’s done each of the past four years.
MAINTAIN LEADERSHIP STATURE – Getting uprooted at mid-season in 2018 and transplanted into the Eastern Conference from the only NBA home he’d ever known had to be traumatic for Griffin, especially in light of the trade coming so soon on the heels of a lavish signing ceremony declaring him a “Clipper for life.” So Griffin’s leadership was muted for the rest of that season. Last year, there was the transition to a new coaching staff and a necessary focus on re-establishing his status as an All-NBA-level player and proving his durability. Even with all of that, Griffin exhibited the strongest leadership the Pistons have enjoyed since the heyday of the Goin’ to Work Pistons with rock-solid veterans like Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace at the core. Griffin’s leadership came in many forms, but came down to accountability in all areas. He’s diligent about conditioning and diet; he shouldered every big moment in games that went to the wire; and he never failed to address the media after games, unfailingly giving credit to others in victory and accepting responsibility for failures in losses. Given the greater comfort level all around in Casey’s second season and his second full off-season as a Piston, Griffin’s imprint should be even more fully realized this time around.
LOAD-MANAGEMENT WISDOM – The next great frontier for NBA front offices will be to increase the ability to forestall wear-and-tear injuries, an issue that bubbled to the forefront with the catastrophic NBA Finals injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. You can bet the Pistons, with high-profile veterans Griffin and Derrick Rose both due to turn 31 during the season and both with a long history of lower-body injuries, will be keenly attuned to warning signs. It would be an upset if Griffin didn’t sit more in back to backs than the three he skipped last season. The Pistons face 13 back to backs this year. They don’t have the margin for error that, say, Toronto did last season in liberally resting Kawhi Leonard. But there is likely to be a consensus reached that Griffin (and Rose) needs to be given a fighting chance to be fresh and close to fully healthy for 82-plus games this season and that might mean playing less than 70 games. The Pistons covered themselves at both positions, signing Tim Frazier at point guard to help Rose behind Reggie Jackson and adding Markieff Morris to give them adequate protection for Griffin at power forward. Griffin won’t be enthusiastic about missing more games, but he’s blessed with a fully formed sense of perspective. He’ll see the big picture and the wisdom of proactively safeguarding his health.