It's Okay to Believe in Blake Griffin

The five-time All-Star is by and large no longer considered one of the NBA's very best players. His new head coach, Dwane Casey, has some different thoughts.

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Jul 20 2018, 1:30pm

Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Dwane Casey, the NBA’s reigning Coach of the Year, could’ve stepped into almost any available job he wanted, this year or next, after the Toronto Raptors fired him back in May. He chose the Detroit Pistons—a once-proud franchise that repeatedly shoots itself in the foot while boasting only one playoff appearance this decade—for two fundamental reasons.

“Other than Tom Gores selling his vision and what he sees for the Detroit Pistons...that was a selling point, to know that your owner is that invested in it,” Casey tells me. “But then two was Blake Griffin. His intelligence and the people doubting whether he’s going the other way or whatever, knowing that he had a lot more left in the tank. That was very exciting to have.”

Casey did not personally know his new team’s most important player before he was hired in June, so he reached out to those who do—including several of Griffin’s former coaches, his agent, and mutual friend Jamal Crawford—before quickly establishing a consistent line of communication. They talked on-court strategy, off-court vision, and the importance of enthusiastic leadership, an overlooked yet vital characteristic every franchise player needs to personify. This summer, Griffin helped organize a conditioning program for the Pistons out in Las Vegas, while spending time with other teammates in Los Angeles. “He’s instrumental to setting the tone as the first one in,” Casey says.

But for a team that’s financially congested and will emerge from this offseason without a first-round pick or significant free agent signing, so much of what Detroit will or won’t accomplish over the next couple seasons is directly correlated to what type of player Griffin can still be. He's only 29 years old—six months younger than Kevin Durant—and one of four players to average at least 21 points, seven rebounds, and five assists last season (the other three were LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and DeMarcus Cousins). But numerous health-related setbacks, and life in an evolving league that cheapens established big men, have helped splinter Griffin’s superstar status.

He's not impervious to trends—three-point shooting, uptempo offense, defensive versatility—that directly attack what made him so great five years ago. But Griffin's all-around talent, intelligence, power, and willingness to change have helped stiff-arm a looming irrelevance. Griffin is one of very few bigs that are encouraged to rumble up the floor, invert pick-and-rolls, and post up with impunity. Inside a 6’10” body with shoulder muscles that have shoulder muscles, it’s borderline revolutionary for him to see the floor as thoroughly as he does.

Some of those advantages weren’t always visible after he was traded to the Pistons, where his timing with teammates (particularly Andre Drummond) was off more than on. The circumstances wouldn't have been easy for anyone, though. When the shocking trade happened, back in January, Griffin climbed aboard a disappointing team that was in the middle of an eight-game losing streak. The ride should be less bumpy coming out of an organized training camp this fall.

“My goal for him is to be the best passing power forward in the league, which he can do,” Casey says. “People look at Draymond Green, they look at all these other guys—point fives and point fours. Blake can be a prototypical point four because he’s very intelligent, he has great passing skills. What’d he average last year? 6.5 assists per game with the Pistons? There are a lot of ways to measure success beyond just points, and Blake has the ability to do that.”

But being a great passer by itself isn’t enough to elevate the Pistons and lead them where they want to go. More relevant skills are necessary. Heading into last year, Griffin had attempted 268 threes in his entire career, and only 29 percent of them went in. During the 2017-18 season (in just 58 games with Detroit and the Los Angeles Clippers), Griffin launched 322 threes and made 34.5 percent of them. His attempts per 36 minutes tripled compared to the previous season, and he was one of ten players in the league his size or taller to attempt that many shots from beyond the arc. But even more impressive and important was how Griffin leveraged his newfound threat to vandalize other parts of the defense. Opponents suddenly needed to respect him from outside, and he knew it.

The $142.3 million headed his way over the next four seasons is payroll homicide, but debating Griffin’s place in the league remains worthwhile. When healthy, is he still one of the world’s 15 best players? For some, this question might as well be sponsored by Absolut. To others, it’s a best-case scenario. In Detroit, it’s everything.

“There are questions around the league, whether he’s going the other way, and I don’t anticipate that whatsoever,” Casey says. "I don’t see anything but him being in the top echelon, whether it’s top-10, top-15 players. I would say that he’s in that group."

Griffin’s 2017-18 season was filled with change, (more) health problems, and the bleak possibility that his best days might officially reside in the rearview mirror. After the trade to Detroit, he averaged the fewest points per shot attempt and lowest two-point field goal percentage of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s a decline that was largely thanks to him only taking 30 percent of his shots at the rim (during his last full season in Los Angeles that number was 47 percent!), and even though a majority of his long twos were replaced by threes, neither shot was close to efficient.

