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2016-17 Exit Interviews: Blake Griffin

Exit interview series moves towards its conclusion with a look at Clippers’ superstar Blake Griffin.

NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Clippers Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Name: Blake Griffin

Age: 28 (b. 3/16/89)

Key Stats: 21.6/8.1/4.9 on 49/33/76%. 61 games played. 3 playoff games, 99 minutes.

Years in NBA: 7 seasons. 16,567 minutes played, all as a Los Angeles Clipper.

2016-17 Salary: $20,140,838.

Future Contract Status: Opting out of his deal, will be an unrestricted free agent.

Summary: Sigh. Blake Griffin has had bad luck with injuries in his NBA career—to say the least. And his 2016-17 season was not only no exception, it was perhaps the most insidious and annoying sequence of mishaps to date. It’s all bad news for Griffin, the Clippers, and fans of the team, as Griffin is one of the Clippers’ pair of codependent superstars, along with Chris Paul. The Clippers have been one of the NBA’s elite teams ever since the arrival of Doc Rivers, but they are simply incapable of being at their best if Griffin and Paul aren’t playing together, and this turned out to be the case once again for a good part of the year, and in the playoffs as well. Ironically, at the time of the Clippers last, best shot at getting to the WCF and NBA glory, in the 2015 playoffs against Houston, it was Chris Paul who was banged up, while Blake Griffin was reaching new highs and playing out of his mind. We hoped to see Playoff Blake reappear this year, but no.

Ever since the Houston debacle, Griffin has suffered the initial injury yin preceding Chris Paul’s yang. Griffin’s serious quad injury in December 2015 discolored that entire season, and he was only partially recovered before he and CP went down in the same first round playoff game against Portland. Griffin’s knee injury and surgery this last December was much less significant, but it came as the Clippers had lost their early season focus and intensity, and it cast a pall on their regular season competitiveness—and then it was compounded by another CP injury, also somewhat minor, right around the time Blake was scheduled to come back. Griffin and Paul both played in 61 games this year, missing 21 games each, a full quarter of the season. The Clippers couldn’t keep up with Houston, and fell into a close race with Utah for the 4-5 slots and a first round matchup. Griffin and Paul were able to play the last 25 games of the season together, and the Clippers looked to be in good form, although they were hardly a juggernaut. And then, in the third game of the first round, Griffin suffered yet another strange but significant injury, this time to his foot. He was done for the playoffs, and was prepping for surgery as the team was falling in a dispirited game 7 loss.

The Clippers were good enough, yet again (and to a great extent due to Griffin’s outstanding all-around contributions), that they were really playing to compete in the post-season, and another ignominious first round exit, with a shocking injury, was a disaster for the Clippers and Blake Griffin in particular. Griffin and the Clippers seemed to have a good shot at answering their perennial critics as they raced out of the gate, but all the questions returned and were compounded by another strange and twisted defeat. Griffin’s actual play was excellent--see below—, but his inability to stay on the court and his playoff absence, along with his option (alongside Chris Paul) to terminate his contract have made him a lightning rod for criticism and speculation once again.

Strengths: The evolution of Blake Griffin’s game in his seven years as a pro is remarkable. Oddly enough, his many improvements and the radical changes in his style of play don’t really show up in his numbers, which have remained quite consistent. His rebounding has decreased almost every year, especially since DeAndre Jordan began to play big minutes. And Griffin’s free throw shooting has steadily improved, as he shot a career best 76% this season. Griffin’s defense showed improvement at the beginning of the season, when the Clippers were a tight-knit, stingy group, but Griffin never found the same level of defensive execution after he returned from his surgery, perhaps in part because of Chris Paul’s absence when Griffin came back. The main feature of Griffin’s game is the way he is an all-court power player, surpassed in that respect only by LeBron James. He combines ball-handling, passing, and court sense with a solid jump shot, rare strength and athleticism— and his skills, savvy, and comfort with the ball anywhere on the court continue to improve. The game has moved away from Griffin’s dominance as a power player, but he has moved along with it. Griffin tentatively extended his jump shot out to 3-point range this season, increasing his career best total by 26 made shots (38-113), and that number should continue to rise, perhaps rather dramatically, in coming seasons. Despite commentary on Griffin peaking and his athleticism beginning to diminish, as he looks ahead to a new max contract and continues his tireless hard work and extraordinary skills refinement, he could easily put together two or three career best seasons in scoring, effective fg%, free throw shooting and assists—if he can find a way to avoid injury.

Weaknesses: Aside from the primary headline about injuries, the strength and versatility of Griffin’s all-around play overwhelms most of his apparent weaknesses. And his weaknesses are further affected and masked by his teammates. Griffin could be a more ferocious rebounder, but he plays with DeAndre Jordan. He could be more effective in the 4th quarter and make big shots in crunch time, but he plays with Chris Paul. He makes a consistent effort and plays well in virtually every game, but he also seems to save an extra gear for the playoffs, as he probably should. He could still make a more focused effort on the defensive end, and in doing so he would carry the team with him (playing with CP, DJ and LRMaM, all stronger defenders). Griffin made a start on developing his 3 point shot this season, but it was just the beginning, and he’s not yet accurate enough that he shouldn’t continue to focus on getting points inside. As a free agent, Griffin has to wonder if new coaching and new teammates might not change and improve his game in some ways, but he and the Clippers play at a consistently high level, so it’s a very tough call.

Future with the Clippers: Despite rampant speculation, and all sorts of reasoning about how the Clippers are stuck and stale and their core should break itself up, initial reports seemed to suggest that both Blake Griffin and Chris Paul would sign new longterm max contracts with the team. The combination of a mounting skein of 50+ win seasons in the midst of consistently quirky (but nothing catastrophic or career threatening) injury woes isn’t shabby in any sense, especially for a franchise that struggled to achieve even basic competence for decades. Just as DeAndre Jordan thought that he might find a better situation elsewhere, and then dramatically reconsidered, Blake Griffin has an opportunity to strive and struggle and suffer and perhaps find glory some day, all as the cornerstone of the LA Clipper franchise. He’s extremely comfortable in the city and with the organization, seemingly, and he’s building a stellar career and legacy, but it hasn’t been easy or smooth. The NBA is a strange, dynamic, changing business, and it has evolved in all sorts of interesting ways since Blake Griffin entered the league—when Donald Sterling owned the team, MDSr. was the coach, and Griffin was injured for the first time in the final preseason game of what would have been his rookie season. This has been hard on the fans, but it has been especially hard on Blake Griffin... yet he keeps working and fighting. His has been quite a story, and we’ll see where it goes next.