It's time for another in SBNation's series of Themed posts. This week, the NBA bloggers around SBNation are discoursing on the most hyped players in their franchise history, and whether or not they lived up to that hype.
(I bet you didn't know that I was an old-school rap fan. I don't listen to much rap these days, but back in the day I was all about Chuck D and Flavor Flav and Terminator X.)
There are a fair few "Most Hyped" candidates for the Clippers of course. Blake Griffin wasn't the only first overall draft pick for the team and there were some important players acquired via trade or free agency, including a former league MVP. But true hype is a product of a more modern era, so while Danny Manning was probably a more heralded player in the draft class of 1988 when the Clippers won the lottery, there wasn't the same level of hype simply because it wouldn't have been possible to generate the same level. After all there was no such thing as a world wide web in 1988. As for Bill Walton, it's hard to imagine how big that story would be today, with Walton coming back to southern California a year after winning the MVP award. But Walton signed with the Clippers in May 1979 -- about four months before ESPN was even launched. The hype machine itself is something completely different these days.
So really, it comes down to either Griffin or Chris Paul as the most hyped Clipper ever -- and really, either one would be a fine choice. I'm going with Griffin because he was younger and more of an unknown quantity -- and hype loves to fill in the unknown parts.
When the Clippers won the lottery in May 2009, Griffin had just torn through the NCAA tournament, dunking on on anything that got in his way. His Sooners didn't win the title -- they lost to the eventual champion North Carolina in the Elite Eight -- but Griffin hitting his head on the backboard on a baseline dunk was an enduring image from that event. He could have declared for the draft after his freshman season at Oklahoma and been a lottery pick, but he stayed another year and it paid off as he was selected the consensus college player of the year. He was also the consensus first pick in the draft.
2009 was the Blake Griffin lottery. The way
2004 2003 was the LeBron James lottery. The way 1997 was the Tim Duncan lottery. More often than not, there's at least some mystery about the first overall pick but everyone knew that Griffin was the prize in the 2009 draft, and no one else came close.
The hype around Griffin started well before he was even officially a Clipper. In an unprecedented move, the team invited the press to his draft workout -- which turned into an impromptu dunking exhibition. Griffin's first press conference in the Clippers training facility actually occurred a couple weeks before he was even a Clipper.
Somehow, Griffin managed to exceed all of the expectations for his rookie season. It's difficult to say exactly why that is. In a strange way, I think that despite the hype, most people still had their doubts about him. The suspicion was that the physical dominion he held over his opponents in college would be less of a factor. I myself assumed he'd be an excellent rebounder, but that he'd probably struggle to score in the NBA. The one thing everyone knew he'd be able to do was dunk.
Another factor may have been his season-ending injury. Griffin had dominated the NBA Summer League even more than he had dominated in college. People also forget that he completely crushed the NBA pre-season before his injury, delivering stellar performances and plenty of poster dunks like the one on the Lakers' D.J. MBenga. Remember, that dunk occurred more than a year before he ever played a real NBA game!
Sitting out a season made everyone cool their heels a bit. The hype machine can only remain at full throttle for so long. Losing Griffin for the season was a crushing blow to the Clippers and their fans, but little did they know how impressive he'd be when he finally arrived.
We knew he'd be a great dunker -- but we didn't know he'd be completely ridiculous. His first NBA basket was a spectacular dunk off a fast break alley oop. He turned journeyman players into household names by putting them on his posters. He turned Timofey Mozgov's last name into a verb. His mere presence created an epidemic of posterphobia around the NBA during his rookie season. His rookie season included so many poster dunks that limiting one's self to a top ten is a daunting task.
We knew he'd be a great rebounder, and he was, averaging 12 rebounds per game. What we didn't know was that he'd be a great scorer. His breakout game came on November 20th in the 14th game of the season. He scored 44 points against the Knicks in a game that included two dunks that still rank in his all time top ten and are both known by the opponent's name (the Mozgov and the Gallinari).
Griffin blew away every expectation anyone had of him that rookie season, far outpacing the hype that had surrounded him. He was selected as an All Star reserve by the coaches, the first time that had happened since Tim Duncan. He won the dunk contest. He was featured in national ad campaigns for Kia and Subway. He was the obvious Rookie of the Year. His rookie season numbers of 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds put him in the exclusive company of Hall of Famers.
And then something strange happened. After exceeding the hype of his rookie season, Griffin began to suffer from a backlash. The same media that incessantly hyped him leading up to and throughout his rookie campaign now began to criticize his game. He was "just a dunker". He had no go to move. He was a flopper.
Some of the criticism was justified, most of it was not. It didn't help that Griffin's improvements during his second season all came in subtle ways while his raw averages dipped a bit. It takes too long to explain shooting efficiency to people -- easier just to say that his scoring average went down his second season.
After his averages dipped again last season, it's worth asking the question of whether Griffin has stagnated or even regressed. As with most things, the answer is nuanced, not black and white. There are many things he does better -- but at the same time, he's clearly not as aggressive on the boards as he was as a rookie. Some of that may be inevitable self-preservation -- maybe you simply can't go after every rebound over the course of a career, even if you can do it throughout your rookie season (a rookie season you waited a year to play, by the way). But 9.3 rebounds per 36 minutes last season ranked Griffin 45th in the NBA in rebounding -- and clearly he should be much better than that.
Blake Griffin crushed the hype during his rookie season and he has remained at an All Star level since. But now it's time for him to move to the next level. Can we believe the hype? Let's hope so.