Blake Griffin’s triumphant return and why we never should have doubted

Jun 5, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets power forward Blake Griffin (2) knocks the ball away from Milwaukee Bucks center Bobby Portis (9) during the second quarter of game one in the Eastern Conference semifinals of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin scored 18 points and had 14 rebounds in his return to second-round playoff action. The last time he played in the second round of the NBA playoffs was as a “Lob City” member in Los Angeles. As the Brooklyn Nets look towards a deep playoff run, Griffin spends his time proving he is a crucial player. Griffin makes the hustle plays that win games. He hits open threes. He rebounds the ball at a decent rate against teams with size to combat him. Blake is doing many things that made him an impactful superstar in the mid-2010s.

If everything above is correct, why did every pundit and podcast host call Griffin washed up? Was Blake Griffin’s athleticism really gone, or was he simply hiding it? As it turns out, Griffin and the Nets may have pulled a fast one over on NBA fans as a whole. To understand why Blake is suddenly such an impactful player for the Nets, we must travel back to the peak of Lob City. To comprehend the future, we need only to study the past.

The ascent of Blake Griffin

Mar 27, 2009; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma Sooners forward Blake Griffin (23) shoots as Syracuse Orange forward Arinze Onuaku (21) and Eric Devendorf (23) defend in the Sooners 84-71 victory against the Orange in the semifinals of the south region of the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament at the FedEx Forum. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin was the number one overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft. He missed the entirety of his first season due to a knee injury. The grass only got greener from there. In his rookie season, he would be an All-Star and win rookie of the year. Griffin quickly became anointed as one of the most brilliantly athletic stars we had in the NBA at the time. He would join an elite class of freakish athletes led by Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.

Griffin and his elite athleticism would be joined in his sophomore season by Chris “Point God” Paul. With some help from DeAndre Jordan, the pairing would form Lob City and begin their rise up the NBA standings.

Lob City takes over

Dec 21, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) and power forward Blake Griffin (32) high five in the second half of the game against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. The Clippers won 112-91. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012 the Clippers would be swept in the second round of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs. Griffin personally had three poor games of the four they lost. Chris Paul ate most of the heat the media piled on the Clippers. However, the team became heavily praised as a young, rising team that just needed a few more support pieces to be genuine threats to the powerhouses in the NBA.

Blake Griffin kept making All-Star and All-Pro teams. He dunked over a Kia. Griffin and Lob City were the closest thing the NBA had to the “Greatest Show on Turf.” A slip would happen against the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013. After that, the Clippers would become a favorite to make it out of the West.

In 2013-2014 Griffin would have his best season. Blake would average 24/9/4 on his way to finishing third in MVP voting behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant. The Clippers finished third in the West. They would take down a young Steph Curry and the Warriors en route to a much-anticipated matchup against the two-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. Regular season MVP Kevin Durant lead the Thunder to a six-game series win.

The highs had been so full of potential. Something was missing from the Clippers. Blake was as exciting a superstar as we had seen. Chris Paul did things few point guards had ever done. The supporting cast played about as well as you could hope. That next year felt as crucial for them as any year prior felt for the fate of any team in a significant chunk of time. The Clippers, and Blake Griffin, needed 2014-2015 to be the year they took the leap.

The Fall

Apr 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) reacts in the closing minutes in game four of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports
Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Blake would take a step back during the 2014-2015 season. An injury would force him to miss 15 games. Lob City was still around, but it was missing something. The disappointment of the previous season seeped through the pores of the team. Blake was brilliant in flashes but no longer established himself as the consistent force he had been in years prior. At 25 years old, Griffin looked like he was a 31-year-old power forward at the tail end of his prime. The way he played, Griffin was always going to have a faster decline than most, but few saw the decline coming so soon.

The Playoffs rolled around, and all seemed calm on the waters. Rumors trickled out of the locker room that Paul was discontent and Griffin was a poor teammate, yet the team once again finished in third place, missing out on the second seed because of a tiebreaker. Griffin was averaging 22/7/5 for the season. His scoring numbers were a bit down, but he became a better distributer. His player efficiency rating and his value over replacement both took small dips, yet his offensive box plus/minus stayed the exact same. Griffin rounded his game out in a way you would want your now veteran All-NBA center to do.

Unfortunately, the Clippers would meet the same fate for the second season running. After a hard-fought comeback win in a seven-game series against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, the Clippers would blow a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets.

