LOS ANGELES — The next player that could refashion the NBA’s competitive landscape, like Kevin Durant this summer and LeBron James the summer before, sits in a director’s chair that bears his last name in a dilapidated downtown warehouse, waiting patiently as crew members set up his next scene. Five high school players, cast as extras in the television commercial, cluster nearby, competing for a sliver of his attention. After a few quick exchanges, Blake Griffin reluctantly decides to entertain his captive audience, not with a punchline or a story about life as one of the 10 best basketball players on the planet, but with a simple flexing of his calf.
The muscle, which has helped him bound over Korean automobiles and Russian centers, juts out at an impossible angle, as if a wrought iron gate has swung open off the back of his leg. “Hey man,” one of the teenagers giddily exclaims as his jaw drops open. “Put that thing away before someone trips on it!” Griffin smirks silently at the success of his simple magic trick, content to let the demonstration speak for itself.
An hour later, after shooting wraps and souvenir selfies are taken, Griffin stretches out on a couch in a nearby trailer. His entourage rolls one man deep—his older brother Taylor—and, in a quick and polite exchange, they decide they will eat dinner back at the house. Griffin’s body language and conversation are clipped, although not quite rushed. He’s been waiting a long time—10 months since his season went sideways last Christmas, nine months since his infamous punch, and six months since his postseason ended abruptly—and he projects anticipation with every movement and word now that opening night is just a week away.
“I don’t ever enjoy time away from the game,” Griffin tells SI.com, shaking his head at the notion that his extended absence might have produced some unexpected benefits. “But it does make you appreciate what you have. Every time something is taken away, you’re forced to take a step back and realize how much that thing means to you. You don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone. This was a good restart, for me to remember why I’m here and what I love doing the most.”
Griffin, 27, is here to reclaim his spot as one of basketball’s most feared and most complete players, and to finally help his Clippers get over the hump. He has some work to do, and he knows it, after a nightmare 2015–16 season that saw him suffer a quadriceps injury, a broken bone in his hand and a re-aggravation of his leg injury during a first-round series loss to Portland. In an open letter published by The Players’ Tribune in September, he apologized for punching the team’s former equipment manager in a January incident and pledged to show Clippers fans who he is as a person.
NBA storylines move “on to the next one” at an alarming rate, but Griffin’s star seems particularly affected by his time offstage. In 2013–14, the last season he consistently enjoyed good health, Griffin finished third in MVP voting, trailing only Durant and James. This month, even though the Clippers are widely regarded as one of the West’s top three teams, one oddsmaking service set Griffin’s MVP chances at just 33-1.
When Griffin talks about his renewed appreciation for basketball after playing just 35 games last year, he sounds exactly like Durant, who expressed an identical sentiment last summer after three foot surgeries limited him to 27 games in 2014-15. The parallels between the two stars don’t end there. Griffin, like Durant, has endured years of postseason frustration with the team that drafted him. Griffin, like Durant, has persevered through endless questions about his pairing with a ball-dominant and hard-headed star point guard. Griffin, like Durant, has seen his team’s outlook eclipsed by the Warriors. Griffin averaged 21.4 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 4.9 APG last season, and only one player matched those numbers in all three categories: Durant.
And come July, Griffin, like Durant this summer, will get his first crack at unrestricted free agency, when he will have the opportunity to turn down a $21.4 million player option in favor of the recruitment circuit and a new long-term max contract. His approach to the months of unavoidable questions is to circle the wagons and clam up. Just like Durant.
“Contract year or not a contract year, I’m playing the exact same way and focused on the exact same things,” Griffin says. “I haven’t had any conversations about free agency or about anything. If there’s something that anybody hears throughout the course of the season, it’s false, because it didn’t come from me. … This season is just like any other season. My main focus is to accomplish what we’re here to accomplish, and that’s a championship.”
If only it were that simple.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers opened last season with hints that his roster might be growing stale, only to bring back the same core group this year. Griffin’s name circulated in various trade rumors last year, although Rivers flatly denied them during the off–season. Next summer, Chris Paul can also opt out of his contract and J.J. Redick will be an unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, Golden State, fully souped-up now that Durant is running alongside Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, looms like Godzilla over L.A.’s aspirations, having won seven of eight meetings between the two teams during Steve Kerr’s tenure.
Those realities should provide months of fuel for talk radio and rumors websites. “Sure,” the speculation will go, “Blake loves life in L.A…. but he and Chris would be better off as No. 1 guys on different teams … but the Clippers’ Big 3 is too expensive to build out a championship-quality rotation... but Doc should sell high and get multiple assets in return rather than risk watching him leave for nothing… but he should move to the East to get away from the Warriors during his prime… but South Beach is pretty awesome and the Heat need a Chris Bosh replacement… but he needs to find another superstar under 30 to team with if he ever wants to get a title. … but he would be a bigger star and have a brighter future if he was The Man for the up-and-coming Lakers.”
