NBA basketball, like most professional sports, is constantly mutating. Stylistic revolutions are followed by counterrevolutions and the exploitation of newly realized inefficiencies; players' bodies and habits change, as does accepted wisdom. Disruption has become the norm.
In the past few years, the league's changed at a breakneck pace, and for the players who populate it, it's been adapt or die. Speed, defensive versatility, passing, and 3-point shooting have become virtual musts. Increasingly few players can get by without some combination of those skills.
Blake Griffin seemed like the kind of player who might get left behind by these rapid shifts. His waning explosiveness sapped him of his biggest weapon. He was no longer the straight-line-driving rim-runner who could burn past or fly above a defense; gone was the devastating dive man who could suck in defenders with vertical gravity. He developed high-end ball skills and passing chops to compensate, and he still had the muscle to be a battering ram in the post, but in a downsizing league, he didn't possess the length and rim protection to credibly play the five, while lacking the stretchability demanded of modern fours.
He could still be productive, but he wasn't doing it with the efficiency expected of today's tentpole stars. He was adapting, but not quickly enough. After signing a five-year max with the LA Clippers, he was shipped to the Detroit Pistons almost as soon as he became eligible to be traded. Conversations about him veered away from his play and toward his bloated contract. In a blink, a superstar began to look like a relic.
It's too soon to draw sweeping conclusions, but Griffin appears to be rerouting that course in 2018-19. He's started the season like a house afire and seized the league's attention with a 50-point, 14-rebound, six-assist masterpiece in a 133-132 overtime win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Through three games, he's averaging 36.3, 11.3, and 5.7 while shooting 61.1 percent from beyond the arc (on six attempts per game) for the 3-0 Pistons.
He won't keep shooting better than 60 percent from deep, of course, but for a career 33.2-percent 3-point shooter, the early signs are mighty encouraging. He's looked more comfortable and more willing from that range, particularly off the dribble. Twelve of his 18 attempts and seven of his 11 makes have come off the bounce this season. Only nine players are shooting more pull-up threes per game, and no player has shot them with Griffin's combination of volume and accuracy.
That's a potential game-changer, but it only tells part of the story. Head coach Dwane Casey has Detroit playing a more up-tempo, read-and-react style, and within that system, Griffin looks more confident, more decisive, and more purposeful. (Griffin said Casey told him to make a read on the final play of the overtime against Philly, which became the show-and-go drive and game-winning and-1 layup.) There's less futzing around and methodically probing on the perimeter; he just sizes up his defender and immediately gets to the block to throw his weight around, usually before a double team has a chance to arrive.
He's become expert at creating space and angles down low with dipped shoulders and quick spin moves. Griffin may not work as a small-ball center, but that doesn't have to be a bad thing, especially if his newfound distance shooting is remotely legitimate. If he can be a genuine dual threat, not many defenders can guard him both inside and out. On Tuesday, he kept Joel Embiid on his heels with pull-up threes above the break, and he went through Dario Saric, Mike Muscala, Amir Johnson, and Robert Covington with a temerity that bordered on contempt.
Like every team in the league, Detroit is playing up-and-down, running off misses and makes alike (they rank just 25th in the league in pace, but are playing about four possessions per game faster than they did last year). That's benefited Griffin in a couple of ways. First, it's been a significant factor in his ability to create those deep-post, one-on-one opportunities. The Pistons typically have him bring the ball up the floor, and it's easier for him to establish deep position against a scrambled defense that's still trying to find its matchups.
Nor does he look worse the wear for all that end-to-end action. He hasn't been picking up his dribble early or settling for the kind of bad shots that fatigue often induces. He's been determined to avoid being stranded in no-man's land, and that's helped him excise a lot of long twos from his diet. Of his 50 points against Philly, 44 came either at the rim, from 3-point range, or from the free-throw line. He's averaging 10.3 attempts in the restricted area this season after averaging just 4.5 such attempts following the trade last season.
Having Griffin rip and run also puts his passing and ballhandling to its best use, and allows him to explore his open-court creativity. It lets him do stuff like this:
Oh, yeah, and this:
Rare instances like that one aside, at this point Griffin is almost entirely a below-the-rim player. The Pistons run hardly any actions that use him as the roll man. Far more frequently, he's used as the pick-and-roll ball-handler. (Remarkably, despite a 32.4-percent usage rate, he's committed just two turnovers through three games.) If he is used as a screener, it's mostly in dribble handoffs, sometimes to free up a shooter but more often simply to get Griffin a mismatch. Occasionally, they'll have him pick and pop, but again, the majority of his threes are coming off the bounce.
Though he's been trending in this direction for a while, this level of point-guardian self-creation was hard to foresee. Only 25 percent of Griffin's baskets this season have been assisted. Last year, that number was 45.9 percent. In his last full season with the Clippers, it was 53.7 percent. The year before that: 64.1 percent. So, while Griffin certainly seems to have rediscovered his All-Star form, it doesn't really make sense to say he's "back." It would be more accurate to say he's evolved.
One significant caveat: He is still mostly ineffectual on defense. He doesn't really get off the floor to challenge shots, he's a complete non-factor defending at the rim, and he isn't a particularly tuned-in help defender.
He also has a habit of ball-watching and losing track of his assignment. He let Saric get free for a handful of open 3-point looks Tuesday, including one that could've ended the game in regulation.
But it's hard to nitpick when, at the offensive end, Griffin is playing like a fully realized version of Ben Simmons, one who can actually keep defenses honest with his jumper. Last season, the NBA looked like it was passing Griffin by. It may be early, but with the help of a "scientific" offseason regimen, Griffin seems to have caught up - and then some.