But add context to the conversation and there are several reasons why it’s OK to think Griffin can reassert himself as an upscale commodity. What first pops out looking back at his perception-changing season is how elusive easy baskets became. Griffin used to make NBA dominance look easier than a thumb-scroll through Instagram. That reality didn’t exist in Detroit, where he suddenly had to adjust to new surroundings, teammates, and structure.

Too often, Griffin decided what to do well before he analyzed the defense. The incentive to rush never revealed itself, but unnecessary step-backs and 18-foot jumpers were a frequent sore spot; instead of taking his time to survey the floor and flow into the next action, Griffin acted like his jump shots were a compromise between his body’s long-term wellness and disheartening field goal percentage. That should change in year two, with more confidence, trust, and familiarity.

But the next explanation for Griffin’s struggle might also be his depressing legacy: injuries. While still on the Clippers, he missed all of December (14 games) after Austin Rivers crashed into his left knee while trying to recover a loose ball. About a month later he suffered a concussion against the Golden State Warriors, then sat out the season’s final eight games with a bruised ankle.

Injuries have been a fickle foe throughout Griffin’s career, and the ones suffered last season (and before it) have sapped some of the essential, springy violence from his game. The possibility that more will come can't be dismissed, either. He was an All-Star in the first five years of his career, but now, heading into his ninth season, Griffin hasn’t been back since. Sometimes the damage is self-inflicted. Sometimes it’s the result of a freak on-court accident. But instead of recovering with physical therapy or rest—a theme from recent summers—Griffin is currently in the gym, working on various aspects of his game, training with teammates, and trying to establish a useful rhythm to prepare for the most challenging and uncertain season of his career.

“Health has to be our friend,” Casey says.

Beyond that, the third and most important reason to excuse most of Griffin’s substandard play in a Pistons jersey has to be the fact that his teammates weren’t very good. Reggie Jackson, Detroit’s sole creator, was hampered by a sprained ankle and spent a grand total of 47 minutes by his side, which helped turn most pick-and-rolls into a discombobulated disaster. Griffin made a grotesque 36.6 percent of his shots as a roll man where, according to Synergy Sports, he only finished ten plays actually rolling to the basket while 80.8 percent of the time he’d pop after setting a screen.

Here’s a situation where, with the left side of the floor cleared out and Zach Randolph scampering over to plug up Reggie Bullock’s penetration, a simple pocket pass would give Griffin the advantage he needs to capitalize on the move, and force Willie Cauley-Stein to either come off Drummond or surrender an easy two. But Bullock’s hesitation lets Randolph recover in time to force a long two.

As a way to afford some more space and time, the Pistons liked to set screens for the screener (Griffin) and muddy his defender’s path. Sometimes this worked, but poor outside shooting and (more) hesitant point guard play made it difficult for Griffin to do anything positive.

Casey knows cultivating familiarity within the roster will take time, and even though the team is expected to qualify for the playoffs, there’s no magic formula that will make his three best players 100 percent comfortable with one another on opening night. “That’s the biggest challenge,” Casey says. “Getting them to click.”

He and Griffin have discussed how Detroit will function on both sides of the ball, and the success Casey had in Toronto with lineups that featured Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas makes him optimistic about staying big. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Raptors were dynamite on offense when those two shared the floor. Of course, the Pistons won’t have explosive three-guard lineups that were propped up by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and in 1207 possessions of Griffin/Drummond bully-ball, the Pistons really struggled to score. Outside shooting is still an issue, but Casey is confident.

“We molded our offensive approach and our defensive approach to fit [Valanciunas and Ibaka’s] skill-sets, and it’s similar to what we have in Detroit,” he says. “And I would say Blake is a better ball handler—more of a point four, point five—than Serge was." Drummond also emerged last year as someone who can run decent offense high on the floor.

Casey doesn't anticipate Griffin playing too many minutes at the five—nobody forget about Zaza Pachulia!—but that feels like a fluid situation right now; lineups that pit him there with Jackson, Luke Kennard, Stanley Johnson, and either Bullock or the incoming Glenn Robinson III could have the right balance of defensive versatility, outside shooting, and unselfishness to work.

For Griffin, a return to the All-Star game (as a representative from the lesser conference) would be a step in the right direction, but not enough by itself for him to viewed the same way he used to—like, say, during the 2015 playoffs, when he was a balletic jackhammer who moonlighted as the best player on the planet.

Consistent three-point shooting, defensive tenacity (Griffin's teams have actually been pretty good on that end with him on the court over the past few years), and an ability to make life easier for teammates—whether it be directing offense from the elbows or drawing two defenders from the post—are now all requirements for him to be as effective as he once was.

Casey believes in Griffin, and his expectations are higher than most. “I’m excited, recharged, rejuvenated and all the other adjectives you want to say because of Blake and the rest of the group that we have.”

Maybe they should be.