Name: Blake Griffin
2010-2011 Key Stats: 22.5 ppg, 12.1 rpg, 3.8 apg, .506 FG%, 38.0 mpg
Years in the NBA: 1
Years with the Clippers: 1
2010-2011 Salary: $5,357,280
Contract Status: Signed through 2012; team option for 2012-2013 for $7,226,892; restricted free agent in summer 2013
In a Nutshell
Last October, John Wall was the popular pick for Rookie of the Year. It probably was the safest choice, too - Wall had the tools, the skills and the charisma to make an immediate impact at point guard, a position associated with the youngest and hottest stars in the league. This was supposed to be his year, his chance to hijack perhaps the most anticipated NBA season ever.
On Wednesday, the league's unveiling of the all-rookie teams included this stunning result: Somehow, Wall's selection to the first team had been blemished by a single vote to the second squad. Never mind, though, that the coach with the gall to snub Wall should step forward and subject himself to a public lashing - it just felt right that Blake Griffin would be the lone unanimous selection.
Griffin's status as a first-year player has been debated ad nauseam, though his uncontested sweep of the ROY award and a first-team selection should tell you what the coaches and most media members think. Regardless of your stance on his eligibility, it's fair to say that Griffin had one of the most satisfying debut campaigns ever, in any sport. Not only for Griffin, who went from missing all of 2009-2010 to playing in all 82 games last season, or the Clippers, who were counting on him to make them relevant again. Watching Griffin for the last six months amounted to a guilty pleasure for any basketball fan. There's a reason why NBA blog Ball Don't Lie plans on hosting "Blake Griffin Tuesdays" this summer.
Really, Griffin might represent the most compelling argument to end the impending lockout as quickly as possible. Forget the squabbling and the finances and the legal documents - if we have to wait until January or later to witness the improvements Griffin will have made to his game, many of us, including yours truly, will devolve into irritable, twitching wrecks.
It's not just that Griffin, as great as he already is, has a long way to go and that you just know he's going to direct every ounce of his energy to getting there, wherever "there" is. Last season, we saw a college-aged kid will an entire franchise in a direction never before seen. Griffin showed he understood the enormous responsibility placed on him and then embraced it by surpassing our wildest expectations night after night.
He can't do it alone, of course. If they want to play past April next season, the Clippers will need better health, better chemistry and yes, a new player or two. Griffin needs to get better himself. But they certainly can't do it without him, either. No way in hell can they do it without him. That might sound obvious enough, but it bears repeating that the Clippers have pinned their hopes on Griffin. And all he's done is raise those hopes higher and higher, for we've seen what he can do as a 21-year-old and we know there's so, so much more.
It used to be that Griffin's hustle, rebounding and scoring prowess around the rim were all anyone wanted to talk about, so much so that his ball-handling and passing went overlooked in the process. Now, seemingly every evaluation of Griffin fawns and marvels over his "point" skills, and if it's overdone, there's a reason - the 3.8 assists he averaged per game last season, the most by a rookie power forward since Lamar Odom in 1999-2000, only begin to tell how impressive Griffin is as a multi-skilled big man.
Griffin is particularly adept with the ball in transition, where he crouches over low, like a well-trained running back, and keeps his dribble even lower. Not only does the low center of gravity make him harder to strip, it also allows him to explode to the hoop with even more force when he reaches the paint. It felt as if at least once a game Griffin would grab a long rebound and, instead of passing the ball to a guard, bring it up on the break himself. He wasn't being selfish - it clearly was something the coaching staff encouraged him to do, simply because he was so good at it.
In the half-court offense, Griffin isn't quite as frightening with the ball - he needs work on keeping his handle in traffic, and he lacks confidence in his dribble-drive game - though he remains effective because he's almost always quicker and more athletic than his defender. Even when opponents find a way to wall off his path to the rim, he shows unusual poise in avoiding the tunnel vision so many young players struggle with. As the number of double-teams increased over the course of last season, Griffin learned to read the defense earlier and swing the ball to an open teammate on the weak side. His assist rate of 16.8% put him among the best passing frontcourt players in the league, and he should eventually reach the class of a Kevin Garnett in that regard, if he hasn't already.
But enough about passing and all that other boring stuff. Griffin does his most conspicuous work off the ball, relentlessly cutting, sprinting and bulling his way to the hoop for an offensive board, a pass or, of course, an alley-oop. If that makes him sound like a hustle player, that's because he is. That said, Griffin distinguishes himself from the Joakim Noahs of the league with superior athleticism that includes superb coordination and probably the quickest "second jump" around. Combine these attributes with his excellent hands and strength, and it's no surprise that he was second only to Dwight Howard in scoring at the rim last season. When he refines his post moves and counters, we'll see Griffin convert at an even better rate in the paint, which spells doom for anyone brave enough to stand between him and the basket.
