Auburn Hills — Whether or not this second act of Blake Griffin’s career ends with a different sort of punchline than the first, know this: There are bound to be jokes.
But as another NBA season tips off, with Griffin stepping into the spotlight on a second-city stage no one’s mistaking for Los Angeles, the good news is the Pistons’ first genuine celebrity in years seems to understand what this stand-up routine requires.
It’s not so much a tough crowd — or even a full house — as it is a skeptical audience in Detroit, and for a franchise that has spent most of the last decade as a league laughingstock, a sense of humor certainly doesn’t hurt.
Good thing, then, that as one of Griffin’s new running mates, Andre Drummond, points out, “He’s funny as (expletive).”
Or that the five-time All-Star and aspiring comic isn’t afraid to put himself out there, especially when you consider the position he’s been put in here, acquired last January in a blockbuster deal that stunned everyone — Griffin included — and smacked of desperation on the Pistons’ part, a starry-eyed owner starved for success or attention, or both.
That the 29-year-old power forward was suddenly sent packing by the Clippers — the team that drafted him No. 1 overall back in 2010 — just months after they’d staged a fake jersey retirement as part of the sales pitch for a five-year, $171 million contract extension, well, that only added to the drama.
Or the comedy, in retrospect, as Griffin has no problem shooting for laughs at his own expense now, most recently for the popular website “Funny or Die.” A satirical music video — “Let’s Change That” — begins with Griffin playing the flute and hits a hilarious high note when Craig Robinson (of “The Office” fame) sings about “natural disasters, poverty and crime” and a crooning Griffin compares it to finding out “the team you signed with just gave you a-wayyyyy.”
(He also drops in a joke aimed at Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, the Detroit native and former Microsoft CEO.)
Trading barbs on ‘Roast’
There’s more where that came from, too. In a Comedy Central “Roast Battle” that aired in late August, Griffin went head-to-head with celebrity roast king Jeffrey Ross, shrugging off barbs about ex-girlfriend Kendall Jenner by hurling insults about the bald-headed comic’s appearance.
“It honestly looks like we both got (expletive) over by the Clippers,” Griffin cracked at one point, drawing a roar from the audience.
But now comes the encore performance, in the arena where Griffin first made a name for himself, putting up nightly double-doubles and putting opponents on posters with his highlight-reel dunks. And the question isn’t whether Griffin can carry a tune, or get the timing right delivering a joke.
No, with new Pistons coach Dwane Casey promising the fans “The time is now,” and Griffin entering his ninth NBA season “with a chip on his shoulder,” as front-office boss Ed Stefanski sees it, it’s whether there’s enough power left in his game to push this franchise back into the playoffs. Or maybe even beyond, because “our expectation should be high,” Griffin says.
“In the East, with our roster, I don’t see why getting home-court (advantage) in the playoffs is not a reasonable expectation,” Griffin said at the start of training camp. “That should be our goal this year.”
Playoff wild card
That notion no doubt had some around the league snickering: The Pistons have made the playoffs just once since 2009, getting swept as the No. 8 seed three years ago.
But Griffin’s presence — as well as the arrival of Casey, the reigning NBA coach of the year — does make Detroit a bit of a wild card, even if the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are calling the bluff. (The over-under on the Pistons’ win total this season was 37.5, for what it’s worth.)
The Pistons were ninth in the Eastern Conference last season at 39-43 overall, four games out of a playoff spot.
John Niyo and Rod Beard preview the 2018-19 Pistons under new coach Dwane Casey. The Detroit News
And while that finish ultimately spelled the end to Stan Van Gundy’s tenure in Detroit, that late-January trade for Griffin remains the impetus for all the optimism this fall.
Detroit’s remodeled Big Three — Griffin, Drummond and Reggie Jackson — only played a total of four games together due to injuries last season.
So there’s some upside there, absolutely, especially if all the all-for-one, threes-for-all freedom Casey is promising pays off on the floor.
Jackson looks ready
Jackson, who missed 37 games with a severe ankle injury, took it slow through training camp and the preseason. But the Pistons’ point guard appears ready to go as the season tips off against Brooklyn tonight at Little Casears Arena. So does Griffin, who has missed 20-plus games each of the last three seasons but looks and sounds rejuvenated coming off a rare healthy summer.
“I mean, it’s important — I take a lot of responsibility,” said Griffin, who looked dominant in the preseason finale with 29 points and five assists in 25 minutes against Cleveland.
“I’ve had a summer where I did get to work on my game and work on a lot of things I wanted to, so I’m excited to showcase that this year.”
His offseason workout regimen had both Stefanski and Casey raving about the veteran’s no-nonsense, detail-oriented approach, something they hope is contagious.
Particularly when it comes to Drummond, the enigmatic center who has developed a solid relationship with Griffin over the last several months.
“I think it’s huge,” Casey said. “Just the fact that he sees Blake is a professional, and he sees how he carries himself, how he does his work, how serious and meticulous he is about getting things done exactly the right way.”
Lofty role model
That’s the sort of behavior modeling that was mostly missing early in Drummond’s career, at least from players of Griffin’s caliber.
The list of Pistons All-Stars over the last decade is a short one: It’s Drummond and … no one else going all the way back to Allen Iverson’s ill-fated, six-month stint in Detroit.
And if you go back and look at the veterans who surrounded Drummond as a 19- and 20-year-old, you’ll find a Hall of Fame cast of characters that’d make most coaches cringe: Josh Smith, Charlie Villanueva, Rodney Stuckey, Jason Maxiell, and so on.
Griffin carries his own baggage from earlier in his career in Los Angeles, but that only adds weight to his words now, at least in theory, as a four-time All-NBA selection who understands as well as anyone the perks and perils of fame.
And as Casey told me the other day, “When Blake speaks, Andre listens.”
“Hopefully, I do nothing but help him,” Griffin adds, “but he’s already on his way.”
Where this all leads, we’ll find out soon enough. But starting tonight, it’s time to try out some new material and see how everyone reacts.