Blake Griffin Has Chance to Take Next Step Up Superstar Ladder, but Is He Ready?

Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterJanuary 24, 2017

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 02:  Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers reacts during a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center on December 2, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers' most golden yet still unfulfilling era is staggering toward a potential finish.

Chris Paul's thumb surgery has cast the Clippers' immediate future, and playoff seed, in doubt, but it also has opened a door of opportunity for Blake Griffin.

So this was the question posed to one NBA guy who knows what it takes to dominate:

Might Griffin come back from his knee injury (expected to happen this week) and dominate absolutely, willing games to be won with present-day Russell Westbrook-ian vigor and triple-double output?

The reply?

"There are more issues with Blake than just physical."

As in, does Griffin believe he can and should be the most important player on the floor every game? Does he truly want the responsibility, trust and burden that come with being expected to do everything every night?

Is he a great but forever soft superstar?

Griffin is at least capable of putting his team on his back. He offered a glimpse in the 2015 playoffs—while Paul was dealing with another injury—with consecutive triple-doubles to save the Clippers' season.

Griffin's 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists carried the Clippers into a late Game 7 tie with the defending NBA champion Spurs before Paul hit the winning shot on a bum hamstring to get L.A. into the second round. Then, with Paul sitting out, Griffin was freed to be even more unstoppable (26 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) to win Game 1 of the second round on the road against the Houston Rockets.

Kawhi Leonard and James Harden were on those opposing teams, and as their stars continue to rise, Griffin has receded from prominence. The Clippers are the still good but definitely stale tortilla chips in the NBA's pantry, and no one is planning to serve them at an NBA Finals party, especially with Paul out for maybe two months after undergoing thumb surgery.

The wrinkle in that projection is that Griffin, despite his multiple injury setbacks in the past year-and-a-half, is an even better player than he was in 2015—continuing the impressive growth in his game way beyond dunk exhibitionism.

Blake Griffin has expanded his game from the dunk-heavy diet he entered the league with in 2010.
Blake Griffin has expanded his game from the dunk-heavy diet he entered the league with in 2010.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

And Griffin has looked fantastic already in workouts, according to those behind the Clippers' curtain, as he ramps up to his return from his Dec. 20 arthroscopic knee procedure. And this is a hungrier Griffin than before.

A big reason the Clippers started 19-7 was how motivated Griffin was to maximize his court time (and defensive effort) after last season (he was limited to 35 games because of injuries, some self-inflicted). It was the same type of motivation he felt in the 2016 playoffs despite the potential to retear his quadriceps—a possibility unknown to the public and the very result that came to pass.

So it is with valid reason we wonder whether we might see the greatest of all Griffins when he returns, likely this week with matchups against the Golden State Warriors looming Saturday and Feb. 2…and how he might lift the Clippers out of this depressing crisis where they're worried about asking even more of Austin Rivers.

For all the speculation about where Griffin might go in his expected free agency this offseason, he has always managed to publicly reconcile himself with co-starring alongside Paul, no matter how demanding and heavy-handed he is.

Even though DeAndre Jordan always has been the one who is more irked by Paul's domineering presence, Griffin has been the one marginalized by it. Griffin was third in NBA MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James in 2014 when Griffin led the Clippers to a 13-6 record while Paul was injured. But Paul—to his credit—just keeps reaffirming his relevance with the Clippers.

The close relationship between Doc Rivers and Chris Paul has been the defining characteristic of the Clippers since Paul arrived.
The close relationship between Doc Rivers and Chris Paul has been the defining characteristic of the Clippers since Paul arrived.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

As much as Clippers president and coach Doc Rivers appreciates Griffin, there's an unrivaled closeness between Rivers and Paul—which is why past speculation has always leaned toward the club moving Griffin or Jordan, not the older Paul, for fresh hope.

Rivers said that even after his latest injury, Paul has been calling on the phone while watching NBA League Pass at home to talk about opposing teams and bounce various ideas. There is no suppressing Paul's voice on this team, whether he has the ball in his hands or is behind the scenes.

Only when Paul literally cannot take the court is Griffin empowered. And now he has the chance to show how much of the weight he can carry. But, again, the issues are more than just physical.

Rivers will give Griffin the ball as much as he can make use of it, whether at the free-throw line extended to demand double-teams, in post-ups or anywhere else.

If Griffin can handle the expanded work and comes out with more of a Westbrook fire in his eyes, if he takes this time without Paul to demand he become the primary catalyst, maybe it will tilt the scales on how Rivers views the Clippers' future with Paul also being set to opt out of his contract this summer.

If Griffin comes back and doesn't do that much, or if he's just fine, nothing changes for the Clippers.

There will be no reason to recalibrate anything—and there will be no reason to believe the Clippers have anything different to throw at the Warriors. They'll play as an underdog in the playoffs with Paul running the show.

But if Griffin is so individually beastly now that he's drawing bracket defenses and leading the ball to zip around the offense and triggering energized team defense, then this group will have reason it desperately needs to believe it can change its stars in the postseason.

With Griffin forced to be more of a playmaker in 2014 in the wake of a different Chris Paul injury, Griffin led the Clippers to a 12-6 record with Paul sidelined.
With Griffin forced to be more of a playmaker in 2014 in the wake of a different Chris Paul injury, Griffin led the Clippers to a 12-6 record with Paul sidelined.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

That means playing through contact, bad calls and getting stuff done without his passive-aggressive B.S. That means not talking to guys individually in the locker room, but adopting a commanding presence around the team, owning this time in a way that many around the NBA believe he's incapable of doing.

If he can do all that, Griffin will win more than a ton of games for the Clippers. He will win a new level of respect.

Griffin will turn 28 in March—the same age Westbrook turned in November. And, like Westbrook, it's reasonable to think Griffin has matured. He's a father of two now, weathered by both immense hype and legitimate criticism.

If he has come to cherish opportunities and his awesome talent the way he did before his injury, maybe he will seize this day and give Rivers a reason to feel his team is led by a partnership, not a sole presence.

If he hasn't, the spring could leave the Clippers feeling empty once again.

      

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.