Sometime last season it became fashionable to hate on a one Blake Griffin. I tried to articulate the Clipper-wide revulsion I felt in February, taking particular aim at why Griffin, despite his highlight-friendly play, seemed so unlikable. Since then the question has shifted from “why do I find him so annoying” to “is Blake Griffin actually getting worse?”
Though the questioning has become louder and more confident after Griffin’s slow start this year, the answer, as far as I can see, is plainly “no.” In his second season he missed some more freethrows, and didn’t grab as many rebounds (more on that later) as he did as a rookie but also scored more and at a more efficient clip.
To understand the Griffin doubt, we need to look at how he first earned his oversized reputation.
The hate (and we’re talking “sports hate” here) that arose in 2012 departed in a meaningful way from the typical way people hated on the Clippers, which was to ridicule their hapless fortune and loath their owner. No, this was the kind of dislike reserved for teams and players that earn your interest and the investment of your time. If you watched NBA basketball last year, you watched the Clippers, and unless you lived in L.A. and watched them often in 2010-11, that meant you watched much more of Blake Griffin’s second season than you did his first.
And here’s the important part: rookie Blake Griffin’s game was primarily absorbed intravenously via high-powered dunk highlight.
It was a powerful drug that shocked the senses and distorted reality. One hit and you were hooked — and hits were all we got. Actually watching the Clippers in 2010 was miserable. Lining up Blake Griffin’s “fast break made field goals” on Synergy was a lot more fun.
It’s my suspicion that the vast majority of people who fell in love with Blake Griffin as a rookie did so vicarious of his actual moment-by-moment play — with highlights and overall statistics, both of which were impressive.
Most impressive indeed, considering he was a 21 year old rookie that some believed was too small and unskilled to warrant a No. 1 pick. Plus there was that whole Clippers voodoo thing. And because expectations were so low, when he came on the scene and fearlessly leapt over and through defenders who just had no idea it was coming to detonate an atomic jam, we needed to rapidly adjust expectations.
But I think there was also mental trick at work. The shifting of expectations did not accompany a dramatic improvement in Griffin’s first year. His best stretches came in January, but his production was pretty consistent month-to-month throughout whole first season. But I don’t think our brains are wired to accept something as jarring as “this guy who did not exist a year before is now an excellent player,” and so instead people perceived Griffin through the more gradual narrative lens of a journey, i.e.: “the pace at which I have become increasingly aware of Griffin’s value mirrors the pace of his actual gains in value.”
As a result, Griffin’s actual production has rarely matched up with expectations, sending out perceptions of his worth all over the place.
Let’s visualize this phenomenon:
Because there’s this general sense of disappointment, Griffin’s game sometimes gets the short shrift in how people “scout” him on a more micro-level. Here’s an (abridged) list of complaints, and my retorts:
He has one trick, and it’s dunking
Dunking is by far Blake Griffin’s best trick, but it’s not his only one. Griffin is actually quite advanced as a passer and dribbler. He’s particularly adept at skipping to the weakside from the post, or dumping the ball off to the other big man when he drives. Griffin’s handle allows him to think of on the move with the ball, which is helpful because that allows him to start — though not always lead — fastbreaks with the dribble if he can’t find a quick outlet.
But the biggest misperception here is that Griffin needs to dunk to score. The thing he does better than everyone except probably LeBron James is just leap at the rim, absorb contact, then use his touch to coax in a close range shot. Like this.
It’s not shooting or dribbling, but that’s still a skill — an incredibly valuable one.
Griffin cannot score in the half court
If this were true, it’d be tough to explain how he was such an efficient scorer on the team that ranked 26th in and 23rd in fastbreak points per game (down from 10th the year before). Of course it would be great if the Clippers ran a bit more, but Chris Paul prefers to slow the game down to maintain absolute control, and Vinny Del Negro refuses to play Eric Bledsoe with Paul, when Bledsoe can act as a change of pace point guard to push the ball up court. Bledsoe is also the second best penetrator on the team, and can compromise a defense in ways that allow for easier hoops for Griffin. Blake is a phenomenal finisher (74 percent at the rim in 2011-12) but only one player — Paul — can create for him most of the time.
Griffin isn’t lost in the half court — he’s a fine iso and post up player but not a great one. He needs to catch the ball on the move and in space, and that’s just not something he gets to do all that much in Del Negro and Paul’s system. Still, some of his biggest gains in efficiency last year came on isolation plays, according to Synergy Sports.
The larger point here is that the way Paul wants to play, and the rotations/offense Del Negro choses both conspire to actually hurt Griffin’s production. Now, that isn’t to say truck loads of Chris Paul pick-and-rolls are a bad thing for any big man, but Griffin dose deserve some credit for his personal improvement.
Blake Griffin can’t shoot
This one’s true, and it’s especially problematic as it applies to freethrows. He needs to be up above 70 percent. But it’s also the criticism that augurs least compellingly for a stunted future. Most players improve their free throw shooting, especially at the beginning of their careers (Karl Malone is a ready example), and Griffin’s jumper actually improved over the course of last season to the point that converted better than 43 percent of his long jumpshots during the last two months.
He isn’t a good enough shooter (which is bad), but he cares about it and appears willing to do the work necessary to get there (which is very good).
Blake Griffin doesn’t do the little things … like play defense
Here’s another issue on which Griffin is rightfully criticized, though context is often ignored. He’s not a natural defender, sure, but the Clippers scheme is also a disaster. Or was last year, as they attempted to institute a new philosophy while equipping Blake with terrible wing defenders, clueless backline mates and no camp or practice time in which to institute the schemes. The Clippers need to be at least a top-15 defense to contend and power forward is perhaps the most crucial defensive position. Defense, like shooting, is an area in which most big men improve as they gain experience and learn how to anticipate within their system. He should at least be able to do what Boris Diaw does for the Spurs.
But the subtler complaint is that Griffin, pick-and-roll dunker though he may be, is sort of a crappy screener, something Kevin Arnovitz pointed out in his Griffin roadmap for improvement.
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With a wider lens on Griffin’s career to date and future prospects, that the most efficient power forward scorer in the NBA (who is 23, by the way) has so many areas in which he still should improve indicates that instead of regressing, we should expect Griffin will only improve — at least until he exits his athletic prime.
But we may never get that bright current down our spines when Blake hits his launch point perfectly and blasts off — he lead the NBA in dunks and just missed “most attempts at the rim” last year. Is it possible he spoiled us by dunking too much?
He had one on Monday night against Cleveland in the final few minutes that was as spectacular as it was quickly forgotten. After catching 12 feet from the rim, Griffin pivoted and, without dribbling, just took off into the air, and swing down with a left-handed hammer that would bring smiles in Asgard. Twitter’s hoop fiends, those lovers of novelty and spectacle who were once Griffin’s greatest admirers, couldn’t be bothered to type so much as an acronym.
When it comes to Griffin, it seems the thrill is gone though the best is yet to come.