Blake Griffin said he thought the Brooklyn Nets needed another big man. On his first Zoom call after his first practice since signing with the Nets, he said they could use "another guy to facilitate, sort of fill these gaps that they have," someone who can "relieve that pressure" on James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Superstars cannot win big without reliable role players, and he would know. Just two seasons ago, when Harden was sharing the backcourt with Chris Paul in Houston, Durant was on a superteam in the Bay Area and Irving was on a stacked but unstable Celtics team, Griffin made his fifth All-NBA team alongside all of them, shouldering an enormous load for a Detroit Pistons team that needed every bit of his 24.5 points and 5.4 assists per game just to sneak into the playoffs. Prior to his Detroit detour, he spent six seasons with Chris Paul, mostly in championship contention, but those Los Angeles Clippers teams never got out of the second round. One can only imagine how that story might have ended had the Clippers acquired just one more reliable 3-and-D guy, one more playmaker on the wing or one more rim-protecting backup big.
As jarring as it was to see Griffin wearing a Nets practice jersey, it is significant that he spoke about himself as a supporting character rather than one of the stars of the show. Even in the 20 games he played with the Pistons this season, in which his usage rate dipped to 19.7 percent -- his previous career-low was 25 percent, back in 2012-13 -- Griffin averaged 59.6 touches per game. On a per-minute basis, that's about as many as Durant averages. Joe Harris averages 36.9 touches, the most of the Nets' non-stars. Griffin acknowledged that there will be an adjustment period, but repeatedly said that playing with great players makes the game easier.
From Griffin's perspective, it's easy to see why he joined the party. "He was asked to be a lot in Detroit," Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said. "There was a lot of focus on him defensively, whereas with this team he won't be asked to carry as big a load or absorb so much pressure from the defense, so I think there's an opportunity for him here to have less pressure, less responsibility, and therefore show what he can do in a greater light." Griffin is shooting just 36.5 percent from the field on the season, but he has made 44.2 percent of his wide-open 3s. His new teammates will create plenty of those.
But did the Nets really need another big? It looked that way when they traded starting center Jarrett Allen in the Harden deal and they brought in Norvel Pelle and Noah Vonleh for cups of coffee. (No word on whether either of them visited Gumption Coffee, the roastery that neighbors their practice facility.) Nash called Griffin a small ball 5, though, and Brooklyn already has one of those in Jeff Green, who has been shooting the lights out (45.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, 47.4 percent on wide-open 3s) and providing the same defensive versatility he gave the small ball Rockets last season. It also has Nicolas Claxton, the big man it selected with the No. 31 pick in the 2019 draft. On defense Claxton is a 6-foot-11 tornado, unafraid to switch onto perimeter players and nimble enough to stick with them.
When Claxton is on the court, the Nets can switch 1 through 5 without sacrificing size. He has only logged 93 minutes over the course of six games since returning from knee and shoulder injuries, but in that small sample, they have outscored opponents by 17.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. In their Nets' 121-109 win over the Boston Celtics on Thursday, Claxton switched onto Jayson Tatum outside the 3-point line, got down in a stance, contested his sidestep 3 and forced an airball.
Later in the game, he moved his feet with Jeff Teague …
… denied Jaylen Brown …
… and forced Tatum into a low-percentage turnaround outside the restricted area. (Tatum's so talented that he made it anyway.)
Claxton is not Bam Adebayo. He has played a total of 280 NBA minutes and 191 G League minutes, having missed most of his rookie season with injuries. "He's young as hell," Green said, but the 21-year-old is "asking good questions," and "his IQ's really good." There aren't many true centers who can do what he does defensively.
"It starts with his footwork," Nash said. "He has great mobility with his length, so he's able to cover a variety of players. He really fits into our switching defense, where he can be really active on top of obviously being able to move his feet and use his length against quicker players and use his feet against bigger, stronger players. He gives us versatility, but he also gives us a lot of energy and activity. He gives us a slightly unique profile for our team with his length and activity."
Already, Claxton is a statistical darling. Per 36 minutes he's averaging 20.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 3.1 blocks and 1.9 steals. He's shooting 80 percent (20-for-25) at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, feasting on lobs and pocket passes from future Hall of Famers.
When Claxton checks in the game, "he knows what he needs to do," teammate Bruce Brown said. His skill set is ideal for a team that has an unprecedented amount of isolation scoring, copious spot-up shooting and glaring defensive deficiencies. Beyond that, "he's working his ass off," Green said. The early evidence suggests not only that he is an important part of the Nets' future, but that he could be in their playoff rotation this year, provided he stays healthy and gets the reps he needs in the regular season.
This is not to say that Brooklyn shouldn't have grabbed Griffin when he became available. Nash said that he envisions Griffin helping them as a short-roll playmaker -- picture an opposing defense trapping Harden, then having to deal Griffin in the middle of the floor, playing 4-on-3 with a lob threat at the rim and all-time shooters spaced out on the perimeter. Griffin doesn't exclusively have to be a small ball 5; he can play next to Jordan or Claxton. This season, in particular, many teams have had their depth tested. The Nets might not need another big now, but maybe they will in a few weeks.
Griffin's presence, however, makes part of Nash's job harder. Brown, a 6-foot-4 "guard" has been functioning as a 5 on offense and thriving specifically in the short roll -- he and Harden have been the best pick-and-roll combination in the entire league, per Jared Dubin at FiveThirtyEight. Rookie big Reggie Perry has returned from the G League bubble. After Durant's hamstring heals, he could even play some center. "We went from trying to scrap together a roster to now we have tons of guys and options," Nash said. Optionality is a good thing, but "the negative is we'd love to get a long look at each of them and we may not. So there's some guesswork that's going to go into this in trying to figure out what our rotations, what our best lineups are, what our best matchups are for different squads and units." These decisions are fraught. Nash can't play everybody.
Brooklyn signed Griffin to a minimum contract, and Nash is going into this without any expectations. "I just want to see him enjoy his game, feel good and move as well as he can in this stage, in this timeframe," Nash said, "and hopefully incorporate him into what we do and allow him to find a nice role." Griffin will likely look better in this context than he did at the beginning of the season. He is, however, a buyout guy, and the history of buyout guys is not pretty. That he turns 32 next week and is not far removed from stardom is encouraging, but Amar'e Stoudemire, now a Nets assistant coach, was 32 when he took a buyout from the New York Knicks and joined with the Dallas Mavericks in what turned out to be his second-last season in the league. While Griffin has changed his game much more drastically than Stoudemire did to stave off the inevitable effects of age and injuries, the NBA is even less kind to veteran bigs now.
For now, the fit is still theoretical, as Griffin ramps up his workload after not playing for a full month. Jordan said he hopes to get some minutes with Griffin because of the chemistry they built in Los Angeles. "I missed him," said Brown, who played with him in Detroit. Ideally, these positive vibes will continue as Griffin returns to the court and gets familiar with his new situation. If all goes well, maybe the Nets' insane, historic offense will be even crazier. As they try to integrate him, though, they cannot lose sight of their primary goal for the second half of the season: finding a way to be just good enough defensively. Claxton needs to play. Marginalizing him would be a mistake.