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The improved but not new Blake Griffin

In his ninth NBA season, Griffin is back in the All-Star Game with a revitalized skillset he’s been showing off far from the spotlight in Detroit.

BOSTON -- Blake Griffin was posted up in the paint, which was patently unfair for whoever was trying to guard him. Griffin’s too big for guards who get switched on to him, even someone like Marcus Smart who lives for these kind of confrontations. He’s too quick for bulky forwards like Semi Ojeleye, and maybe even just as strong.

Griffin could always do damage down low. During his glory days with the Clippers, the power forward was known for dunking on people and going to work on the block with his startling combination of speed, quickness, and strength.

His mid-range face-up game was always solid and so was his passing, two underrated skills that tended to get lost in all the highlights. The days of Blake being just a dunker are long gone, or should have been for anyone paying attention.

Few people are paying that much attention to Griffin now that he toils in relative obscurity for the relentlessly mediocre Pistons, but perhaps we should. Historically, we’ve been told that players reach their peak sometime between ages 25-27, but Griffin is enjoying a career season just a few weeks shy of his 30th birthday.

In addition to good health, what’s changed this season is that Griffin has traded those 15-foot mid-range jumpers for more efficient three-point attempts. He’s shooting a career-best 36 percent from 3-point range on a career-high 6.8 attempts. Mixing that newfound range with all the other elements of his game have once again made Griffin one of the best forwards in the league.

“His skillset has expanded,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “Now he’s more of a point power forward, if there’s such a term in the new NBA, shooting the 3, running the pick-and-roll. He’s expanded his game to another level. He’s carried a heavy load for us this year.”

A very heavy load. Griffin’s Usage Rate has topped 30 percent for the first time in his career. That’s in line with what LeBron James and Kevin Durant do for their teams, and the talent-starved Pistons need every bit of his production just to hang on the periphery of the playoff chase in the East.

Griffin’s become a great player on a mediocre team, which would sound like damning him with faint praise if he wasn’t also undergoing a career renaissance. He’s an All-Star for the first time in four years and a strong contender for an All-NBA berth.

The All-Star part isn’t that surprising — he does play in the East, after all — but Griffin’s All-NBA days were supposed to be behind him. Once Draymond Green arrived on the scene and began putting traditional fours out of business, Blake’s days as an elite player in this weird new NBA seemed to belong to a distant age.

The irony is that Griffin needed to move to from the bright lights of Los Angeles to the obscurity of a sub-.500 team to finally be appreciated for his all-around game. But there’s a deeper message here, beyond the vagaries of the NBA transaction wire. Rather than accept his fate and allow his career to stagnate toward well-paying obsolescence, Griffin adapted to meet the new job requirements for a star NBA forward.

After taking the Pistons job last summer, Casey flew out to meet Griffin and was startled to find him working out with a crew of players who were putting him through all manner of perimeter situations: handling the ball, shooting 3’s, swinging passes, and kicking out to shooters.

“I was like, Whoa,” Casey recalls. “He was doing everything with shot spectrum understanding value and efficiency of shots.”

Griffin’s offseason work could be a case study for what the psychologist Anders Ericsson termed, “deliberate practice,” training that emphasizes evolutionary growth over repetition and refinement. As Ericsson and his co-author Robert Pool wrote in their book, Peak:

The brain is adaptable and training can create new skills that did not exist before. Learning isn’t a way of reaching one’s potential, but rather a way of developing it. We can create our own potential.

That’s a powerful thought in a league where we rush to cap potential and lock players into a preconceived set of beliefs. In Los Angeles, Griffin was part of a star-crossed ensemble that never got over its postseason hurdles. In Detroit, he’s being asked to provide a foundation for a rebuilding team.

How does one go from being a key member of a team that wasn’t good enough to a franchise player on a mediocre one? By keeping an open mind.

NBA: All Star-Practice
Blake Griffin and Dirk Nowitzki laugh during a 2019 NBA All-Star Game practice.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout his long coaching career, Casey has worked with some of the best forwards in the world: Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas, Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, even all the way back to Detlef Schrempf in Seattle. He considers Griffin to be right there with all of them.

I asked Casey if Griffin is the kind of player you can build a franchise around and he didn’t hesitate. “Yes, you can,” Casey said. “No question. You sure can. That’s what we’re slowly doing. We’re adding the types of player that fits the culture and also fits today’s NBA.”

Cap-strapped and short of assets, the Pistons may be years away from completing a total overhaul that will fully take advantage of Griffin’s talent. One only hopes there’s still time for him to reap the benefits of his mid-career resurgence.

Griffin’s re-emergence brings to mind another mid-career revival taking place in Oklahoma where Paul George has become a top-3 MVP candidate and the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. Even for the most zealous George defenders, his performance has surpassed all previous expectations.

Consider that George is also a strong bet to land on the All-NBA First Team. That would be no small accomplishment, given that with Giannis Antetokounmpo locked into one of the two forward spots, voters would have to conclude that PG had a better season than both LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Which he has.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers
Paul George reacts to his alley oop dunk during a win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

George is posting career-best marks in scoring, rebounding, steals, and assists, while shooting at a much higher level of efficiency than ever before. Like Griffin, PG has transformed himself from a star performer into an elite one. And like Griffin, his career year has redefined a player once consigned to second-tier star status.

