The end seems closer than ever for Blake Griffin but what happens between now and then is still very much an open question.
The Detroit Pistons are, once again, not a very good team. They have the worst record in the Eastern Conference and in spite of Jerami Grant putting up big numbers and Mason Plumlee finally getting that triple-double, there are not many reasons for optimism in Detroit. Making things worse, and muddying the team’s present and future, is the issue that Blake Griffin, the only former All-Star on the roster and easily the team’s highest-paid player, has not been good. Twenty games into his season, the Pistons have stopped playing Griffin as the team tries to figure out if they can find a way to trade him or buy him out and enter a rebuilding stage in earnest.
The Clippers sold high on Blake Griffin in 2018, just months after signing him to a massive extension, a signing preceded by all sorts of pomp and circumstance including a mock jersey retirement ceremony. The Pistons were eager to make the playoffs again after only doing so once since the 2008-09 season and coach/GM Stan Van Gundy was desperate to hang on to his job. It didn’t really work. Van Gundy was fired mere months after acquiring Griffin and the Pistons only made the postseason once with Griffin on board. Even then, they were swept by the Bucks in a series that Griffin was only able to play two games in.
What does the future hold for Blake Griffin and the Detroit Pistons?
While the Pistons are clearly set on moving on from Griffin, doing so may be difficult. It’s near impossible to imagine a team being able to match Griffin’s salary in any potential trade without the Pistons agreeing to attach a few prospects or picks. And it’s almost as difficult to imagine Detroit being willing to do so since their eagerness to move on showcases a desire to enter a rebuilding period. Getting rid of prospects or picks would be a major step backward in pursuing that goal.
Their other option would be to buy Griffin out or waive him. Griffin is on the books for over $36 million this season and has a player option for nearly $39 million next year. Since the market for his services is not very high right now and he will not be getting another large contract once this one expires, there is no reason for him to give up that money. For a buyout to work, the Pistons would almost certainly have to pay up tens of millions of dollars or stretch and waive him as they did with Josh Smith in 2014. The Pistons may have some options, but none of them seem to be good ones.
To say that Griffin relied solely on his athleticism to become an All-NBA player undersells just how talented and diverse his game eventually became, but it was his speed, agility, and leaping ability that set him apart. He was too fast for other big men to stop and too big for smaller defenders. But he was also a good passer for his position, and gradually extended his range enough to become a fine mid-range and then 3-point shooter.
Yet without his burst, his shooting abilities are not quite refined enough for him to be an above-average player. So far this season, Griffin is shooting just 36 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep. His declining speed and power are seen in his shot profile as over half of his field-goal attempts are 3-pointers and he is taking a career-low 14 percent of his shots at the rim. Any team that acquired Griffin now would be adding little more than an inefficient 3-point specialist. It’s certainly possible that in a different situation, some of his old skills could again be brought out into the open. He is no longer who he once was, but perhaps in a less desultory situation than the one in Detroit, some of that old magic could be regained.
We did see a much less dynamic version of Griffin be an All-NBA player just two years ago, though when one has accumulated as many injuries as he has, two years may be a practical lifetime. He was a much better shooter that season than he has been this year and was more able to get to the rim, but there is at least a tentative blueprint for how an older version of Griffin could still be a contributor on a good team. Though whatever team acquires him will be taking a risk, betting that who he once was is a better indication of what he is now capable of than the last two seasons. It’s not the safest bet, but in light of how phenomenal he once was, it’s easy to see why a team might want to make it anyway.
It’s rare that a player gets to end their career on their own terms. For the vast majority of NBA players, there is no grand retirement announcement, just a lack of interest from teams that leads them to unceremoniously call it quits. Even for stars, their past glories are often not enough to inculcate them from a similar fate. But in a league where one’s salary often defines the expectations placed upon them, Griffin is bound to seem disappointing for as long as he is playing, or not playing as the case may currently be, on a max contract.
Even if Griffin is never able to be a reliable NBA player again, there was a glorious period where he was one of the most electrifying players in the league. His first basket was an alley-oop which symbolized much of what was to come in the following years. Throughout his first four seasons, nearly twenty percent of his field-goal attempts were dunks, and even that number somehow feels low. He was a high-flying dynamo and no matter how the final years of his career unwind, that is how he will be remembered: as a thrilling player who could dunk on anyone and, for a glorious few years, was one of the best athletes in NBA history.