Throughout the team’s run in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, one of the ongoing constants was that Blake Griffin was a mammoth problem for opposing teams. When your name is tossed into the same category for playoff performances as the legendary Oscar Robertson, people tend to take notice of what you’re able to do on a basketball court. That was the summation of Griffin’s run this past postseason. There is still a ton to expect from the 26-year old Mayor of Lobtropolis; and this upcoming season might feature a next step the likes of which the NBA cannot ignore.
Over the course of his already outstanding career, Blake Griffin has evolved as a player. When he first came into the league, Griffin was seen as someone who could rebound at a high level and also use his freakish athleticism to glide through the air to punish the rim with the anger of a scorned lover. During the last several years, however, he’s turned into something far more than just a prolific dunker. Griffin has reshaped how we view the power forward position this day in age; it’s no longer a one-dimensional post scorer or niche rebounder-defender type. Instead, he’s the fully evolved version of a dominant offensive dynamo. Griffin takes your perceived advantage and turns it into a weakness with the snap of his fingers. He still has quite some way to go, though, and this season could be the one where we see what a two-way Blake Griffin looks like.
Before last season tipped off, an article was published here about how Griffin was working on his mid-range jumper during last preseason. Over the last several years, there has been an increase in the percentage of field goal attempts Griffin has attempted in the 16-to-24 foot area of the court. As the graphic in that prior article shows, from 2010-11 to 2013-14, Griffin increased his 16-to-24 foot field goal attempt percentage from 15.26 percent to 26.49 percent. Griffin took it to the extreme last season when he attempted a career-high 37.85 percent of his shots in the 16-to-24 foot range. He made 40.4 percent of those shots; also a career-high. Griffin increased his overall skillset going into last season. This season should be no different.
We all know that Griffin is a lethal finisher inside. Last season was more of the same there. He shot 60.2 percent on all shots inside of 8 feet. However, only 48.78 percent of his shots came from that range. The season prior, 2013-14, 59.60 percent of Griffin’s shots came inside of 8 feet and he made 64.2 percent of those. It’s not a shock that as Griffin expanded his range he ended up also limiting the amount of shots he was taking inside. Yet, in the playoffs this past season, Griffin was able to blend the two worlds together in a seamless way. After seeing him take just 48.78 percent of his shots inside 8 feet during the regular season, Griffin upped that number to 65.33 percent in the playoffs. And while his 16-to-24 foot shot frequency dipped to 21.53 percent, he still made 42.4 percent of those shots and kept defenses honest when they left him open from elbow-to-elbow – seriously, he made 45.83 percent of his shots from the left elbow all the way to the right elbow in the playoffs; that’s fantastic.
People questioned Griffin’s motivation to get that mid-range jumper down pat. He even wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune titled “Why Ain’t He Dunkin?” wherein he talked about how exhausted he gets during the season when battling inside the paint so he had to develop his jumper to help his body survive. If there’s one thing that’s for certain with Blake Griffin, he’s always growing as a player; both mentally and physically. The issue he’s faced hasn’t been on the offensive end, though. While his improved jumper will certainly make opposing defenses pay for leaving him open on a nightly basis, and while he still can hammer home dunks akin to the power of Thor wielding Mjölnir, he still needs to shore up deficiencies on the defensive side of the ball.
Synergy Sports Technology is, essentially, a video based analytics company that supplies statistics and data to the NBA, WNBA, NCAA, FIBA, and other international basketball leagues. They process and compute every single possession of every single game. They then pool the data and throw it out there for everyone to see. It’s easily accessable if you know where to look – cough, cough NBA dot com. According to their data and their numbers, 66 players in the NBA last season defended at least 100 post-up possessions. Of those 66 players, Blake Griffin graded as allowing the fewest points per possession (0.66), the second lowest field goal percentage (33.0 percent), and forcing the fifth most turnovers (17.3 percent). That means that according to Synergy Sports, Blake Griffin was the best post defender in the NBA last season.
Whether you want to take this data with a grain of salt or with a huge helping of salt off the rim of a margarita glass is up to you. The numbers bear out how well Griffin played defensively during post-up situations last year. There are other larger factors (and questions) to consider, though. Was he so good at post defense simply because he had DeAndre Jordan behind him to swat any shot away? It’s honestly hard to say. You’d have to go through a ton of video to come to any kind of real answer and that’s a colossal task at this juncture – thanks a lot NBA League Pass Broadband for being completely lame and not allowing archival access right now. But one of the other questions is, “if it is not a fluke, can he build upon this?”
Well, simply put, we don’t know if this is actually a fluke in the numbers or his game; or even if this is just the downright truth at this point. No one looks at Blake Griffin and thinks he’s a great defender. Average? Sure. Slightly above-average? Maybe at some junctures of some games. But to classify Griffin as the downright best post defender in the league last season seems like a massive stretch to make. The numbers say this but the eyes tend to tell us a different story. We’ve seen Griffin play since he came into the league. While he was working on his jumper year after year and inevitably had the breakout last year with it, is it possible that he also improved his defense to the point that we just didn’t notice it as much because of all the other stuff he was doing? He certainly wasn’t a great rim protector last season.
