Name: Blake Griffin
2012-2013 Key Stats: 18.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg. 3.7 apg, .538 FG%
Years in NBA: 3
Years With Clippers: 3
2012-2013 Salary: $7,226,892
Contract Status: Signed for five more seasons at the maximum.
In A Nutshell:
I think there is a sentiment among general NBA fans, and even among people who follow the Clippers closely, that All-NBA power forward Blake Griffin took a step backward this season. People are quite accustomed to looking at per game averages and it's a fact that Griffin's scoring and rebounding numbers -- and let's face it, that's what people look for in an All Star power forward -- took a big hit this season. The reality is more complex than that, as fewer minutes per game facilitated by a deeper LA bench accounted for most of the decrease.
There's also the tendency to criticize Griffin for the things he could be doing; he's so athletically gifted that many of his critics seem to measure him by the gap between what he produces and what they have decided he should be producing. Call it the Charles Barkley "he doesn't impose his will" critique.
I'm going to try to stay out of both of those traps in this Exit Interview. Those are good topics for a different post, but for now, rather than spend a lot of time wondering whether he's improved enough, or discussing his untapped potential, let's try and look at what he actually did this season. It's surprising how infrequently that happens in Griffin's case. (We'll have to get into his development towards the end, but we're going to try to stay out of the expectations quagmire as much as possible.)
Griffin was one of four players in the league this season to average 18 points and eight rebounds per game -- and he did it while playing 32.5 minutes per game, while the other three who accomplished it (LeBron James, David Lee and LaMarcus Aldridge) played at least 36.8 each. He was one of three players to average 20 points and nine rebounds per 36 minutes -- and he's the only player to appear on both of those lists. Add in his much improved assist numbers, and the company becomes even more selective. Basically, other than LeBron, there was not another player in the league this season that represented such a combination of scoring, rebounding and passing.
He did this while shooting .538 from the field and .660 from the line -- a career high for him and much better than last season, if still not great. He also played significantly improved defense and was third in the league among big men in steals per game. Could he do more? That's neither here nor there -- he did plenty.
Griffin was selected second team All NBA with the fourth most votes at the forward position. The three forwards ahead of him in the voting -- James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony -- finished 1-2-3 in MVP voting. And although James, Durant and Anthony frequently play the four position in today's smaller NBA, they are all more traditionally small forwards. In the mythical competition for best power forward in the NBA, while Lee and Aldridge and Zach Randolph and others are all quite good, Griffin was pretty clearly better than all of them on a statistical basis. In fact, the other player in the conversation this season would have been Tim Duncan, who is really a center. Griffin's PER of 22.4 (12th best overall) was the highest among power forwards (again ignoring James, Durant, Anthony and Duncan as not really playing the position). Kevin Love might be better when he's healthy, and critics are free to prefer a different player's style over Griffin's, but overall, the All-NBA voters got this one right. Griffin was the best power forward in the NBA this year.
Griffin is an athletic marvel, and he uses his athleticism to full advantage on the court. However, that athleticism frequently seems to blind critics to the other things he can do. The epithet "just-a-dunker" was hung on him amid a backlash against his popularity during his rookie season, and frankly it's way off base.
Yes, he's an athletic freak. But he's also a highly skilled basketball player. Few (if any) players his size can handle the ball as well as he can. He has terrific basketball instincts and excellent court vision. The Clippers' were perhaps at their most dangerous this season when they got the ball to Griffin near the free throw line. As the defense reacted to Griffin, he became very adept at picking out the proper pass, either to a wing player, a cutter or a lob to DeAndre Jordan at the rim. The vision to find the correct pass, and the touch to make it, are uncommon skills among 6'10 players.
Griffin's size, strength, quickness and vision make him a tough cover in the low post, even if he still has a ways to go in developing his full post game. His best move is the spin move from the right block, and he has added a pretty nice up-and-under at this point. His jump hook is improving, but still not great. He added a left-handed jump hook this year that still needs a lot of work, but the very fact that it exists shows his ongoing development -- this is not a shot that he had in his arsenal his first two seasons in the league. Even with room for developing his post game, Griffin was among the best in the league at the rim -- .767 shooting and over four makes per game. Only LeBron was better at the rim this season.
I would not put Griffin's defense into the 'strength' category just yet, but it's getting there, and one specific aspect was very good this year. The Clippers as a team played applied significantly more pressure on the defensive end this season, and with Griffin blitzing the ballhandler on pick-and-roll coverage, the resulting double team with Chris Paul was a nightmare for opposing point guards. Griffin's quickness allowed him to keep the ballhandler from turning the corner, and his size smothered the ball while Paul's quick hands went for the steal -- it was a very effective defensive weapon.
Griffin remains a mediocre perimeter shooter and defenses continue to play off him to take away the drive. He's not terrible -- it's a valid shot late in a shot clock and his percentage is in line with many other forwards in the league. The simple fact is that 16-23 foot range is not a good shot for anybody in the league, and it's certainly not a good shot for Griffin. He probably settles for it a bit too often, though he does have to take it occasionally to keep defenses honest. Or rather, he needs to make it to keep defenses honest.
I think the conventional wisdom is that Griffin was better from the perimeter this season, but the statistics do not bear that out. I went to a lot of trouble last season informing people that his 37% shooting from 16-23 feet was actually pretty good for a power forward -- this year he shot 34% from that range, which is still not terrible, but obviously a step back. Every player is better the closer they get to the basket, but the discrepancy is pretty big with Griffin.
His free shooting remains well below the league average of 75%, but it was at least respectable this season. He made about two out of three to set a career high of 66% from the line, and even more encouraging, he was over 70% during a 42 game stretch January to April and he was close to 81% in six playoff games. That's exactly the type of progress the Clippers were hoping for when they hired shooting coach Bob Thate to work with Griffin. He could very easily be a 75 percenter for the season next year.
One potential side effect of the improved free throw shooting -- Griffin is getting to the line less frequently. Is that because he is being less insistent in the post, because he's getting the benefit of fewer calls, or because teams are less willing to foul him intentionally now that he's more likely to make his foul shots?
Future with the Clippers:
Griffin's five-year, super-max contract extension kicks in beginning next season, so he's going to be with the Clippers for a very long time. (The super-max contract, remember, is available to players coming off their rookie contract if they meet certain criteria, such as starting in the All Star Game twice or being selected to the All-NBA team twice. Griffin did both of those things, and as such received a contract worth 30% of the salary cap whereas other fourth year players would be limited to a 25% max.) With free agent Chris Paul expected to sign his own five year deal in July, Griffin and Paul will form one of the best superstar duos in the league until at least the year 2018 if we're lucky.
It will be interesting to see what effect a new coach has on Griffin. He is a hard worker and wants to improve; and as good as he is, there is still ample head room for him. His post game remains a work in progress, as his is jump shot and his defense -- heck, he could improve in basically every aspect of the game. Which is pretty amazing, when you consider how good he is already. One of the Clippers top priorities in the coaching search should be to find one that can develop Griffin to his full potential -- to the extent that you can evaluate a coach's ability to develop players, that is.
Although I've tried to stay out of the expectations trap to this point, I will say this: it is time for Griffin to take the next step. He came into the league at a very productive level, and he has certainly made major refinements in his game -- but he hasn't made the leap into the truly elite category. Most people assumed he'd be there at some point -- which is probably why he gets as much criticism as he does. It may be not be fair, but it's reality. Paul needs a truly elite running mate with the Clippers for the next five years; Griffin can be -- needs to be -- that guy.