Blake Griffin would watch from the sideline as the next two years the Clippers got eliminated from the playoffs with Griffin sustaining injuries mid-series. After the 2016-2017 season, Chris Paul left Los Angeles for the Houston Rockets, and Deandre Jordan moved on to the Dallas Mavericks.

Blake, the shooter

Oct 31, 2018; Brooklyn, NY, USA; Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie (8) blocks a shot by Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) in overtime at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports
 Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Blake Griffin spent much of the second half of his sidelined with injuries. Between 2015 and 2019, he played more than 61 games only once. The injuries Griffin sustained were mainly to the lower half of his body. That level of lower body trauma forced him to adapt the way he played. In the 2016-2017 NBA season, Griffin shot 1.9 three-point attempts per game. It was his career-high by 1.3 attempts per game. He shot 33% on those attempts. From that point forward, the lowest rate of three-point shots Griffin took was 4.5 attempts per game. That number comes from this season. Blakes’s best season as a three-point shooter, when averaging more than one attempt per game, came in his last All-Star season, 2018-2019. He shot the ball at a 36% clip.

Griffin is not a sharpshooter. But he shows when the ball gets into his hands in a wide-open position, he can knock down shots. Griffin’s shooting numbers paired nicely with his decline in dunks. In 2013-2014 he dunked the ball 176 times. That number fell to 84 the following year. However, even with declining dunk numbers, Griffin averaged more than one dunk per game until the 2017-2018 season. Griffin’s move to the Detroit Pistons sealed his fate as someone unwilling or unable to make those splash plays anymore.

Blake Griffin managed 55 dunks in Detroit, making his percentage of field goal attempts that were dunks just 2.8 percent. In Los Angeles, that rate never dipped below five percent for a season. Griffin’s game completely shifted from high flying offense and tough-nosed rebounding to a shooter that could pass the ball a little better than expected, and so the doubt crept into all of our minds.

“Old man” Blake Griffin

Oct 9, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin (23) gets held by Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic (51) during the third quarter at Little Caesars Arena. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

With the rapid decline of Blake Griffin’s physical capabilities, so to did the playoff aspirations of his dissipate. Griffin made the playoffs once after his trade to Detroit, and they were swept out of the first round. Blake looked like a player trapped in a city he wanted to leave immediately. The fans booed him, the injuries took their toll, and before long, Griffin made it known he wanted out.

In his last season and a half in Detroit, Griffin averaged less than 15 points per game, had a sub 37 percent field goal percentage, and shot below 25 percent of his field-goal attempts from inside three feet. Griffin looked like an older, veteran player whose best days were long since past. Every sports television analyst used the phrase “washed up” to describe Griffin over the past year and a half.

In their defense, he looked like he was. Then the move to Brooklyn happened and shocked nobody. The buyout mostly received praise in Brooklyn’s direction. Albeit, most saw it as a primarily inconsequential move that may help the Nets with their size. However, every pundit missed two crucial factors when determining if Griffin’s career could still be something in Brooklyn.

Why the resurgence happened

May 25, 2021; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets power forward Blake Griffin (2) dunks against Boston Celtics center Robert Williams III (44) during the third quarter of game two of the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The number one thing people missed when talking about Griffin was the slow rebuilding of his game. This whole article is built around laying out his path to a brand new style of play, from dunking at every chance to knowing when to shoot the ball from range. He transitioned from flying in towards the glass for every rebound to boxing out and helping teammates get boards when he cannot.

Blake Griffin changed his entire style of play to accommodate the way successful basketball teams win games. Nobody could fully see this because he was doing this for a franchise headed nowhere. This point very neatly leads to the second reason most people thought Griffin’s career as an impact player was over. He wasn’t happy.

Player happiness largely gets undervalued in sports. The Brooklyn Nets alone provided an outlet for two different players to rediscover the joys of playing competitive basketball. Griffin spent the early portion of his career building a franchise up, becoming a cornerstone of a franchise with championship aspirations. Playing for a downtrodden Pistons team heading nowhere but the bottom of the league was doing nothing for Griffin, the person.

Griffin would not risk reinjuring himself for a team he felt did not want to achieve the same things he wanted to achieve.

Blake has now settled into his role as a hustle guy, starting center for a Brooklyn Nets team that looks like inevitable NBA champions. Griffin looks better than he has since 2018-2019. Every single one of us should have seen the writing on the wall because the case laid bare right out in the open.

Leave a Comment