Detroit — Blake Griffin has been doing what everyone has been doing during the pandemic, if you don’t count his six-days-a-week training and occasional outing with a Los Angeles celebrity. He’s been sitting at home, playing cards, watching TV and obsessing over the same show every basketball fan binged on.
It’s the 10-part docu-series on ESPN that chronicled Michael Jordan’s final championship season with the Bulls in 1998, packed with classic footage and behind-the-scenes nuggets. Griffin estimated he watched each episode at least twice.
“It saved me because it gave me something to look forward to every Sunday,” Griffin said Thursday, with the Pistons officially in the offseason. “Obviously as a basketball fan and as a Jordan fan, that was like basketball porn, just unbelievable to see all that behind the scenes.”
It’s called “The Last Dance,” and on a slightly smaller nostalgia scale, ahem, the next season — whenever it starts — could be it for Griffin and the Pistons. While Griffin has been rehabbing from a January knee surgery, the Pistons have finally begun rebuilding. One piece — a 31-year-old star who’s played only 118 games in two-and-a-half seasons here — doesn’t fit the long-term plans of a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2008.
Griffin is due $36.5 million for the upcoming season and has a $39-million player option for 2021-22. When the end in Detroit comes, it may not be eventful, but it won’t be nasty either. Griffin sounds content with his situation, with Dwane Casey as coach and an organization he likes. His body “feels great.” He knows the team has big decisions, including the hire of a GM, but he’s not pushing to be moved.
“That’s up to the front office, what they want to do, how they want to go about it,” Griffin said. “At a certain time, at the right time, we’ll have those conversations. If I’m on the Detroit Pistons, then I’m doing everything I can to prepare to play for them and win games, that’s just how you’re wired as a player.”
And Griffin makes it clear, he’s wired to play a while longer. He’s shown he can expand his game, becoming a facilitator and adequate 3-point shooter, until injuries sapped his leg strength.
One more act
Perhaps he has another reinvention left in him, and since coming to Detroit from the Clippers, he has shown fantastic flashes, followed by pain. The six-time All-Star isn’t as explosive as he once was but he’s in tremendous shape, and you don’t need to see the TMZ photo of him working out in L.A. to know that. Casey calls him “one of the hardest workers I’ve been around,” and says his rehabilitation is right on schedule.
Griffin is a no-nonsense leader on the floor, entertaining and well-rounded off the court, dabbling in films and standup comedy for years. He figures that will be the next stage of his career, whenever that might be, but not anytime soon.
“I don’t see this as being my last contract,” Griffin said. “I don’t see this as like a decline, no. I haven’t given it that much thought.”
There’ll be a lot of time for contemplation, with the Pistons likely not playing an actual game until early December. There are discussions about holding scrimmages with other non-playoff teams, but that will be controlled by coronavirus protocols.
So while 22 teams likely will convene in Orlando to decide some sort of champion, we can fire up the rumor porn for the Pistons. This past season, they traded Andre Drummond and bought out Reggie Jackson. Griffin will be next on the trade-rumor mill, along with another oft-injured star in Derrick Rose, who enters the final season of his deal. Beyond that, the Pistons have a bunch of salary-cap space, a likely top-five pick and a few promising young players in Christian Wood, Luke Kennard, Sekou Doumbouya and Svi Mykhailiuk.
With the financial turmoil from the pandemic, some reports suggest the NBA might consider reinstalling the amnesty clause, which allows a team to release any player on a long-term contract and have the salary completely wiped off the cap. It’s only conjecture, and it’s not like the Pistons need more cap space (they’re about $30 million under, pending the fallout from the stoppage). But cap flexibility is an asset for a rebuilding team, even if it means taking on a bloated expiring contract from a contender to facilitate a trade for a young player.
The bigger picture
It still seems strange talking basketball, as racial strife and a world-wide disease knock issues into their proper perspective. Griffin, like many, has been riveted by the protests against police brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Along with the Hawks’ Trae Young and the Rockets’ Russell Westbrook, Griffin has been active in a possible case of racial injustice in Oklahoma. Julius Jones is an inmate on death row, and Griffin’s family has close ties to Jones’ family. Griffin, Young and Westbrook have written to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt to urge that Jones’ sentence be commuted.
When Griffin speaks of the horrible images of violence, followed by the compelling images of peaceful protest, his playful demeanor turns.
“Disheartened, discouraged, but at the same time, as crazy as it sounds, sort of inspired by it,” he said. “Just by the amount of support and the amount of people that are rallying behind this and realizing we do have an issue and our system is flawed, that people are hurting and people aren’t being held accountable. Talking to Coach Casey, he’s been through an unbelievable amount of racial divide. And one thing I found really interesting, he said that as a kid, when people were marching, there weren’t this many white people supporting the movement.
“Things are beginning to change, but this is just the very very very beginning. As far as all the negativity and resistance from certain people, I don’t have much to say. If you just can’t understand the simple concept that in America for years, black lives haven’t been given the same respect or even just basic civil rights as others, then I think you’re turning a blind eye, or you just don’t want to see it.”
Well-stated, as Griffin generally is. He’s a man about town in L.A., but when he’s in Detroit, he appreciates the dimmer spotlight. He says he enjoys playing here, even though the Pistons have made only one playoff appearance with him.
Injuries, poor management and poor play have derailed the team and dictated a direction shift. When Griffin arrived, he was supposed to be an integral piece for playoff runs. Now, he awaits a different fate, and that’s fine with him.
“When you come to work every day and have great people on your team, a great coach, great support staff, it’s just fun to be around that,” Griffin said. “Whatever our team looks like — and we have a lot of changes that’ll probably be made — I look forward to whatever role they ask me to play.”
When he can play, he plays his role well. Whatever comes next, whenever it comes, Griffin sounds like a guy who will be ready for anything.