The Extraordinary Evolvement of Blake Griffin's Expertise

Think back to simpler times. Times when the only things that mattered were how hard Blake Griffin dunked on someone's face. The Los Angeles Clippers might have lost the wars back then, but my oh my did they sure win some of those battles with thunderous gratification since they got what they came for; a Blake Griffin dunk. Oh how the times have changed. It's amazing what being a winning basketball team can do to a fan base. They become more rabid, more on edge, and they want things they don't get to see that often. One of those things was a winning streak we hadn't seen before. Well, it's here. Another was a great defense. Well, that's here too. And, yet another was seeing Blake Griffin thrill the masses with more than just dunks. I'm here to tell you that maybe, just maybe, we have gotten all of our Christmas wishes this year.

When looking at the ever evolving state of the National Basketball Association, people try to find players who have not only raised their game to a higher level but ones who have also added skills to their repertoire. Well, NBA fans, I'm here to tell you that Blake Griffin is that man. It's usually by the third season in a guy's career that we get a really good idea of just how great he'll become. That's when his maturation is usually in full effect. With Blake Griffin, at least to me, that holds true. (For the sake of sanity and things of that nature, I'll be using Hoopdata's statistical data for this little enterprise. I would use a combination of Basketball Reference and Hoopdata but they vary quite a bit in his shooting numbers and I'd rather stick with just one than flip-flop between the two.)

Blake Griffin, this season, in 25 games, is averaging 18.0 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks. He's also shooting 53.1% from the field and 61.9% from the free throw line. This is the stat line that people see and this is why some people think he's having a down season when, in reality, he definitely is not. The points, rebounds, and assists are career lows for him. The blocks, field goal shooting, and free throw shooting are all the second best of his three seasons. The only statistic he's registering a career high in is steals. But there's one very key piece of information that I left out. Well, two key pieces. The main one here is minutes. Blake Griffin is playing a career low 32.4 minutes per game. His lowest minutes per game prior to this season? Last year when he registered 36.2 minutes per game. We're looking at about a four minute dropoff here per game. Over the course of an 82 game season, they translates into, roughly, 311 fewer minutes. During his rookie season, Blake Griffin averaged 38.0 minutes per game and played 3112 total minutes. Blake Griffin, as of right now, is on pace to see 455 fewer minutes than his rookie season. And people wonder why his numbers are down.

The second key piece about why Blake Griffin's numbers are down happens to be Usage Rate. John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER) statistic, which I admittedly am not even remotely a fan of for reasons I'll get into some other time, puts Blake Griffin's Usage Rate at 23.9 this season. Usage Rate is the number of possessions a player uses on a per 40 minute basis. That number, this season, ranks fourth among all power forwards. Last season, Blake Griffin's Usage Rate was 24.7. In his rookie season, it was 25.6. In his rookie season, his Usage Rate ranked second among power forwards. Last season, it ranked third. This season, as noted, it ranks fourth. As you can see, there's been a slow and steady decline in usage for Blake Griffin. It's not as if he's getting used a ton and not converting. That's not the case. He's just being used less and less. I actually think this is a brilliant idea and a strategy that is sure to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Even though Blake Griffin's Usage Rate is at a career low this season, he's still performing up to snuff. His True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is at 55.6%. That's narrowly behind last year's career high of 55.7%. There is one statistic that truly does show that he is better this season. And it's Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48). In his rookie season, it was at .152. Last season, it was at .185. This season? It's at .204. That ranks tenth in the NBA. Kevin Durant leads the league while our very own Chris Paul is hot on his heels in second. For reference, Eric Bledsoe also ranks 19th. It's not like that statistic is made up of guys just on winning teams, either. Ed Davis is on (17th). Oh, and Kobe Bryant's on it too (5th). So, losing teams can have winning players.

There are two areas of Blake Griffin's game that he's made vast improvements on that statistics show. The first is his jumper. According to Hoopdata, on 16-23 foot jumpers, Blake Griffin made just 83 of the 252 that he took during his rookie season. For our non-math geeks out there, that's 32.9%. Last season, Blake Griffin made 96 out of the 260 that he took. A somewhat solid improvement to 36.9%. A four point increase is nothing to sneeze at. Especially when people doubted you even knew how to play outside the paint in the first place. So, what's it at this season, you ask? Well, he's made 43 of the 105 he's taken. That comes out to 41.0%. (It's actually 40.95% but I rounded up. Doesn't everyone?) Quick! Someone tell me what percentage point increase that was? You guessed it! Another four point increase. That means that Blake Griffin has improved his jumper by 8% since his rookie season. That, my friends, is nothing to sneeze at. And he's shown a willingness to shoot those jumpers more and more.

