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The Griffin Improvement Debate -- Improving Superstar or One Trick Pony?

We're looking at the question of Blake Griffin's development as a player today. This is John O'Connor's take of Griffin's overall game. See also Steve Perrin's statistical analysis of Griffin's first three seasons in the league.

Stephen Dunn

Blake Griffin is a bit of a polarizing figure in the NBA. Despite his success on the court (both personal and team oriented) there are many who consider him a one dimensional player. "All he does is dunk" has been the most common critique of Blake Griffin through his first three seasons. Blake is young and certainly still developing as a player, but the majority of the critiques about him are greatly exaggerated. Although his statistics from this season might not reflect it, Blake Griffin improved significantly in 2013 as an all around basketball player, and all signs indicate that he will continue to improve for years to come.

Three years into his pro career, Blake Griffin has won the rookie of the year, is a three-time all star, and was named to the All-NBA 2nd team each of the last two seasons. He has signed a five year extension with the Clippers that pays him superstar money. But with tremendous early career success comes great criticism. Not a good enough shooter, not a good enough rebounder/defender, the aforementioned "all he does is dunk." Lets face it, Blake is a highlight machine. He is exciting, and sells tickets. He's great for the NBA, and a cash cow for Donald Sterling. Even if he wasn't a great player, he would be worth the contract just from a business standpoint. But Blake Griffin is much more than just a highlight reel of dunks, and the other critiques of his game are off base too.

Much has been made of Blake Griffin getting beat up on the boards against the Memphis Grizzlies in this year's 4 vs 5 playoff showdown. It's fair. Beyond games one and two, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph dominated the glass. Randolph is one of the best rebounders in the game (and in critical games 5 and 6, Blake was severely limited by an ankle injury).  In the regular season, Blake averaged a career low in rebounds (even when adjusted to per/36). Perhaps it is a result of expending more energy on offense or on help defense. Perhaps it is the result of teams finally adjusting to how you have to play such an athletically dominant power forward (remember Blake walked into the league and averaged 12 boards a game as a rookie). Maybe Blake's eagerness to get easy baskets or early post ups in transition are causing him to run out quicker more often. Whatever the case Griffin is too good of a player to make excuses for, and he does need to be more of a presence on the glass, something he is certainly capable of doing, and I would look for those numbers to improve next season.

While the criticism of his rebounding is largely fair, the same cannot be said of his defense. It's not something that is easy to measure, but Blake was a much improved defensive player this season, becoming particularly effective in guarding pick and rolls. One stat that does reflect his defensive improvement is steals, where he averaged 1.3/game, up from 0.8 last season. For what its worth, his defensive win shares was up this year from 2.6 to 3.9 (per Individual defense is beyond difficult to measure in basketball, but the eyeball test showed Griffin made significant strides this year. He is not an elite post defender, and may never be, but he can be a very good defender, particularly as a team defender.

His post game is improving with a much improved jump hook, as well as signs of a developing left handed jump hook

This brings us to offense. A lazy critique of Blake Griffin would say that his scoring was down this year, therefore it follows that he did not make any improvement, or possibly got worse. Nothing could be further from the truth. His miniscule decline in scoring can be attributed to his decreased minutes this season (when adjusted to per/36, there is only a .6 ppg difference). His post game is improving continually, and in 2013 we saw a much improved jump hook, as well as signs of a developing left handed jump hook. He exhibited the same dynamite explosiveness that allows him to take off and finish from farther than any human being should be able to, as well as his now famous ability to finish with either hand. The perception seems to be that Blake isn't a good low post scorer, yet teams regularly bring double and triple teams against him. Blake is an excellent scorer in the low block even if he does rely on his athleticism (and who cares if he does?) more often than using refined post moves. Those post moves are coming along nicely, and should continue to get better.

The low block isn't the only place we have seen an improvement in Blake's game this year. He is far and away the best ball handler at his position. An area of his game that we used to see only sporadically, Blake now regularly uses his dribble to attack the baseline and blow by defenders to get to the rim. Griffin also dramatically improved his free throw shooting this season, and as a result, teams were more hesitant to put him on the line intentionally to prevent easy buckets (He finished the season at 66%, but was much better than that towards the end of the year, and made 80% during the playoffs). He is often criticized for not being a good mid range shooter, but the truth is that he is right around league average at 37% (per Lamarcus Alrdidge, known for his mid range shooting, shot 42% last season from mid range, and was not nearly as effective at finishing around the basket. Udonis Haslem is also a noted mid range shooter, and he shot 39% in 2013. The outlier is David West, a fantastic mid range shooter at 47% and arguably the best in the game at the position (Brandon Bass is a very good mid-range shooter as well at 44% in 2013.) A fair criticism is that he at times settles for jumpers 2-3 feet farther away from the basket than he has to, which plays a part in his shooting percentage (as does Blake often taking late shot clock jumpers at the end of stagnant offensive possessions, something the Clippers were prone to in 2013). But Griffin has the mechanics to be a very good mid range shooter if utilized properly, and has had many games in his short career in which he was fantastic shooting the ball from distance. It should be noted that Blake shot fewer mid range jumpers this season (275) than he did last season (299) despite playing 14 more games. So Blake is obviously looking to be less reliant on jump shots for points. It would certainly have been nice to have seen a bigger statistical improvement in this area, because a Blake Griffin that can hit that shot with consistency will be a very difficult player to stop.

The critics are right. Blake Griffin CAN get better. And that is a very scary thought.

Without question, the area that Blake improved the most this season was his playmaking ability. Blake was second on the team in assists at 3.7/game (and above 4 per 36). Coach Del Negro's offensive system was one that saw a significant portion of the offesne run through Griffin at the high post, where he excelled at finding shooters, cutters, and playing the high low game with Deandre Jordan. Chris Paul rightfully gets a large amount of the credit for the success of the Clippers offense this season (4th in pts per 100 possessions per, as well as finishing in the top 10 in pts per game), but Griffin was instrumental in this as well. He was the leading scorer on a team with a balanced attack (5 players averaged double figures for the Clippers, with another 2 averaging over 8 pts/game) but more importantly he created for everyone else on the floor. Blake was unselfish and efficient, qualities you like to see from your stars. But in the NBA, particularly in the playoffs, we expect star players to take over, to be more selfish (Although when the Brilliant Chris Paul is your teammate chances are he is going to be the one with the ball in his hands in crunchtime). It's unfortunate that we saw Blake Griffin get hurt again in the playoffs, because it was a great opportunity for him to put this criticism to bed.

The critics are right. Blake Griffin CAN get better. And that is a very scary thought.

Be sure to read Steve's article on the Blake Improvement Debate.