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Blake Griffin Was A Luxury Pickup. Now The Nets Need Him.

After taking a buyout from the Detroit Pistons in March, Blake Griffin’s very first field goal for the Brooklyn Nets was a dunk. That might not have been remarkable for the Lob City version of Griffin, who led the league in dunks in both 2011-12 and 2012-13, but it was quite a spectacle for the 2020-21 iteration; Griffin had last dunked in an NBA game in 2019. Even Fast Eddie Felson would have been proud of that hustle.

Buyout players like Griffin generally give back some money to their noncompetitive teams in exchange for being allowed to sign with a team that’s on a playoff push. Those more competitive teams, meanwhile, hope that buyout players will contribute when they have something meaningful to play for. But a buyout player — who is generally a veteran whose goals differ from his team’s —  is rarely asked to be a driving force for the team he joined. Griffin hasn’t just filled minutes for the Nets; he’s played a vital role — and they need him now more than ever. 

With Kyrie Irving joining James Harden among the injured Nets, the team’s three superstars have been reduced to just one.1 Kevin Durant has shown that he’s back to his old MVP ways, and he’ll shoulder the bulk of load as long as his fellow stars are out. But how effectively Griffin can fill the gaps may determine whether the team can get past the Milwaukee Bucks and realize its title dreams.

In his previous life as a superstar with the Lob City Clippers, Griffin was an offensive dynamo. For the first nine seasons of his career, he averaged fewer than 20 points a game only once, in 2012-13. As a rookie, he made more shots than anyone at the rim. For six of his first seven seasons, he was in the 90th percentile or better in terms of on/off differential as measured by points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. He once dunked so hard that it turned an opponent’s name into a verb

During his later years in Detroit, injuries and a clogged offensive system sapped Griffin of much of his explosiveness, but his individual abilities didn’t evaporate. Despite not touching the ball as much as he did with his previous teams, he remains an exceptional passer, with the Nets shooting 5.7 percent better than expected after a pass from Griffin, per Second Spectrum — a  figure in line with his better seasons with the Clippers. He’s leaned into that skill, becoming more of a connector than the relative ball-stopper he became in Los Angeles and Detroit.

Blake Griffin is making faster decisions in Brooklyn

Average dribbles and points per touch in the regular season — and average length of each touch — by season and team for Blake Griffin, since 2013-14

Per touch
Season Team Avg. touch length Points Dribbles
2013-14 L.A. Clippers 2.06 secs 1.01 0.88
2020-21 Brooklyn Nets 2.13 1.08 1.03
2014-15 L.A. Clippers 2.19 1.03 1.07
2015-16 L.A. Clippers 2.35 0.96 1.25
2016-17 L.A. Clippers 2.45 1.05 1.38
2017-18 Detroit Pistons 2.79 0.96 1.80
2020-21 Detroit Pistons 2.93 0.93 1.87
2019-20 Detroit Pistons 2.75 0.94 1.93
2017-18 L.A. Clippers 2.84 0.98 2.06
2018-19 Detroit Pistons 3.25 0.98 2.37

Source: Second Spectrum

That Griffin doesn’t have to hold the ball for long when he touches it is because the lane has been so often open upon his catch. His superstar teammates create the advantages; he just converts them, whether by high-calorie passes or easy finishes. He’s turned back the clock and started dunking more because his new teammates occupy so much defensive attention.

Griffin’s regular-season on/off differential per 100 possessions was the largest of any current Net, and his best-ever shooting from 2-point range has come in Brooklyn, at 57.4 percent. (It helps that he’s taking the fewest midrange shots of his career.) Furthermore, the only time he surpassed his 38.3 percent accuracy from deep in Brooklyn was in 2014-15, when he attempted 25 threes all season, compared with the 81 he took in 26 games in the regular season with the Nets. These are all small sample sizes, and Griffin’s success could be explained as just a hot streak. But if it’s just a hot streak, he’s kept it up: He’s shooting similarly from 3-point range in the playoffs and even better on 2-pointers.

Some of the changes to the context in which he plays work in his favor. After spending the vast majority of his career playing power forward, Griffin spent a career-high 40 percent of his minutes as the Nets’ center in the regular season. That share is up to 94 percent in the playoffs. He’s able to play center because of his attention to detail; for example, Griffin is making contact on a career-high 74.2 percent of his screens since joining the Nets, which was a top-10 mark among forwards or centers this year, per Second Spectrum. As his team’s only traditional big on the floor, his passing, shooting and quick decision-making become more pointed assets. The Nets shoot 7.8 percent more threes with him on the court and make 6.7 percent more, and both on/off rates are team-highs. 

After Irving left Game 4 midway through the second quarter, Griffin seemed to give the Nets a punch with a few buckets that showed nifty footwork and his incredible athleticism. Yet he played little for the rest of the game and didn’t see the court in the fourth, as head coach Steve Nash wanted instead to “play small a little more.” With Jeff Green available for the first time in the series, Nash does have other options at the big positions. But Griffin has been relied on already to create his own looks: Among healthy rotation players for Brooklyn, Griffin ranks third in share of his field goals that are unassisted in the playoffs, behind only Mike James and Durant. Griffin may not play more minutes with Green in the fold, but during the minutes he does play, he’ll have to create more advantages for himself than he did with Irving healthy.

Despite the Nets’ injuries, Griffin will likely still have more spacing within which to work than he did in Detroit. With the Pistons, he only ever played with one player, at most, in any single season who attempted five or more threes per game and connected on 40 percent or better.2 The Nets boast two such players in Joe Harris and Durant. (Irving, once healthy, makes three.) Brooklyn’s remaining star in Durant can and will do more for the Nets, but Griffin will have to slide up in the pecking order when he’s on the floor. There are reasons to think he’ll be able to do so.

No matter what, Griffin will earn his minutes because of his defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Though Griffin has never been considered a defensive stopper,3 his teams have more often than not been better at that end with him playing than on the bench. And due to his size, strength and general positional intuitiveness, Griffin — who has had the largest on/off defensive impact on the Nets in the playoffs — has been the lodestone brick in the wall that the Nets have built to contain Antetokounmpo.

When Griffin has been the closest defender to Antetokounmpo, per Second Spectrum, the latter has an effective field-goal percentage of 55 percent — 5 percentage points lower than his regular-season percentage — and has an average shot distance more than 2 feet farther from the rim. That’s almost as wide a gulf as Griffin gives Antetokounmpo to shoot his threes. 

Griffin isn’t tasked with containing Antetokounmpo alone. As predicted, Griffin has been the first of many asked to guard Antetokounmpo throughout a game. But he’s done the task for longer than expected — increasing his minutes per game from 23.0 to 28.9 in the series — and he’s been solid enough to frustrate the two-time MVP. Irving’s absence won’t change Griffin’s defensive significance in the series, which on its own is a larger task than buyout players are supposed to undertake. 

Griffin may not be the high flyer he once was, but he has molded his game to fit his new surroundings. His success doing so has made him exceptional for a buyout player. If the Nets are going to survive their new situation against a playoff-ready Bucks team, Griffin will have an even larger part to play. He’s been unique; now he has to be even better. 

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The Nets have officially ruled Irving out for Game 5, while Harden is doubtful to play.

  2. Tobias Harris in 2017-18, Svi Mykhailiuk in 2019-20 and Wayne Ellington in 2020-21.

  3. Griffin has never received a vote for Defensive Player of the Year.

Louis Zatzman is a freelance writer living in Toronto. He is a staff writer at Raptors Republic, a freelance contributor to CBC Sports and Sportsnet, and co-host of the weekly newsletter Minute Basketball.

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