At age 33, Blake Griffin remains in remarkable shape. He still has the chiseled body that allowed him to jump over Kias, soar for alley-oop dunks, and wow crowds with his freakish athletic prowess.
Yet, looks are deceiving. Admittedly, Griffin has lost a good portion of that athleticism, felled by years of leg injuries. But he learned a valuable lesson from his NBA predecessors who refused to change their games once their physical skills faded.
Griffin has remained in the game this long not because of his dunking ability, but because of his basketball IQ and ability to transform into a veteran complement instead of an aging All-Star trying to relive the old days.
His next stop is Boston. Griffin officially signed with the Celtics on Monday, as the team pursued an experienced leader who can impact his teammates on and off the floor. Griffin is still big and muscular, a legit 6 feet 9 inches, and he’s chasing his first championship.
The interest was mutual.
“Obviously beyond the history this franchise has, Boston has always been one of those places, as an NBA player, that guys think would be a pretty cool experience playing there,” he said Monday at the Auerbach Center. “Beyond that, just the core they have, having Brad [Stevens] in the front office now, the coaches they have. The foundation they laid last year, I think sets the table. This is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Griffin was one of the more intriguing veteran free agents on the market, partly because of his glorious past. After missing his rookie season with a broken left kneecap, Griffin earned All-Star honors for five consecutive seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. He was a one-man highlight reel, using his strength and jumping ability to victimize plenty of big men on dunks.
He was the central figure of the Clippers’ Lob City era and he even jumped over a car during the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest in Los Angeles. Griffin was flying high, but the Clippers couldn’t reach a championship level under Doc Rivers and Griffin suffered a series of lower-body injuries that diminished his impact.
The Clippers stunningly traded Griffin to the Detroit Pistons during the first year of a five-year, $173 million deal and he played one more stellar season in Detroit, reaching the All-Star Game in 2019. He eventually agreed to a buyout with the rebuilding Pistons in March 2021 and spent a season and a half with the Brooklyn Nets, a witness to that franchise’s chaos.
Griffin understands his place in the game. He knows he’s no longer an athletic behemoth, although fans will not stop asking for that version to reappear.
“I can bring some stability off the bench,” he said. “They obviously have centers in Rob [Williams] and Al [Horford] that have played big minutes and Al has been in the league for 40 years now. Just stability. Whatever they need from me, it’s just utility. I didn’t come here demanding a certain role. It’s just to fill the gaps to help this team win a championship.”
NBA veterans in athletic decline are consistently being extinguished from the league. LaMarcus Aldridge, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, and DeMarcus Cousins are still waiting for calls. Griffin realized during his stint in Detroit that his game had to shift from high-flying dunks off pick-and-rolls to rebounding and perimeter shooting.
“Part of that is sort of expanding your game, after my rookie year I made it a priority to work on my shot,” he said. “But using your brain and playing a little more cerebrally. Also, in this league you have to have a good amount of self-awareness. When your talent level and your humility and self-awareness align then I think you can maximize your time in the league. And sometimes you see that doesn’t happen. Guys’ careers are cut short because of it.
“Just like in Brooklyn, I didn’t come in demanding this or that. I think you have to earn it. Even a guy who’s played 13 years, nothing is given. You still have to come in and do your work. Be a good teammate. Be a leader.”
The Celtics desperately needed another veteran leader. Horford, at 36, leads by example. In past years, the Celtics filled their bench with young journeyman or G-League talent who made little off-court impact. Now they have added a strong personality, former All-Star, and frontcourt helper.
Griffin knows fans will expect his former self. They still remember him catching an alley-oop from teammate Baron Davis, who tossed the ball through the sunroof, with Griffin slamming the ball home with the world watching. That was 11 years ago.
He’s undergone multiple knee surgeries, and has had ankle and quadriceps issues. He is no longer a 30-minute-per-game player. He understands his limitations.
Griffin dunked 784 times in his first four seasons. He dunked 119 times in the past five years, including 13 times last season. By contrast, Griffin attempted 455 3-pointers in his 7 ½ seasons with the Clippers and 1,118 in the last four-plus with the Pistons and Nets.
“I think it’s funny, sort of,” he said. “When I was younger everyone complained about all I did was dunk and now people are like, ‘I just wish he would do what he used to do.’ You guys complained for years that I couldn’t shoot. It’s a lesson of growth. You know you’re never going to please everybody, but as long as you keep moving forward, you’ll be all right.”