Blake Griffin is back. Sort of.
Griffin played 25 minutes on Sunday, cobbling together six points, five rebounds and four assists in a five-point win over the Washington Wizards. He looked winded and off-rhythm, as you would expect from a guy playing for the first time in more than three months. A lot has happened since he last played an NBA game.
Griffin sat out the previous 45 games, resting, rehabbing, and recovering from a torn quad and broken hand, then serving a four-game suspension for the off-court punch that caused the broken hand. During that time, the Golden State Warriors turned a 28-1 start into a 69-8 record that has them on the doorstep of the greatest regular season in NBA history. Stephen Curry has made every possession into a religious experience proving himself as, if not the best player in the league, then certainly the most impactful. And the Warriors have needed every ounce of Curry’s magic and Draymond Green’s angry brilliance to stay ahead of the San Antonio Spurs.
San Antonio has reinvented themselves this season, moderating some of their freewheeling ball movement with ploddingly efficient post play from LaMarcus Aldridge and more offensive responsibility for Kawhi Leonard, who is now, definitively, one of the best two-way players in the league. The Spurs went 39-6 while Griffin was getting his body right. Like Golden State, they have an air of the inevitable and one of the best regular season resumes ever assembled.
Two steps behind them are the Oklahoma City Thunder, who in almost any other season would be the prohibitive title favorites, featuring Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant playing perhaps as well as we’ve ever seen them. Over in the Eastern Conference the Cleveland Cavaliers have fought, griped, stumbled, subtweeted, and side-eyed their way to 55 wins. Somewhere below all that in the standings, and the Toronto Raptors if you want to be specific, are the Clippers.
Los Angeles survived Griffin’s absence. In fact, one could argue that they thrived, given the circumstances. The Clippers won 30 of the 45 games he missed, outscoring opponents by an average 6.8 points per 100 possessions. Only the Warriors and Spurs had a better point differential over that span. The team found a workaround for the enormous hole he left in their offense but there is no reasonable argument that the Clippers are better off without Griffin. They need him to hit their ceiling. However, exactly what they need from him may have changed.
It’s easy to forget how good Griffin was in last year’s playoffs — 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, along with a steal and a block per game, shooting 51.1 percent from the field. It was, without hyperbole, one of the best stretches of basketball Griffin has ever played. Chris Paul hit the series-winner to beat the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, but those playoffs belonged to Griffin. However, the memory was mostly wiped away by the Clippers’ epic three-game collapse to the Houston Rockets. Responsibility for that collapse is shared but Griffin’s portion is small — he did average 28.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in those three games, shooting 57.8 percent. The entire postseason was the flowering of Griffin’s talent, him growing into his potential, overlapping skill and athleticism.
Griffin’s career has been about evolution. He began his career as a practitioner of high-flying bully-ball. He dunked over people or powered through them, but physical force has long since stopped being the only thing driving his productivity. Over the past few years, culminating in last year’s playoffs, Griffin has undergone a steady process of small-forwardization. His average shot distance has increased every year he’s been in the league — now sitting about 4.5 feet farther than where it did as a rookie. This season and last Griffin has assisted on more than a quarter of the Clippers made baskets when he’s been on the floor. It’s a sample of just 31 games but Griffin is averaging about as many drives per game this season as Manu Ginobili, George Hill or Evan Turner.
Griffin moved towards the perimeter and evolved into this offensive fulcrum because it was really the only path forward for the Clippers. Paul was a finished product at point guard and DeAndre Jordan certainly wasn’t getting any stretchier. Griffin was young and malleable, and maximizing his talent in the middle of this Big Three meant he was the one who had to adapt. He did so beautifully.
With Griffin watching from the sidelines, the Clippers have done some adapting themselves. In his absence, offensive success meant regular worship at the altar of the Jordan-Paul pick-and-roll, with spacing around it being the focus. Lineups with Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, DeAndre Jordan, Luc Mbah A Moute, and an additional floor spacing wing — Wesley Johnson, Paul Pierce, Jamal Crawford or Jeff Green — have all destroyed opponents. In the first 30 games of the season with Griffin in the lineup, the Clippers averaged 16.4 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game. In the time he was out, that jumped to 19.7. Los Angeles also averaged about 20 fewer passes per game in the time Griffin was unavailable.
Those may seem like small changes (and counter-intuitive when paired together) but they are reflective of an offense that was simplified. Without one of their primary offensive weapons, the Clippers doubled-down on the pick-and-roll and the drive-and-kick. It worked well enough that Redick has the best true shooting percentage of his career and Chris Paul is assisting on a higher percentage of his teammates’ shots than in any season since 2008-09. That’s all well and good, but simple has a way of being easily disrupted when the playoffs start. The Clippers need another layer of offensive complexity and that’s what Griffin offers.
The obvious solution is using the rest of the regular season to try and help Blake get his legs back and get the team comfortable doing things the old way. But it’s possible that simply trying to set everything back the way it was would be a missed opportunity. These injury-forced reorganizations of team dynamic often have a way of pushing evolution in unexpected directions. It seemed obvious that Westbrook would carry the load when Durant was out last season. The degree to which he absorbed that responsibility and converted it into pure production was a revelation. Green played his way into the Warriors starting lineup before last season. There was an opening for him to seize because David Lee was injured in preseason.
The reintegration of Griffin may not inspire a team reinvention as dramatic as those but it seems possible that it could force some creativity. Right now Griffin offers talent and problems to be solved — he’s on a minute restriction at least for the rest of the regular season, he’s rusty, and his skill set could be disruptive to a recipe that’s been mostly working. There has been talk about using him at center in small ball lineups and staggering his minutes from the rest of the starters or even bringing him off the bench could be powerful. His offensive game is so disruptive to an opponent’s defense, and that effect is only exacerbated if he’s matched up against opposing bench players. Stints against bench units could theoretically preserve stretches for the floor-spacing lineups that have been so effective in his absence.
Working Griffin back into what’s already been working could mean we finally see the three-point shot become a fully utilized piece of his skill set. Griffin has dabbled — making 26 of 86 three-pointers, 32.6 percent — over the past three seasons. The success of the Clippers spread attack so far this season could be the thing that pushes Griffin behind the line and really start taking those shots at a higher volume.
The Clippers have been good this season and last season’s playoffs gave us an up close look at what their peak looks like with Griffin at the height of his powers. Neither iteration of this team is likely good enough to get past this season’s Warriors or Spurs, let alone the Thunder or Cavaliers. But the Clippers have an ace up their sleeve. They have Blake Griffin and the world of possibilities he unlocks. Change was foisted upon them when he went down and they’ll need to change again to bring him back into the fold. It could be sliding back towards the old familiar formulas, or it could be something entirely different. Evolution is messy, noisy business.
The Blake Griffin who will play out the rest of this season for the Clippers will not be the same one who began the year for them. Maybe that’s just what the doctor ordered.