Case in point: Shortly after Durant announced his decision to leave the Thunder for the Warriors this summer, multiple outlets, including Yahoo Sports, reported that Oklahoma City was targeting Griffin, an Oklahoma native, as a potential Durant replacement.
“That talk doesn’t impact me,” Griffin says dismissively, when reminded about the hopeful hometown theory. “It’s always going to be there. Fans always want to speculate. My main focus all summer long was getting healthy and getting better. My main focus now is this season. There’s so much basketball to play. I don’t want to say what other players do is none of my business, because it does affect your business whether you’re playing against them. But whether KD is in Oklahoma or Golden State, it’s all the same. We’re going to lace up and play whatever team anybody is with.”
Thirsty Sooners and anxious Angelinos should have plenty of competition in the Griffin sweepstakes. Thanks to new multi-year contracts for LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, only six of the top 25 in SI.com’s “Top 100 Players of 2017” can become free agents next summer. Two of those are Durant and Curry, who are almost certainly locked into Golden State for the long haul. Two more are Paul and Kyle Lowry, past-30 point guards who, while clearly stars, will soon succumb to age-related regression. There’s also Paul Millsap, a brilliant all-around forward who is four years older than Griffin and not nearly as explosive or creative with the ball.
In other words, when taking into account age, upside and all-around talent, Griffin is clearly the jewel of the 2017 class. Like Durant’s monumental move this summer, his decision will make or break the Clippers’ status as contenders, and it will likely play a role in determining who emerges as the next threat to Golden State and Cleveland’s shared supremacy. At the moment, though, Griffin isn’t interested in talking about windows.
“Looking forward to next season or the next few seasons or whatever,” he says dismissively, “that’s never a good idea. “I don’t think any guy goes into a season worrying about the next season.”
After months spent rehabilitating his quadriceps, which included a bone marrow procedure in May, Griffin’s tunnel vision is understandable. Truthfully, his future isn’t entirely in his own hands, because he can’t control Paul’s decision or Rivers’s strategy. Why bother getting comfortable with a specific vision when other critical, independent variables still need time to play out?
What Griffin can control is his body and fitness, and there he says he’s handled his business. He describes himself as “completely healthy and in shape” and says he’s feeling “the best physically I have in a while.” He spent the summer working on everything from his ball-handling skills to his post moves to his three-point range, although he’s careful to add that he’s not “trying to do anything that I’m not capable of” and not about to “fall in love” with his perimeter jumper.
Griffin’s confidence in his work and abilities comes through most clearly when he’s informed of an NBA scout’s opinion that Rivers should save him for the playoffs.
“Doc should think about scaling Blake’s minutes way back during the regular season,” the scout told SI.com anonymously. “He’s not that old but he’s missed a lot of time.”
Griffin, who ran himself to exhaustion multiple times while logging nearly 40 MPG during the 2015 playoffs, recoils before the question is even asked, shaking his head in near disgust.
“I’m 27 years old,” he says. Asked if he still feels like he’s a "young 27" despite his past injuries, Griffin exhales and replies: ”I guess. But an 'old 27’ might be an oxymoron.”
Here, with his superhero strength questioned, Griffin’s clipped speech gives way to a more forceful tone as he pushes back and makes his case.
“This is the prime of my career,” Griffin says. “There are guys that have played way more minutes, have shouldered a huge load and haven’t had restrictions or anything like that. The work you do in the summer time prepares you for the season and prepares you for the long haul. Going through the rigors of the regular season puts you on that right track to success during the postseason. I’m not trying to manage minutes or hold back.”
By the time he finishes his counterargument, Griffin has seemingly swelled up, once again looking and sounding like the superstar that he has been since 2011, the one who glides over and pummels opponents in the basket area, the one who races by and tap-dances through defenders in the open court. It’s clear now that mistaking Griffin’s long absence for a disappearance would be a major mistake, as would prematurely lowering expectations for a phenomenally gifted No. 1 overall pick.
This week, when he finally returns to the court at full strength for the first time since Christmas, his audiences will consist of 19,000+ fans, in Portland on Thursday and back at Staples Center on Sunday, rather than five teenagers. But don’t be surprised if his performances play out like that passing moment at the commercial shoot. After a season to forget and with a career-defining summer on the horizon, Blake Griffin is ready to flex.