Pistons' Blake Griffin recovers place among NBA's elite
With a few days of relaxation and recharging ahead of them, many of the Pistons lingered around the visitors’ locker room in Boston's TD Garden on Wednesday night, ready to go in different directions after the flight back to Detroit.
As the temperature in Boston hovered around 30 degrees, they had visions of warmer weather in exotic Caribbean islands or the Mexican Riviera. The five-day NBA All-Star break is a respite for the Pistons, who are able to get away and clear their minds before the final flurry of 26 games in the regular season.
Not for Blake Griffin.
His happy place this weekend will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he’ll join the league’s elite players for his sixth All-Star Game — and his first since 2015. This season, Griffin has shown that he belongs among the league’s elite, maybe even more than he did in the selections in his first five seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers.
In his first full season with the Pistons, Griffin is posting the highest scoring average of his career: 26.3 points, to go along with 8.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. He’s in his ninth season, but Griffin is healthy, turning back the clock and defying the critics who said he was injury-prone and hurtling toward the downside of his career.
He always thought of the injuries as short-term obstacles and that he could get back to where he was — maybe not to an elite level again, but at least to be a consistent, high-level player.
“As a player, you always believe in yourself," Griffin said this week. "I don’t really think in terms (of getting back to the All-Star Game), but I knew I had another level to go to and being healthy was part of that. At the beginning of the year, my goal isn’t to only make the All-Star team — it’s much more than that.”
While many other players were enjoying the summer break with light drills and work, Griffin developed an intensive workout regimen that included a team of trainers to help get him stronger and to work at transforming his game from being a grinding big man in the post to becoming a perimeter presence.
“I work as hard as I can and take care of my body the best that I can. I watch what I eat and I have my trainers. It’s a full-time job for me,” Griffin said. “For me, it wasn’t an if (I’d get back to being healthy); it was a when.
“I had some unfortunate luck on some of (the injuries); some were just out of nowhere. Even last year, somebody rolled into my leg and I sprained my MCL and missed games. That was the only real injury I had last year.”
‘Worth the risk’
The Pistons, in their desire to get an elite player, traded with the Clippers to get Griffin — in many ways thinking that even with his maladies, Griffin still could become their best player. With that, they took on his massive contract, for five years and $173 million — and the injury concerns.
Griffin, though, has missed just two games this season — both planned because they were the second game of a back-to-back — and has been healthy, for the most part, aside from the normal issues in the grind of a long season.
There were the doubters who said that Griffin, 29, would never get back to his highlight-reel form; he once famously jumped over a car in the NBA slam dunk contest. At the time, the Pistons recognized the inherent risk in making such a big deal with so many question marks.
“Obviously, there’s some risk involved. If there were no risk involved, if Blake didn’t have any injury history, he wouldn’t be available,” then-Pistons president Stan Van Gundy said after the trade last January, when the Pistons sent the Clippers Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first-round draft pick and a 2019 second-round pick.
Pistons owner Tom Gores echoed the sentiment at the time: “We also did look at the injuries and understood Blake works very hard; he has a very regimented training program. He takes care of his body and some of the injuries are a little fluky, and we subtracted some of that and looked at his whole body of work.
“We know basketball is a game full of risks. After our assessment, it was really clear he was worth the risk and his character and discipline in taking care of his body will show him to be a player for a long time.”
When coach Dwane Casey arrived this season, he thought he knew what to expect from Griffin, having coached against him for multiple seasons. Seeing things up close has made Casey more of a believer; he has structured much of the offense around Griffin and utilizes his multi-faceted skill set.
“He does so many things," Casey said this week. “His basketball intellect is the most impressive of our players. I didn’t know that about Blake because when you think about him, you think about the high-flying dunker and muscular guy in the post. There’s a lot more to that than dunking and athleticism. Just thinking the game, he’s a couple steps ahead.”
Griffin’s skill set was more than what Casey had seen previously, and Griffin has an eye on developing further into a player who can excel well into his 30s.
“(He can be a) perimeter 3-point shooter and not bang as much in the low post, and that will help extend his career,” Casey said. “He’s a smart young man and has great people around him, like his workout people. There’s a lot of different things he can do to expand his game.
“Most guys at that age start finding other ways to hang around and hang on. He’s smart enough and is developing his perimeter game.”
Griffin is taking a career-high seven 3-pointers per game and connecting on a career-best 37 percent, which makes him hard to guard, even for the most versatile forwards in the NBA. That’s why he worked in the summer, shooting hundreds of 3-pointers, preparing for the slog of a long season and the high usage he’d have in so many different roles.
“It helps a lot, especially in today’s NBA, with everybody spacing the floor a little more,” Griffin said. “Playing with a guy like (Andre Drummond), who’s so effective inside, to be able to give him a little more space is a good thing. I always see guys working to expand their range, and when they do, they add years to their careers. That’s part of the thinking.”
That combination of inside-outside game has him more frequently at the free-throw line, where he’s making six free throws per game, tied for his career high.
In a short time, Griffin has become the Pistons’ most important player — now and apparently for years to come.
“He means a lot. His skill set has expanded, and he’s grown his game,” Casey said. “He’s really expanded his game to another level and it’s going to evolve even more going into next year.”
NBA All-Star Game
Tipoff: 8 p.m. Sunday, Spectrum Center, Charlotte, N.C.
Outlook: Blake Griffin is the only Pistons representative and will play on the team captained by Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Griffin is making his sixth All-Star appearance and first since 2015.