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Three Elite Players, Two Injuries, and Ballhandling

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Perhaps Kevin Durant and maybe even Blake Griffin have joined LeBron James as the very best players in the NBA, but was the leap accelerated by injuries to the two best point guards in the league, and is big man ballhandling the key to the new equation of transcendent excellence?

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Was just watching Simmons and Jalen Rose going through their notes and thoughts at the start of the third NBA Birdmester. After agreeing on their short list of contenders, Rose jumped in and mentioned the Clippers with an asterisk. They talked about the Clippers briefly, but left out a couple of important notes, including Chris Paul coming back -- it was a broad swipe, and they were only mentioned incidentally anyway. They quickly jumped into an OKC-Miami-Indiana conversation, and soon enough they were talking about Kevin Durant and going into detail about the way that he caught up with and then moved past LeBron in the MVP race, and how he's now the prohibitive favorite. Eventually they managed to get to the point that perhaps the most important reason why Durant accomplished this rise is that Russell Westbrook got hurt (again) and Durant put the team on his back and just took over.

But no one makes the connection between Durant and Griffin doing the same thing at the same time, what it might mean, and just how they did it. So I started trying to break it down a little bit. The cases aren't exactly the same. Durant was ready, perhaps more than ready, and he was playing at the championship level and vying with LeBron for supremacy. It just seemed like LeBron was firmly established, and he was so good and so dominant, and it would be impossible for anybody, even Durant, to challenge him. And Westbrook was hurt in the playoffs last year, so there was a precedent of sorts, as Durant was unable then to evolve spontaneously to another level of superiority out of the injury, it was too sudden and the stakes were too high. But when it happened again, this time Durant was prepared. The commercial where Durant is haunted by Wade making a play against him, and then he trains and comes back and beats him, is somewhat prophetic (missing only LeBron, rather than Wade), and we're watching the drama play out, one that was prompted by Westbrook's injury. Durant did everything necessary to give him the ability to make this leap, and the hard work and excellence is evident.

Blake Griffin is known as a hard worker as well, by all those who go beyond the most cursory dismissal of his skills ("What bothers me most," paraphrasing what he said in the LAT today, "is getting dismissed as just a guy who dunks.") His improvement last year was as phenomenal as it was steady, something that seems to go without saying, and it was accomplished under the auspices of Vinny the Black. His improvement this year is spectacular. The transformation of DeAndre Jordan under Doc Rivers is shocking, but it's very clear now that Blake Griffin has also made a stunning improvement.

Context is everything in analyzing the Clippers and Griffin this season. The GSW #fullsquad note, after a relatively brief injury to their new acquisition Andre Iguodala, is especially ironic because of how it applies to the Clippers, and the timing of their complete roster assembling after the All Star Break. First Barnes (with a Collison asterisk) was injured, then Redick joined him, and then the more significant injury to Chris Paul created a steady set of challenges for the Clippers, adding to the issues of bringing in a new coach and system.

No one really thought, aside from the wildest Club O citizen zealot, that Griffin was ready to get into the conversation with LeBron James and Kevin Durant. And his season began with the hesitation and glitches that go along with a new coach and some key personnel additions/subtractions. Some of his improving skills also needed real-game honing and trial and error. Blake Griffin, along with his teammates old and new and injured, was good but not great. It was obvious that the work and the improvement was there, but it seemed like there was still a long way to go as far as dominance and consistent, irrefutable excellence were concerned.

And then Chris Paul got hurt, much like the Westbrook injury, although it didn't seem to be exactly the same thing at the time. It made sense that Kevin Durant could lead and dominate with Westbrook out, although just how formidable OKC proved to be in his absence came as a bit of a surprise. Durant's game, as Rose and Simmons mentioned, became magnificent, and his nightly execution surpassed both reasonable expectations and the awesome standard of James. He was doing everything, he was unstoppable, and OKC never missed a beat as they marched towards securing the top seed in the West, no small feat.