During Blake Griffin's rookie season, he averaged 3.07 16-23 foot jumpers per game. Last season, he averaged 3.94 per game. This season he's decided to up that just a little bit. He's now averaging 4.20 per game. An extra one mid-range jumper per game doesn't seem like much. And, I guess it the grand scheme of things, it really might not be much. However, making the defense come out to guard you away from the hoop more means the floor spacing is much better for the entire team. It's called "good offense." Like I stated in the preceding paragraph, Blake Griffin attempted 252 16-23 foot jumpers during his rookie season. He's on pace, right now, to take 344. We're looking at nearly 100 more of these mid-range jumpers. It shows three things. It shows (1) a willingness to expand his game, (2) a willingness to do what's best for the team, and (3) a willingness to work harder than ever. Some might think that number one and number three go together but being a hard worker and expanding your game are two different things.

Now, the second area that Blake Griffin has made vast improvements to is his defense. I think we can all agree that during his rookie season, he really wasn't a good defender. He just tried his best to not pick up fouls so he could play offense more. When on a team that was going nowhere and featured guys who weren't hard workers, the lack of work ethic kind of rubs off on you. For an example, look at the Washington Wizards. The numbers spell this out for Blake Griffin. During his rookie season, he gave up 0.88 points per possession (188th) and wasn't a good post defender at all. He allowed opponents to average 0.95 points per post-up possession (208th) and shoot a whopping 49%. Last season, he gave up 0.91 points per possession (341st) but he was a better post defender. He allowed opponents to average 0.87 points per post-up possession (174th) and shoot only 40.5%. This season, however, he's giving up 0.72 points per possession (37th) and, while his post defense has regressed in regards to field goal percentage, he is doing a better job. This season, opponents are averaging 0.85 points per post-up possession (65th) and shooting 45.5%. In his rookie season, on post-up defense, he committed a shooting foul 6.5% of the time. Last season, it was 9%. This year? 5%. He's gotten better. He now has the mindset that he can defend guys in the low block without fouling but while also playing aggressive defense.

Things that the stat sheet or advanced statistics don't show are his willingness to give up his body for the good of the team or disrupt plays on defense by just being quicker than everyone. Countless times we've seen him hedge out on a screen and disrupt the ball-handler and what he wants to do in the pick-and-roll. Countless times we've seen him recognize when to double team and screw up an offensive possession because of his quick hands. Countless times we've seen him dive onto the floor for a loose ball and make things happen. He's the consummate professional. He's willing to do whatever it takes to win. He's no longer looking to dunk all the time. Well, he is, but he also knows when not to. He's an excellent passer. He's very good as a ball-handler in the open floor but does have his moments when he looks like a fish out of water. These are all things that Blake Griffin brings to the table for the team. And he's doing this in fewer minutes; fewer opportunities than he's used to. It's truly a magical thing to watch unfold.

I've gone through this entire article praising Blake Griffin but I do have to bring up some of his faults. I think it's only fair. For instance, one of his faults is that he's only good on one side of the low block. Another is that he head fakes too many times rather than being decisive with the basketball. You can only head fake so much before your head turns to mush and you get all discombobulated. We've seen this happen quite a few times actually. Another is free throws. He's not great at free throws and he's not terrible. His problem there is slightly hidden by DeAndre Jordan being the worst free throw shooter in the league. Karl Malone, who I've said his game could loosely reflect in the long run, didn't break into the NBA as a good free throw shooter. In fact, in his first two seasons, Karl Malone was only a 54.8% free throw shooter. Blake Griffin, in his first two seasons, was a 59.3% free throw shooter. In Karl Malone's third season, Malone averaged 70.0% from the line. That means that in Malone's first three seasons, he was a 61.7% free throw shooter. Blake Griffin, right now at this moment, is a 59.6% free throw shooter. He's not too far behind Karl Malone at the moment. The reason I bring this is up is because Karl Malone turned himself into career 74.2% free throw shooter. That's not terrible. That's passable. In fact, that's pretty much average. A power forward who can shoot nearly 75% from the free throw line is a good thing to have. Blake just needs to work a little bit more there. Blake Griffin can be Karl Malone. It's not that far of a stretch. In fact, when you look at Blake's first three seasons compared to Malone's first three seasons, they're eerily similar for the most part.

When looking at Blake Griffin, you realize he's far from a finished product. He's getting there, though. Within the next year or two, he will have reached his peak and we'll see what he's truly capable of. Can he regress? Sure he can. Every player can. It takes hard work, dedication, and a drive to succeed in order to not fail. Blake Griffin can be one of the all-time greats. That is, without a doubt, a fact. Will he get there? No one knows. The only thing that I'm certain of is that he is improving as a player. He's expanded his game to areas we haven't really seen before. He's no longer just a dunker. He's no longer just a highlight film waiting to happen. He's turned himself from an aerial artist into a savvy star. He's understanding the game better. He's tweaking his game. He's refining his gift. And he really is the gift that keeps on giving. So this Christmas, while everyone else is wishing for everything under the sun, just remember that we already are in possession of the greatest gift of all; hope.

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