Blake Griffin is a great, potentially transcendent, basketball player unlike any we have ever seen before. We know this to be true when comparisons to all-time greats fail to do the man justice and we are forced to look for combinations of Hall of Famers and mythical creatures to explain his physical dominance at such a young age. For many basketball fans, this dominance is manifested over SportsCenter highlight packages and YouTube videos that show Griffin dunking in 83 different ways (as of Thursday) on NBA players of every size and ability level. He is going to be in the dunk contest, of course, on his home court, even though he may not make the All-Star team, despite numbers that suggest he’s a strong candidate to start, never mind being one of 12 selected. His Clippers have a bad record (11-24 as of Thursday), so some will say he doesn’t belong in the game, which is fine, because it doesn’t matter. No one, however, questions whether the NBA’s most frequent dunker deserves a place in this year’s dunk contest.
In L.A. and across the league, he is a full-fledged phenomenon, exceeding most expectations despite coming out as a unanimous top pick with comparisons to guys like Barkley, Malone, Kemp and Amar’e. He has justified the hype and fed the hysteria with an ever-evolving highlight reel, but I am beginning to fear that his reputation is actually beginning to do him – and to a lesser extent his teammates – a real disservice. Everyone loves dunks, but Clipper fans will tell you that some of his most amazing moments have come in other areas of the game. You see, it’s easy to create the narrative of the perennially horrible Clippers losing games despite their dunking Rookie of the Year. But a closer look suggests that Griffin is much more than that, a legitimate franchise cornerstone capable leading a promising young core that is getting better with every game. Following are a few things you may be missing if you think L.A.’s other team is little else than BlakeSlams.
The Clippers started the season 1-13, playing primarily with a lineup of guys under 23 years old that predictably struggled to finish close games. It turns out that the extended playing time has benefitted the young core, with the team playing nearly .500 ball since the rough start, including a run of six wins in their last nine games. Possibly the most significant reason for the team’s ability to hang with their opponents early (8 of their first 9 games were against 2009-10 Western Conference playoff teams) and win more games of late has been their dominance on the boards. The Clips rank 2nd in the league in Total Rebound Rate and are led in this area, of course, by Griffin. Everyone knows that Blake is a good rebounder, his double-double streak gets some play, although it pales in comparison to coverage of his dunks. A complete monster on the glass, he averages nearly 22 points and 13 rebounds per game, the two numbers unquestionably linked. His ability to keep possessions alive that lead to second chance buckets has kept the Clippers in games all year long, and it figures to continue to be a strength for the team. With the somewhat surprising development of DeAndre Jordan as a suitable frontcourt mate to Griffin, the Clips look strong in this critical area for the foreseeable future.
Feel For The Game
Many of the Clippers’ losses this season have been the result of young players and their inability to make plays, get stops, or protect the ball down the stretch. (They have also endured struggles from veterans like Rasual Butler and, gulp, Jarron Collins, but few have played enough minutes to factor significantly). Griffin, however, has managed to exhibit a feel for the game that defies his rookie status. He is a phenomenal ball-handler, especially for a big man, adept at taking a defensive rebound or getting deflections in the passing lane and initiating a fast break. A year off dribbling tennis balls while sitting out did nothing but add to an arsenal that already included freakish balance, strength, and sense of when to move the ball and when to attack. An extremely hard worker, his offensive game continues to develop with a jumper that could only make him more dangerous.
Even with some acknowledging Gordon as a prime candidate for this year’s Most Improved Player, he still manages to be underappreciated by most non-Clipper fans. Averaging 45 points between them, Gordon (23.3 ppg) and Griffin (21.7) are the third highest scoring duo in the league, behind only Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (50) and Dwyane Wade and LeBron James (49.8). People may understand that Griffin is for real and Gordon is much improved, but to be in that company may be the best indication of the foundation that the Clippers have. Gordon has become a terrific pick and roll partner with Griffin, accepting the challenge of becoming a playmaker after deferring too often during his first two years in the league. His Usage Rate (27.9) is drastically higher than last season (21.5), and he has upped his assist rate from 14.9 his first two seasons to 16.5 this year, while maintaining an efficient offensive approach (56.9% True Shooting Percentage) and to go with consistently stingy defense. For those who are into this sort of thing, he ranks 15th in the league in clutch scoring on 82games.com (defined as 4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points), with 37.8 points per 48 minutes of clutch time.
The U-23 Lineup
As mentioned earlier, the Clippers’ most common lineup this season has been it’s “Under-23” lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Injuries to Baron Davis and Chris Kaman created opportunities for this group, and each individual has provided plenty of reason to believe that he should be a part of the team’s core as it develops into a playoff team. Bledsoe, just 19 and re-adjusting to his natural position of point guard after playing the 2 as a freshman at Kentucky, possesses unique speed and athleticism for his position that has enabled him to hold his own against the NBA’s top guards to start his career. He has shown the willingness to set up his teammates and a fearlessness that bodes well for his future once he figures out how to slow down and limit turnovers. Aminu, also 19, has been a pleasant surprise for the Clips and appears to have convinced the team he is a viable long-term solution at the small forward with his impressive early play. Considered a weak shooter coming out of Wake Forest, he is shooting 42% from three this year to go with tremendous length and sneaky athleticism that allow him to be disruptive on defense and on the glass. Jordan has made the most of his opportunity with Kaman out, developing into an exceptional finisher around the rim (his 65 dunks are fourth in the league) to go with vastly improved defense and rebounding. He still struggles with free throw shooting and lacks much offensive polish, but his ascension has been as impressive as the Clippers could have hoped for in his third year.
The Clippers have been very open about modeling their franchise after the Thunder, who you may remember won 23 games two years ago before jumping to 50 and a near upset of the Lakers in the playoffs. Their future depends on the success of this “U-23” lineup if they are to make a jump like Oklahoma City, and Griffin is, no doubt, the leader. They will count on him to score, rebound, create for his teammates, and of course, dunk. But Gordon and the others are also integral to the future, and if their play of late is any indication, that future is getting closer every day.