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On Blake Griffin: Player Empowerment and playing the Long Game

When the right call is the wrong one. Lucas Kaplan takes a long look at Blake Griffin’s issues so far this season and how even if stats don’t measure up, don’t look for change. There are bigger issues afoot.

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The prophecy was fulfilled years ago. Luis Scola was right, and has continually been proven so every day since he went full Field of Dreams on us. “Once they win,” he said, “they will get everyone they want.” Any Nets fan that’s been here since 2017 knows the Scola Principle like a public school kid knows the Pledge of Allegiance: in their sleep, from front to back. But understanding it fully? Maybe.

Yes, the culture that Sean Marks ultimately reset proved a winner. The smoothies, the top-notch training staff and facilities, the (lack of) leaking to the media. All of it served to turn to the Brooklyn Nets into a tight-knit organization that appealed to free agents of all kinds. They truly care for, and more importantly, respect the players. Who wouldn’t want to play for an organization like that?

Of course, luck aided the operation to land three of this generation’s icons in the borough. But it is no coincidence the Nets went from the NBA’s laughingstock to potentially dominant super-team in the blink of an eye after becoming the first franchise to fully and totally buy into whatever “player empowerment” now encompasses. The culture overhaul worked. And, with no draft capital to speak of in whatever a post-Big 3 era looks like, it will have to continue to work. Nothing is changing, nor should it.

Blake Griffin is the latest beneficiary of the Brooklyn Way (and I don’t mean spreading love). Warriors-Nets, despite the blowout it devolved into, was the second-highest viewed game of the NBA season, thus far. TNT play-by-play man Brian Anderson primed the national audience of 2.3 million viewers on what Griffin has been up to so far this season. The charges and the “Blue Collar Boys” came up, naturally. The broadcast crew as a whole commended the incredible job Griffin has done in this stage of his career, gracefully accepting his role as the gritty, hard-nosed veteran after a past life as the superstar. A “dirty work’ connoisseur.

This should come as no surprise to any Nets fan. How many features have you seen on the “BCB Club” on YES or the Nets social media? How clear is the image in your head of Griffin strapping up his imaginary boots? If you were going to condense and convey the past three weeks of Nets basketball, the movie, to a national audience, that’d be the primer on Griffin.

This, of course, is part of Brooklyn’s duty as a players-first organization. Particularly to its stars and those who they wooed in free agency. The benefits for Griffin in being a Net extend far beyond his minimum contract; they have to, or else he wouldn’t be here. As one of the NBA’s premier “prima donnas” of the 2010’s, as a well-known flopper, as a man who many claimed, probably unfairly, quit on Detroit, this reputation-building cannot go unrecognized or unappreciated by Griffin. Luis Scola chuckles in the distance. Then, again...

Perhaps it is unfair to write this after one of Griffin’s better performances of the season against the Orlando Magic. Maybe it’s unfair after his relatively solid play last season, including an admirable job defending Giannis Antetokounmpo in the playoffs. But all of that belies the on-court reality of this season, at least thus far.

Griffin is in contention for the Nets’ worst rotation player. You know about the bricklaying from three, and therefore, lack of spacing. What, offensively, has he done to make up for that? Nada. Unlike Bruce Brown or DeAndre’ Bembry, Griffin does not make timely cuts to the basket. Nor does he attack quickly off the catch, like Bembry, to make up for a lack of shooting gravity.