There are other things Griffin does exceptionally well that I have yet to mention, rebounding likely being the first to come to mind (do we really need another breakdown of how he dominates the glass?). His shooting range extends as far as the 3-point line. His footwork improved significantly over the course of last season. He has the off-the-court work ethic that every coach dreams about. The important takeaway here, though, is that at this point he's much further along in his development than anyone expected. One can only imagine what an entire offseason of honing and adding to his skill-set will do for his game.
While Griffin can do just about anything on the basketball court, he's still raw in a lot of areas - raw enough to dampen expectations that he'll simply run away with the best-power-forward-in-the-league title next season. The biggest concerns appear on the defensive end, where Griffin's deficiencies go beyond his surprisingly meager steal and block totals. A lot of it has to do with the fact that his defense is far too often a step late. His reluctance to contest shots - something that carried over from trying to stay out of foul trouble at Oklahoma - is the first thing you notice, but he constantly found himself out of position and allowed opponents to get to their desired spots. Not that anyone was out-muscling him - he just didn't display the same desire or knowledge of angles that made him so successful on offense.
To be fair, Griffin did improve on defense as the season progressed. He already was a monster on the defensive glass, as well as a solid isolation defender, but we gradually saw more decisive rotations, more contests and harder hedges on pick-and-rolls. His effort on this end remained inconsistent, but we did see signs of Griffin's catching on, though more slowly and deliberately than on offense. It likely will take a while, but there's no reason Griffin can't develop into one of the strongest, most versatile defenders at his position. His relative lack of length - his 6'11" wingspan is average for a player his height - may limit his upside here, but he has the athleticism and work ethic to make up for it.
On offense, Griffin's flawed shooting stroke - both from the free-throw line and from outside - kept him from averaging upward of 25 points per game last season. He shot 32.5% from 10-15 feet and 33.0% from 16-23 feet, as defenders backed off and encouraged him to fire away. Although Griffin's mechanics look solid at first glance, his form is a little too rigid and he tends to fade away, even when open. At the stripe, a slight hitch at the top of his shot wastes upper body energy and prevents him from releasing the ball in one fluid motion. In the second half of last season, though, he did seem to develop more consistency, shooting nearly 70% from the line after the All-Star break, as opposed to 62% before it.
The rest of Griffin's offense could use fine-tuning as well. While Griffin's constant attacks on the rim net him a ton of high-percentage looks, he also takes too many shots of the opposite variety, especially when he puts the ball on the floor. This is where his strength advantage can work against him - he can get off a shot against multiple defenders, but that doesn't mean it's always a good option. Griffin would certainly benefit from adding more finesse to his face-up offense and back-to-the-basket game, both of which rely too heavily on pure power. Toward the end of last season, he was making effective use of several moves: a right-handed hook shot in the paint, a turnaround jumper from the block, a hard dribble to the right followed by a spin inside, and a nifty up-and-under that often surprised defenders. More of the the same going forward, as well as better use of his left hand, would make Griffin more efficient and subsequently impossible to cover.
Future with the Clippers
To all who still think that in a few years Griffin will leave town or stroll across the hallway to Kobe's locker room, I direct you to this excellent piece Steve wrote for SB Nation LA. If you haven't already, go read the entire thing, but the gist of it is that, barring some spectacular, unprecedented event, Griffin will be a Clipper for a long time. It's almost a lock that the Clippers will offer him a maximum contract extension after the end of next season and that, like every young franchise player before him, Griffin will sign it.
Even if Griffin somehow becomes a restricted free agent in the summer of 2013, the Clippers will match any offer thrown at him. It's the Clippers, you say? It's Donald Sterling, I say, and as Steve puts it, "he's not a bad businessman, and NOT matching an offer to Blake Griffin would be very, very bad business." Sterling knows it when he sees a player worth many times his weight in salary, and in Griffin, he's stumbled upon the mother lode of jackpots.
Yes, there's the new CBA to consider, but I can't imagine any of the "elite" teams in the league coming out on the other side in better shape financially than the Clippers. When the time comes for Griffin to make a decision, the Clippers likely will be his best and most logical option.
But put aside, if you will, the speculation about Griffin's next destination for a minute. As long as he stays, the Clippers will have opportunities to do things they've never done before. He's already made the kind of entrance that has people talking about the Clippers, 32-50 record and all, as a very real landing spot for the next marquee free agent. Think LeBron would've given Los Angeles more thought had he known Griffin would be this good? There's not much use in dealing in hindsight - LeBron's doing just fine in Miami, after all - but the key is that before he had played an actual NBA game, Griffin had gotten the Clippers an audience with the league's best player, however nominal it might have been.
If Griffin's second season doesn't turn out to be much better than his first, it would be a major disappointment considering how average he made 22 and 12 look as a rookie. I don't see that happening, though - I don't think any coach or player in the league does. If Griffin lives up to expectations - so far, he's given us no indication he'll do any less - and the rest of the team falls in line behind him, he'll get the Clippers the audience they really want in the postseason.
Other 2011 Exit Interviews