Blake Griffin opened the 2017 season striking a reflective and apologetic tone, looking to regain his touch with basketball and make amends after a 2016 season that was sidetracked by an off-court incident involving a team employee and ended prematurely due to injury. “Every time something is taken away, you’re forced to take a step back and realize how much that thing means to you,” he told SI.com back in October, following months of offseason rehabilitation from a leg injury. “This was a good restart, for me to remember why I’m here and what I love doing most.”
Griffin’s 2017 season ended Saturday, prematurely again, with basketball taken from him once more and with perhaps the biggest restart of his career looming in the coming months. The Clippers announced that their All-Star power forward sustained a season-ending injury to the plantar plate of his right big toe during LA’s 111-106 Game 3 victory over Utah on Friday, a turn of events that led Griffin to punch a chair in frustration as he left the court and led observers to ask an obvious question that has repeatedly resurfaced over the last two years: Is it time for Griffin and the Clippers to part ways?
In truth, Griffin’s injury doesn’t alter the Clippers’ short-term calculus as much as one might expect, even though he represented LA’s biggest match-up advantage against Utah and even though LA’s record when he played this season (40-21) was substantially better than when he didn’t (11-10). With Griffin, the Clippers were headed for a near-certain second-round defeat to the Warriors assuming they survived their tough first-round series with the Jazz. Without him, LA’s outlook is the same, albeit with a higher degree of difficulty thanks to expanded roles for reserve bigs Marreese Speights and Brandon Bass.. The Clippers proved unable to sustain their dominant November form – in part due to injuries to Griffin and Chris Paul during the regular season – and this postseason run looked doomed as soon as it became clear they would land on Golden State’s side of the bracket.
Maybe that’s why, after a Game 1 loss, Clippers coach Doc Rivers wasted no time making the case to USA Today that his star players should stay together this summer, when Griffin, Paul and J.J. Redick can all become free agents. “Do you give up on a 50-win team that has proven that they’re really close or do you hang in there trying to maybe make changes around [the core]?” Rivers asked. “I just think it’s so easy to say, ‘Hey, they should break up,’ from the outside.”
Griffin has spent all year flatly refusing to entertain free-agency questions and speculation, putting off the decision until after the season. Sadly, procrastination is no longer an option.
Whereas Paul seems like a lock to play out his prime in LA, given his Collective Bargaining Agreement maneuvering, the case for Griffin to fully explore his alternatives is strong. Paul’s 34 points, 10 assists and masterful closing performance in LA’s Game 3 win stood as yet another reminder that the Clippers remain his team. A long-assumed transfer of power from the 31-year-old Paul to the 28-year-old Griffin has not materialized, in part because Paul’s game has held up so well and in part because injuries have dampened Griffin’s ascension. As the former No. 1 overall pick weighs his first shot at unrestricted free agency, he does so knowing that re-signing with the Clippers will mean continuing on as a second fiddle for the foreseeable future.
That partnership has produced six straight postseason trips and three series victories, but it has also limited Griffin to a degree. After finishing third in 2014 MVP voting, a season in which Paul missed 20 games, Griffin has failed to make the All-Star team the last two seasons, his numbers have plateaued, and his role has been carefully managed in hopes of preserving his body. Given that stagnation, it’s incredibly tempting to imagine Griffin as the undisputed face of a franchise, a la Russell Westbrook, free to take off up the court, initiate the offense, and call his own number whenever he likes. Would he enjoy life as The Man? What crazy stat lines could he post? How far could he carry a team? If he doesn’t fully test his limits now, will he look back and wonder what could have been? These are natural questions for a player with his skills and physical ability.
Griffin must also carefully weigh Rivers’ characterization of the Clippers as a team that’s “really close.” That was true in 2015, when Griffin was thriving and LA was just one win away from the conference finals. That even appeared true back in November, when the Clippers opened the season scorching hot. But is it still true given the positive outlooks for Golden State, San Antonio and Houston? Will that still be true if Redick, who has been smothered in the postseason, gets pried away this summer? Will that still be true if Rivers can’t make any meaningful additions to a top-heavy roster because he’s run up nearly $200 million in salary and luxury taxes to keep the band together? Will that still be true in 2018, when DeAndre Jordan can become a free agent again? Will it still be true halfway through Griffin’s next contract, when Paul will likely start feeling the effects of age-related decline?
Despite his recurring health issues, Griffin remains arguably the top target in this summer’s free agency class, assuming Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Paul all re-sign with their home teams as expected. Magic Johnson’s Lakers would be wise to pitch Griffin, offering a chance to continue living in LA as the centerpiece of a young roster. Pat Riley’s Heat can similarly offer central billing and a great market, plus a competitive roster and a much easier path to the Finals. Oklahoma City supplies the homecoming angle, which may or may not be attractive, and the chance to team with a point guard who should be playing at an elite level for the duration of Griffin’s next contract. Thanks to its talent base and deep cache of draft picks and trade assets, Boston should be in the mix for any star, or stars, itching to win now.
As he considers his options, Griffin should think big. The talent consolidation in Golden State and Cleveland demands it. When Griffin surveys the landscape, he should be able to identify plenty of players of a similar caliber – Westbrook, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Hayward, Isaiah Thomas – facing similar crossroads in their own careers. Is there a way to connect the dots?
Envisioning the 2018 Clippers with Griffin returning is easy: Another year of the “Big 3” supported by whatever supporting parts Rivers can muster, hoping for good fortune that has eluded the franchise for years. Imagining the 2018 Clippers without Griffin isn’t all that difficult either: Paul steers a good-not-great team, Jordan picks up some slack, and perhaps Rivers scoops up Carmelo Anthony to fill the headlining void. Picturing 2018 Griffin without the Clippers, however, is where things start to get tantalizing, both for a player who has more to his game than he’s shown over the last two years and for a league that could desperately use another threat to its Superteams.
While the Clippers look to extend their 2-1 series lead over the Jazz, the image of Griffin punching the chair on his way off the court will linger. In that moment, he seemed to understand that he had returned the same point of hopelessness that had prompted his offseason reflection. Griffin was back to square one, except that he can no longer could lean on his oft-used “Worrying about next season is never a good idea” mantra.
Was that punch a reflexive signal that Griffin is ready to throw his hands up and decide that enough is enough? Will this fluky toe injury prove to be season-ending or era-ending? The time for Griffin to worry and plan and consider and mull is now.