Although they were playing well and doing fine, Griffin and the Clippers were still struggling to find an identity when Chris Paul went down. They got J.J. Redick back, which helped ease the transition at first (only for him to get banged up a little at the end of the current sequence.) They handled the loss of Paul admirably, and it was just about the time that they had mustered a few wins and it looked like things would be okay that it became noticeable that Blake Griffin had sharply improved his play. It didn't happen all at once; it seemed like he was just putting together a nice little streak of games.

But the odd part was that he just kept getting better. Careful Griffin-watchers know the details of the strengths, shortcomings, and steady improvement. Rebounding and free throws are good indicators. The mid-range jump shot has been steadily improving since the beginning of last season, but it seemed to become a more routine, more deadly weapon. A big piece of the puzzle was a new hunger for going to the line, as Griffin started hitting free throws at a very high rate, his percentages climbing along with the sheer numbers, to something like 10 a game, making 8 or 9 of them.

There were two other key elements that really changed the equation for Griffin. Rivers just mentioned one of them today, putting it into words and even taking some credit for it, and Rose and Simmons and even Charles Barkley, I think, noted it as well. When Griffin gets the ball on the block or adjacent to it in the flow of the offense, he makes an immediate decision now about whether he will make a move with his back to the basket or face up. On top of this decisiveness, he pivots and faces up at least 100% more than in the past, when it was a relatively small part of his play. Rivers mentioned that his first step is so quick, and he's so explosive, that he made it clear that his goal was to see Griffin face the basket on the majority of his touches. Combined with his new hunger and confidence going to the free throw line, using his first step more often, while holding the ability to hit the open jumper in his back pocket, has made Griffin's arsenal truly fearsome.

That's not all though, but it gets us to the link that I think unites James, Durant and Griffin in the top echelon, and it was somewhat accidental. Westbrook's injury put the ball in Durant's hands more, and pushed him to make his playmaking and ball handling a much bigger priority. The same thing happened with Griffin, even though no one would have expected the form that it has taken. Griffin showed increasing ball handling skills as part of his general improvement beginning last season, but they were mostly seen in small flashes, going between his legs in setting up on the wing, or making a spin move. Early this year he started getting rebounds and heading up the floor on occasion, and most citizens saw these forays as reasons to lament that Lamar Odom, who routinely made such plays, had a rough summer and hadn't returned.

When Paul went out this new element of Griffin handling the ball reached a new level, and it kept evolving game-to-game, getting to a scary place. It wasn't just Griffin getting the rebound and starting up the floor with his dribble. Instead of looking for Paul, the rebounder (usually DJ, leading the league) began to outlet to Griffin. And Darren Collison, filling in at PG, was happy to push the ball up the floor and let Griffin lead the break, a new component of the more standard Griffin rim run that has been a Clipper staple for some time.

What we see now is Griffin's speed and quickness, which go along with his strength and athleticism

What we see now is Griffin's speed and quickness, which go along with his strength and athleticism. He's really good bringing the ball up. He's a really good passer in general, is always really good at spotting DeAndre Jordan, and he's really good at finding guys on the break. There aren't a lot of players who can keep up with him, and he can finish by going through just about anybody, and he's also a willing passer. His ballhandling, and its role in the break and playing at speed, is something of a revelation, and nobody quite knows what to think about it yet or what it means, and what the best guard in basketball, Griffin's teammate, will do with it. The earliest return was impressive, but there's a better test tomorrow night, and it will be interesting to see what happens with J.J. Redick, and a rested team, after the break.

The absence of Westbrook caused Kevin Durant to use his ballhandling skills more and push his game past the marker set down by LeBron. And now all of a sudden the same thing has happened to Blake Griffin, and we're just beginning to see what it looks like. LeBron James has been doing all of these things for awhile now, and he's still the champ. But life and the game take some odd twists, and the accidental acceleration of Durant and Griffin is a very pleasant and welcome surprise. While Griffin won't be part of the MVP discussion, with Chris Paul coming back, his improvement might make the Clippers legit contenders--without the asterisk.