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March 1, 2016: Former Oklahoma player and current L.A. Clippers star Blake Griffin speaks as they retire his jersey at the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma (Photo by Torrey Purvey/Icon Sportswire)

The Blake Griffin Redemption Tour

After starting his career with five-straight All-Star Game appearances, Los Angeles Clippers’ power forward Blake Griffin had the most difficult year of his career last season.

The 27-year old went down with a quad injury in late December, broke his hand in an altercation with a Clippers equipment manager about a month later, and ultimately didn’t return from his injuries until early April, just in time for the playoffs. Then things only got worse, as Griffin re-injured his quad four games into the postseason, ending his miserable campaign.

The former slam dunk king went from being one of the NBA’s most likable and marketable personalities to being called a bully, while his team still managed to win 53 games without his help. And because basketball fans tend to be prisoners of the moment, Griffin’s ascension towards the upper echelon of NBA stardom came to a screeching halt, making a pit stop in overrated-town.

Whether or not those opinions have any merit, Griffin clearly has his work cut out for him moving forward, which he acknowledged on teammate J.J. Redick’s podcast. “In my mind, I didn’t deserve a summer break,” proclaimed Griffin, who discussed a variety of topics on the podcast, ranging from his foray into stand-up comedy, to his recovery from an incredibly disappointing season.

Ironically enough, Redick revealed that Griffin was scheduled to be the guest on the first episode of his podcast, which debuted in late January. The following exchange was slightly awkward, as it was obvious that Griffin’s broken-hand incident took place around the time of the debut of Redick’s podcast.

With just one year remaining on both Griffin and fellow superstar Chris Paul’s contracts with the Clippers, this is a make or break year for a core that hasn’t gotten past the second round of the playoffs. Both Redick and Griffin agreed that they think their team is as talented as any team in their conference but made it clear that they still have mental hurdles to get over to realize their potential.

It almost felt strange listening to them have this conversation (in which Redick admitted that blowing a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets in the 2015 Western Conference Semifinals still weighs heavily on him). But the Clippers should feel confident that they were able to boast a top five net rating (per NBA.com) and only win three fewer games than they did the season before despite Griffin missing 47 games.

With Griffin’s return, alongside the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder being expected to take steps back after losing Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant r espectively, you could argue there’s more room for optimism for the Clippers heading into this season than any other season in recent history.

However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past couple of seasons, their ceiling truly begins and ends with Griffin. When the Clippers bounced the defending champion Spurs in the first round of the 2015 playoffs, Griffin averaged an incredible 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 7.4 assists, showcasing the same playmaking ability that led to him finishing third in MVP voting just a season before.

While Chris Paul might still be the best player on the team, Griffin’s shown glimpses of also being a top-five player in the league. Griffin’s breakout, if you will, really came at about the midway point of the 2013-14 season, when Paul was forced to miss 18 games with a shoulder injury.  At the time of the injury, the Clippers were 23-12 and sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference.

Over the next 18 games, we saw Griffin elevate his game from high-flying scorer to do-it-all offensive centerpiece, averaging 27.5 points (on 55.4-percent from the field), 8.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game as the Clippers went 12-6 (per Basketball Reference). Los Angeles finished the season 57-25, which was good for the third-best record in the conference, and led to Griffin receiving the aforementioned MVP consideration.

While it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Griffin to wish for a mulligan for last season, it’s important to note the progress he made leading up to it and consider what it should mean for him and his team moving forward. This leads us back to optimism, and what to expect for Griffin and the Clippers moving forward.

Outside of the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, the Clippers feasibly have the highest floor of any team in the league. While Griffin’s progress was halted last season, Redick and DeAndre Jordan probably had the best seasons of their careers, as Redick led the NBA in three-point efficiency converting a blistering 47.5-percent, and Jordan was selected First Team All-NBA. And even though coach/general manager Doc Rivers still hasn’t found that “missing piece” at small forward, the combination of Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute fit in nicely on last season’s team, and is back for another year of focusing mainly on defense and hustle play.

Taking last season’s success (relatively speaking) into account while looking at the Clippers’ moves this offseason, maybe we’re at a point where their missing piece is no longer a wing or a backup point guard. What this team needs more than anything is a healthy, and focused Griffin.

Even last season, in a down year for Griffin, the Clippers posted two of the top seven lineups in the NBA in terms of plus/minus, per NBA.com. Relating that to this season, both of those lineups featured Griffin, Paul, Redick, and Jordan. But I suppose that shouldn’t be all that surprising when the same core four led the league in the same category in 2014-15.

Sure, even when Griffin was healthy last season the Clippers weren’t playing all that well, but that lineup stat above goes to show you the team’s lack of success was less a reflection of their stout starting lineup than the talent backing them up. In an offseason that consisted of veteran additions like Raymond Felton, Brandon Bass, Maurice Speights and Alan Anderson, it seems very apparent that Rivers is aware of his team’s shrinking window, and that he has at least one more year to try and win with Griffin and Paul.

As daunting as it must be for the rest of the league to know they’ll have to go through Golden State if they have championship aspirations, the Clippers should still be a powerhouse not only out West but for the entire league to have to deal with.

The Blake Griffin Redemption Tour

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