Los Angeles — Blake Griffin walked off the court to cheers from the home crowd after fouling out in Game 4 of the Detroit Pistons’ first-round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks at Little Caesars Arena.
It was April 22, the last day of the season and the last time they saw that Blake Griffin, the one who seemed superhuman and had willed his way back from a knee injury. After missing the first two games of the series in Milwaukee, Griffin played the last two games and averaged 24.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the final two games.
A couple of weeks prior, Griffin had a superhuman performance with 45 points — including nine 3-pointers — against the Oklahoma City Thunder. His apex was a career-best 50 points against the Philadelphia 76ers in the third game of the season.
That was the superhero that Griffin had become last season — a must-see icon who was resurrecting his injury-riddled career in his second season with the Pistons.
But today, Griffin’s balky left knee has become his kryptonite.
In the aftermath of the best season of his career, Griffin had offseason surgery and is having his worst season, calling into question whether he can regain his mojo and help the Pistons — either this season or for the final two years of his contract.
On Monday, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that Griffin will visit a knee specialist this week in Los Angeles and that season-ending surgery is a consideration.
Griffin, who has two more years and $76 million remaining on his contract, has missed the last four games, raising concern that his persistent knee injuries are more serious and could require significant time off.
Pistons team owner Tom Gores, asked Thursday about whether the team had considered shutting Griffin down for the remainder of the season, indicated that they hadn’t made a determination, but the hope was that Griffin’s condition would improve.
“No, we're not that far, and we're just going to assess it in the next week or so,” Gores said. “He's a trooper. If he could play, you know he'd be playing, so I think we just give him a few days of rest and see what happens.”
It’s a blow to the Pistons (13-24), because most of their short-term future was built around the 30-year-old, six-time All-Star forward. Coming off Griffin’s All-NBA season, the Pistons were looking to punctuate it with new free-agent additions, including Derrick Rose and Markieff Morris, to make a deeper playoff push.
After his knee surgery, Griffin was limited in his summer workout regimen and also during the preseason. After missing the first 10 games of the regular season, he’s struggled in 18 games he’s played, with career-lows of 15.5 points and 4.7 rebounds. The Pistons have lost eight of their last 10 games and are 3.5 games behind the Orlando Magic for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Pistons face the Cavaliers in Cleveland on Tuesday and at Little Caesars Arena on Thursday before hosting the Chicago Bulls on Saturday. It’s unclear whether Griffin will be available for any of those games
“I really don’t know; that’s something that the medical people will decide,” coach Dwane Casey said last week. “As far as I know he’s just out. He's resting, so the medical people will make that decision.”
Without knowing for certain whether Griffin will miss significant time, the Pistons already have begun their youth movement, as a result of the myriad injuries. They’ve moved rookie first-round pick Sekou Doumbouya into Griffin’s starting spot and Svi Mykhailiuk is in for Luke Kennard, who has tendinitis issues in both knees and has missed the last seven games. Bruce Brown and Christian Wood also getting more significant playing time as well.
Doumbouya has excelled in his first three starts, in matchups against Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and LeBron James. In that short stint, he’s posted 12.3 points and 8.7 rebounds and has shot 33 percent on 3-pointers in 33 minutes per game. After playing mostly in the G-League and sparingly with the Pistons, Doumbouya looks to have solidified a role in the rotation for the rest of the season.
With the news last week that the Pistons are having discussions about a potential Andre Drummond trade, the signs are pointing to a rebuild of a pretty significant stature. A rebuild likely would have to be with Griffin on the roster because unloading Griffin and his massive contract won’t be easy.
The Pistons could have gotten a significant return in the offseason, but they opted to move forward to try to maximize his window of health for a big playoff run. Now, a trade seems highly unlikely because of Griffin’s injury history and lower production this season and contract numbers.
Trading for Griffin was a risk from the beginning, after he signed a five-year deal worth $173 million with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2017. He already had an injury history that many teams had balked at previously.
The Pistons took that risk under Gores and previous team president Stan Van Gundy, but now they might have to shut Griffin down and play out a season that’s unlikely to end with a playoff spot. The most likely path forward may be having Griffin sit out this season and see if he can return next season, in hopes that he can return close to the level he was at last season.
Maybe the old Blake Griffin will be able to come back. With a revamped roster and some shrewd changes by the front office, it won’t just be Griffin who could return stronger, but the Pistons squad as well.
Blake Griffin’s stats this season compared to his NBA career averages:
Points: 15.5 (21.7 career)
Rebounds: 4.7 (8.8)
Assists: 3.3 (4.4)
Field-goal percentage: 35.2 (49.8)
3-point percentage: 24.3 (33.3)
Minutes: 28.4 (34.8)
Pistons at Cavaliers
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, Cleveland
TV/radio: FSD Plus/950 AM
Outlook: The Cavaliers (10-26) have lost four straight and are going through turmoil with their All-Star Kevin Love, who is growing disenchanted with their youth movement. The Pistons (13-24) have lost eight of their last 10 games but have a bright spot in rookie Sekou Doumbouya, who has started the last three games.