According to SportVU data tracking last season, there were 96 players who played at least 20 minutes per game over the course of at least 41 games and saw at least three field goal attempts per game at the rim when they were a defender. Blake Griffin tied with Jared Dudley for 38th on that list; allowing a field goal percentage of 50.7 percent. Notable players that actually finished worse than Griffin? Tyson Chandler (50.9 percent), Omer Asik (51.1 percent), Joakim Noah (51.7 percent), Kevin Garnett (51.9 percent), Tristan Thompson (52.2 percent), Kevin Love (52.6 percent), Zach Randolph (53.0 percent), and Chris Bosh (55.3 percent). If you’re keeping track at home, Blake Griffin protected the rim – according to SportVU – better than three former Defensive Player of the Year winners who have been selected a grand total of 18 times to an All-Defensive Team, a guy he’s been compared to his whole career, a guy perceived as a good defender, a guy who plays alongside the best defensive center in basketball, a future Hall of Fame big man, and a young up-and-coming gritty big man.
However, that is just one data point. If you go off of the numbers from Nylon Calculus, Griffin was the third worst rim protecting big man this past regular season. And, not only that, he was the fourth worst rim protecting big man two years ago. You can go even further and head over to Shot Analytics for even more in-depth stuff – you do need a subscription, though. According to their website, Griffin ranked 209th out of 398 when it came to rim protection. Opponents shot 58 percent against him and he allowed 1.4 points more in Points Above Expectation Per 100 Shots when compared to other defenders on those same shots. If you click on his defensive shot chart from last season, you’ll see that Griffin allowed opponents to shoot 51 percent against him on any shot taken within five feet of the rim when Griffin was within two feet of the shot attempt.
But what do the other defensive metrics from Synergy say? Among the 74 players who registered at least 50 possessions against the roll man in pick-and-roll situations this past season, Blake Griffin was in a tie for 64th alongside Ed Davis, Mike Scott, and Anthony Tolliver. They all finished allowing 0.95 points per possession. That sounds terrible, but even great defensive big men like Andrew Bogut (1.13) and Nerlens Noel (1.03) did not do well there. Neither did teammate DeAndre Jordan (0.94). Griffin allowed opponents to shot 46.4 percent from the field and forced a turnover only 9.5 percent of the time. Hardly great. Out of the 68 players that defended at least 75 isolation possessions this season, Griffin sat in a tie for 46th with Mike Conley, Evan Turner, Nikola Mirotic, and P.J. Tucker; all allowed 0.87 points per possession. Griffin allowed opponents to shoot 40.4 percent in isolation situations and turned them over 13.4 percent of the time. Those numbers suggest that his post-up defense is not exactly translatable elsewhere. But that's not all that shocking.
The thing is, though, that Griffin at least showed some defensive improvements as the year went along. His intensity on that end of the floor picked up and he was routinely seen attempting to chase players down and block them from behind whenever the opportunity presented itself. The positive side of the defensive metrics, as far as Griffin is concerned, is that it lends itself to the notion that perhaps he is getting better. If his post defense was that overlooked this season then what else could Griffin do this upcoming season that also gets overlooked because of his ridiculous offensive prowess? No one has ever doubted Griffin’s phenomenal athleticism or his increasingly legendary work ethic. His ability to rotate and cut off potential roll men in pick-and-roll situations will increase with more repetition.
The Los Angeles Clippers defend the pick-and-roll by usually using Griffin or Jordan as the “high hedge” man and then having them retreat back with the big after the initial action. The system is designed to attack ball-handlers and force them into either turnovers or tough shots. The Clippers will live with the rolling big man doing what he wants. It’s by design. There’s a reason the Clippers allowed a league-worst 1.06 points per possession to roll men last season; and this might be able to start to tell the story of why Griffin (and also Jordan) did not grade out so well defensively defending the roll man. The roll man is allowed to get semi-open jumpers because, well, mid-range jumpers are the least efficient shots in basketball. The real personnel that the team wants to stop is whoever is handling the ball and that’s exactly what the Clippers did this past season. They held opposing ball-handlers to just 0.75 points per possession in the pick-and-roll; it was a mark that finished in a tie for 6th with the Golden State Warriors. The Clippers also produced the third highest turnover rate at 22.3 percent.
In essence, Griffin is a vital cog in the Clippers defensive machine even if some of the numbers don’t fully evince that part out. His athleticism and ability to recover when hedging defensively is an important thing. He has shown that he can zone out from time to time and just get caught napping which leads to him getting beat along the baseline by a cutting wing or big. It has happened before. That’s one of the areas Griffin can work on this offseason when it comes to defense. And that’s where the next step for Griffin will be. He’s going to continue to get better offensively, especially with his playmaking and mid-range jumper. Defense is the final frontier in the basketball universe as far as Blake Griffin is concerned.
