There was a time, not long ago, that power forward Blake Griffin of the Los Angeles Clippers was considered by many to be a budding, top-five player in the NBA. In 2013-14, he appeared in 80 games while averaging 24.1 points per contest on 52.8 percent shooting while grabbing 9.5 rebounds and dishing 3.9 assists.
These days he continues to excel statistically, but as a result of injuries and questionable decisions off the court, he has played in only 67, 35, and 61 games the past three seasons, and has missed the playoffs the last two years when the Clippers needed him most.
There are a number of high profile unrestricted free agents this summer, and Griffin is one of them. However, unlike the others, who will surely re-sign with their current teams, there is growing belief that Griffin may seriously consider other options.
The question is, should the Lakers be one of them?
Those who say yes realize that free agency is the preferred method for the Lakers to acquire the star they covet as they wouldn’t have to give up young talent in a trade. In this era, very few star players who are eligible to change teams actually do because, quite simply, their current team can re-sign them for many millions of dollars more than any other team is permitted to pay them.
In fact, the pattern over the past few seasons suggests that only one superstar-caliber player per year is likely to move to a new team as a free agent.
This offseason, Griffin could be that one player. He is a former number one draft choice who missed his entire first season with a broken knee cap. The next year, which was considered his rookie season, he played in all 82 games and averaged 21.3 points while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and grabbing 8.3 rebounds. For his career, he has averaged 21.5 points per game on 51.2 percent shooting and 9.4 rebounds.
Before the injuries, Griffin was on the cusp of superstardom. He has garnered a long list of awards in his basketball career including National College Player of the Year in 2009 (University of Oklahoma), NBA Rookie of the Year, 5x NBA All-Star, 3x All-NBA Second Team, one All-NBA Third Team selection, and Slam Dunk Champion.
At age 28, Griffin is in his physical prime, and he has the kind of superstar credentials the Lakers will rarely find available on the market.
Griffin’s critics point to his questionable off-court conduct and the injuries that have dogged him for the last three seasons. On January 23, 2016, he infamously hit a member of the Clippers equipment staff during an argument at a restaurant in Toronto. Not only was he suspended, but he broke his hand in the altercation. All told he was limited to only 35 games that season.
Critics also point to the fact that Griffin is not a long range shooter who can space the floor, which has become an asset that many teams look for in players at the power forward position. Griffin has greatly improved his range throughout his career and this past year he made 33.6 percent of his long range attempts which is not great but not terrible.
What has improved dramatically since he joined the league, however, is his ability to knock down mid-range shots. As a rookie he played almost exlusively around the rim, but over time he has become a very reliable mid-range shooter. He has also improved his free throw shooting which was awful earlier in his career but improved to a career high 76 percent this past season.
Another consideration is that power forward is not one of the Lakers bigger weaknesses at the moment, as the Lakers already have Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. at that spot. Both are pretty good already, continually improving, and are much younger than Griffin. Still, Griffin, when healthy, is one of the most dominant players in the league, and it is highly unlikely that Randle or Nance will reach his elite level of play. Furthermore, signing Griffin would allow the team to package Randle in a trade for another much needed asset.
The biggest negative are all the injuries. A person can be the most talented player in the league but what good does it do if he misses 20 games a year, or more, with injuries? Griffin is an imposing physical specimen at 6’10”, 250 pounds, and he is usually in excellent condition, but even a player in that condition can be injury prone and that label seems to fit Griffin.
For the past six years, Griffin has teamed with the likes of Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, J.J Redick, and Jamal Crawford on one of the best rosters in the NBA, at least on paper. The problem is, for reasons that are not always easy to explain, the team has never made it past the second round of the playoffs and the past two seasons have lost in the first round.
It looks pretty clear, if it wasn’t before, that the Clippers as constituted will never compete for a championship. That could possibly lead Griffin, and his teammate Chris Paul, to move on in free agency this summer. Putting aside the money, Griffin would probably benefit from a fresh start elsewhere.
He was born and raised in Oklahoma, and starred in college there, so the most obvious choice would be for him to return home to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder with Russell Westbrook. If not the Thunder, there will be no shortage of teams lining up to make him offers. So why would he choose the Lakers, a team that has not even made the playoffs the past four years, which appears quite a distance away from being able to compete for a championship?
The reason most often cited is that Griffin has serious future plans to work in the entertainment industry. He has starred in high profile television commercials throughout his career, but these days he is more interested in producing movies. A couple of years ago he formed a production company in Los Angeles with former USC football standout and current Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil, and they have been linked to some high profile film projects.
Griffin might very well re-sign with the Clippers this summer and the rumors of his possible departure could be a figment of someone’s imagination, as is the case with most NBA rumors. Still, given the totality of the circumstances in which he and the team find themselves after another disappointing finish to the season, a fresh start might be the best thing for Griffin.
The Lakers have little to offer a top tier free agent, but Griffin has been connected to Los Angeles since he was drafted in 2009. If he wants to stay around, either because he likes living here, likes the idea of becoming the face of a storied franchise that would garner him far more attention, and/or to further his post-basketball career aspirations, it is likely that Magic Johnson would welcome him with open arms.