On his way out the door from Indiana to Oklahoma City, the prevailing wisdom was that as good as he was, George simply wasn’t a No. 1 guy. It’s true that George doesn’t have to carry the Thunder on his own with Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams around. Yet, by emerging as the best player on a contending team, he’s recast himself as a legitimate MVP contender.

As with Griffin, George didn’t just work on his game this summer, he evolved to meet the demands of his work environment. Given a season to learn about playing with Westbrook, George dropped some of his muscle mass and became sleeker and faster. Always one of the smoothest players in the game, George has found his flow amid the turbulence of Westbrook’s jet stream.

“When he got traded, I think it was an eye-opening experience of playing with Russell, how fast he is,” OKC coach Billy Donovan said. “I give him a lot of credit to absorb all those experiences and then make the decisions that were the right decisions of where he needed to grow and get better and be more effective.”

George’s breakout season has been all the more enjoyable given the Thunder’s standing as one of the top teams in the league. While playing with someone as dynamic as Westbrook has been a boon for George, bringing out the best of PG has engendered a deeper appreciation for Westbrook’s leadership abilities.

All of which is to say that we do players a disservice by locking them into a box. Change their circumstances, give them good health, proper motivation coupled with a willingness to evolve that allows them to be who they are, and there’s no telling what a player may achieve. Potential, after all, is what we make of it. Blake Griffin and Paul George are still making the most of theirs.

BY THE NUMBERS

The stats that explain the week

In addition owning the best record in the league at the break, the Milwaukee Bucks also have the highest net rating, scoring 9.6 points more than their opponents per 100 possessions. Net rating is a useful regular-season metric, but it hasn’t been all that predictive in the playoffs. Just three teams in the last decade who finished with the top net rating went on to win the championship. Still, Milwaukee’s regular-season work has clearly put them ahead of the crowded pack of contenders in the East.

The only player in basketball-reference’s database to post a higher Usage Rate than James Harden’s 40.3 is Russell Westbrook during Russ’s triple-double fueled MVP season. While everyone keeps looking for signs of fatigue and regression, Harden keeps dropping 30-point games on defenses designed to limit his effectiveness. Just as Westbrook’s one-man statistical assault defined the 2016-17 season of the solo superstar, so has Harden’s offensive barrage come to encapsulate this campaign. In a year in which offense rules, Harden has stretched them to their logical means.

The Nuggets have lost only four times at home and three of those came on consecutive nights way back in November. Since then, Denver has run off a 19-1 home record with the only loss coming at the hands of the Warriors in a 31-point beatdown. The upstart Nuggets enter the All-Star break sandwiched between the Warriors and Thunder in second place in the West and securing a top-two seed is a regular-season goal worth pursuing. Everyone likes being at home for the playoffs, but few teams need that comfort as much as the inexperienced Nuggets who have been a break-even proposition on the road.

The Pelicans have 13 home dates left this season, and it would be a shock if Anthony Davis suited up for all of them. The situation reached yet another crisis point on Thursday when cameras showed him leaving the arena early with his agent Rich Paul while the undermanned Pels pulled off a win over Oklahoma City. That ultimately cost general manager Dell Demps his job, which was only a matter of time anyway. Demps and the Pelicans failed Davis during his tenure, but one wonders if AD would have handled his exit differently if he had known the fallout would be this severe.

In a subtle twist introduced this season, the NBA has removed a bit of tanking incentive by leveling the odds for the three worst teams during the regular season. As it stands, the Knicks would have a 14.2 percent chance of securing the top pick, followed by the Suns (14 percent) and then Cleveland (13.9). Heck, the Hawks who are slotted fifth would still have a 10.4 percent chance of winning the lottery. That should help alleviate some of the more egregious tanking spectacles down the stretch, not that any of those teams are in danger of winning too many games of their own volition.

SAY WHAT?!

Ramblings of NBA players, coaches and GMs

“I’ve been blessed with the talent to not give a f—k.”

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on his critics.

Reaction: If this quote was a bumper sticker I’d put in on my car.

“What’s harder from a player standpoint? Six championship, always.”

Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

Reaction: Michael Jordan didn’t invent pettiness in this league, he made it into an art form. He wears those six rings like a warning sign to anyone who dares challenge his prominence. Speaking of that ...

“Ain’t no maybe about it, I’m going to do that s—t.”

LeBron James to The Athletic’s Joe Vardon on owning a team someday.

Reaction: A thing that people miss when sizing up the LeBron-Jordan debate is that James seems intent on passing Jordan’s impact in every aspect, from his investment portfolio, to his charitable works, and now apparently, a path to franchise ownership. You can argue about their on-court merits all you want, but the off court stuff is just as significant, if not more, to understanding LeBron’s ambitions.

“Quit making this about thinking these guys are babies, because that’s what you’re treating them like. They’re professionals. All of them. And this is how this league works. They know it, I know it. That’s how it goes.”

Laker team president Magic Johnson

Reaction: You know, Magic has a point. You’re nobody in this league until you’ve had your name dragged through the rumor mill. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the rumor mill is what drives interest in the league.

“They are on my list.”

Anthony Davis on the Celtics, who are not on a list of preferred destinations but are on a list of 29 other teams, or something.

Reaction: Starting to think this has not been not the most well-coordinated campaign.

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