That doesn’t make his limitations pressuring the rim any easier to stomach, though. Nearly every contested finish at the basket goes something like this:

There have been successful instances of Griffin rolling to the rim, but many of those are uncontested finishes. Per Cleaning the Glass, Griffin is 21/39 at the rim this year. That’s 54%, in the 10th percentile among NBA “bigs.” For reference, Jalen Suggs, the 6’4” Magic guard whose paltry scoring numbers have been well-documented, is shooting 55% at the cup. Bruce Brown, also 6’4”, is at 65%. There have been few to no positives on offense. Not even one of these, which James Johnson already seems to have down pat: understanding how to use the defense’s disrespect as a weapon:

Griffin’s defense has only been marginally better, again through the first fifth of the season. Yes, some of the charges have come at opportune times, as momentum-shifting plays. There have been instances of Griffin capably staying in front of shifty guards on switches. But those are far and few between, not to mention a lack of effectiveness in drop coverage, without the springs to contest lobs or traditional size to bother drivers. And for every charge taken that hangs on the walls of the “Blue Collar Boys”’ work room, there are two of these:

I had to get it off my chest. I don’t enjoy writing negatively about players; it’s far less fun, and rarely does it serve to help anyone. And yes, the season is young.

Perhaps he’s in an unfair position; who knows what he looks like with Kyrie Irving out there? A lack of rim pressure on the roster certainly isn’t his fault; his services as a roll-man should not be so necessary. He’s also had to adapt from only switching to playing drop coverage, which he isn’t suited to excel in.

But it’s hard pretending not to see what is so plainly in front of us. Right now, Blake Griffin is hurting the Nets far more than helping. Will that change any time soon?

He did not re-sign in Brooklyn, on the minimum, for anything less than a starting role. He and the Nets achieved great heights last year, the widely accepted title-winners if not for a pair of injuries. With Irving in the fold, (and Nic Claxton making the leap many expected of him) his play is a moot point. The full-strength Nets are no less unbeatable with Griffin in the starting lineup. That is the role he signed up for, and what Brooklyn reportedly promised him.

The margins are so thin at the top. The NBA comprises the 500 best players in the world, (supposedly). Each of these guys are unimaginably talented, the differences only noticeable through competition against each other. The difference between, say, the 216th best player on Earth and number 139 is infinitesimal, so much so that it can change on any given night, vs. any given opponent, or especially, on any given team. It’s not unthinkable that, if given the opportunity, Kessler Edwards, who can defend and shoot, could help the Brooklyn Nets this season. Facing an athletic, pace-and-space team like the Warriors he may have fared better than Griffin in limited minutes.

A second-round pick getting priority on a win-now team? That’s not Brooklyn Nets basketball. That’s not Brooklyn Nets culture. Griffin being sent to the bench in favor of LaMarcus Aldridge? Maybe, possibly. But why upset an arrangement working so smoothly?

Griffin has logged just 25 minutes this year without Kevin Durant on the court. As a result, he’s been along for the ride on some of Brooklyn’s best line-ups. Aldridge’s offense has been vital for a team deprived of shot-creators, particularly on the second units. Despite being seventh in minutes per game, Aldridge takes the third most shots on the team, frequently operating from the post area. Aldridge is getting to play his game, years after the rest of the NBA deemed it uncouth. After his Spurs tenure ended with his head coach begging him to step out to the 3-point line.

Aldridge (and Paul Millsap) have both hinted at the difficulties of sacrificing minutes for a shot at a championship. Aldridge discussed it as recently as Sunday.

“It’s very difficult. You’ve been one type of player or a certain type of player your whole career. It’s definitely different coming off the bench and not playing much,” Aldridge said. “So it’s been difficult. … I’m still trying to figure it out and navigate it and find my spots. And I’m just trying to find my ways to try and help out.”

Earlier in the month, Steve Nash said he had no plans to pull Griffin despite his struggles.

“There’s no [plan to pull him]. We’re not really thinking about changing roles,” Nash said “BG’s been successful there for us in the past, and LaMarcus is successful coming off the bench right now. So there’s no reason to make any big changes.”

So no, Griffin is not going anywhere, for now, even if his play may demand it. And especially not if it’s not costing wins. The Nets are 12-5, after all. The ramifications of a name like Griffin feeling slighted by the organization go far beyond chasing November wins and losses. That’s the mindset the Nets have operated with for years now. The mindset that has afforded them a championship opportunity. And it’s not changing any time soon. It’s early enough to play wait-and-see.