If Griffin was able to show such marked improvement in his mid-range jumper just over the span of one offseason, then what is stopping him from becoming at least an above-average defensive player? After all, he’s at least part of the reason the team is forcing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to turn the ball over 22.3 percent of the time and he’s also the reason guys being defended by him in post-up situations turn the ball over 17.3 percent of the time and shoot just 33.0 percent. Is he the only reason? No. But you’d be a fool to completely disregard that he’s at least a large part of that reason; just like DeAndre Jordan and Chris Paul are also large parts of that overarching theme in some fashion or another. It’s entirely possible that Griffin is a better defender than one would be inclined to believe. It’s also a glaringly obvious that he still has a long way to go before he’s ever considered a top defender at his position.
This past season, Steve Martin, who is the now former television voice of the Charlotte Hornets, actually voted Blake Griffin onto the All-Defensive Second Team. It’s certainly perplexing. Especially since his First Team had the likes of Kawhi Leonard, DeMarre Carroll, Tony Allen, Draymond Green, and DeAndre Jordan. He fudged a lot by putting Green at a guard spot. Either way, he picked a really good All-Defensive First Team. The Griffin choice was odd, though, when you consider who joined him on the Second Team; Tim Duncan, John Wall, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Rudy Gobert. All great individual and team defenders. And then there was Griffin. Perhaps Martin saw something in Griffin that he liked or perhaps he just felt like ultimately going through with a gag the likes of which his namesake, the famous comedian, would appreciate. He still did vote for Griffin after picking nine of the best defenders in the NBA last season. Is there a chance that he knew something?
To even know if Martin knew anything that we don’t know would require the likes of a mind-reading device and, frankly, there isn’t one close-by. He could have just been tossing darts at a massive dartboard and seeing what got hit. After all, he didn’t have Chris Paul on either of his All-Defensive Teams but did have John Wall and DeMarre Carroll. While Wall is an excellent defender – and someone this writer put on his own All-Defensive Second Team – he’s still no Paul on that end. And while Carroll is really good, he’s still not better than someone like Jimmy Butler. This could be a case of Martin just simply picking really good to great defenders and then just putting Griffin there, honestly. There’s really nothing to be learned from who Martin chose and the method in which he did so.
Griffin has been criticized throughout his career for lack of defensive intensity and fortitude. In fact, Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News has voted, or saluted, Griffin to his “No-Defense Team” for three years running. He slammed Griffin in May of 2013 and said the power forward gives up “more easy baskets with bad rotations or half-hearted jogs back [on defense] than any other big-name big man.” In June of 2014, he saluted Griffin. In June of this year, he hammered Griffin a ton and said that he’s “following the Carmelo Anthony career path [on defense].” It’s going to take quite a bit to change the public perception of his defense, but Stephen Curry did that very thing this past season despite being on a team that protected him at times on that end of the floor. Griffin doesn’t have that luxury so he has to earn it outright on every possession.
As Vince Wilfork of the Houston Texans famously exclaimed on the first episode of the latest season of HBO’s Hard Knocks, “gotta have it.” If you want to get better overall defensively, you have got to have it mentally. It all starts in the mind. You can’t slack off, you can’t take possessions off, and you can’t expect someone else to do it. You have to put the onus on yourself. That’s where you “gotta have it.” Or, to put it as only Wilfork could, “you gotta take it personal.” Defense is personal. It’s the most personal thing. If Griffin can do that, and do it consistently, then this upcoming season is going to be a joy to watch; and that’s on both ends of the floor.
This isn’t a “make or break” season as far as Blake Griffin is concerned. The man has already made it; emphatically. He’s arguably the best power forward in the game today and is one of the few real difference makers offensively. He’s still developing into the type of player you seldom see. He’s, in some ways, a less-refined LeBron James. It took LeBron quite a while to get his jumper down. It’s taken Griffin nearly the same amount of time. Griffin will likely never work a consistent three-point shot into his arsenal, but he still will improve upon it because that’s what he does; he continues to improve. The defensive side of the floor is all about the willingness to get down and dirty. We’ve seen Griffin lay out on the floor for a loose ball or even dive into the stands to save a ball. He has the desire. It just has to show up constantly.
While one defensive metric lists Griffin as being the best at something, a few others show exactly where he’s deficient. Some of that is team based – i.e. defending the roll man on pick-and-rolls – but some of it is also on him not giving steady effort. It’s understandable. He works so hard offensively that he puts himself on the brink of exhaustion or even beyond the point of that. With this team this season, though, he might be able to save some energy offensively and put a lot more into the defensive end. With guys like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson on the wings defensively, Griffin can become more engaged and do a better job due to their help. Same thing with Paul Pierce offensively. It gives Griffin someone he can depend on. The team has started to build this all-around group of talent that seems like it could mesh quite well. It’s up to them to do so but Griffin’s progression on defense could tip the balance into Los Angeles’ favor even more.
If the Clippers are to make a legitimate title run this season, it’ll be on the back of Blake Griffin and his burgeoning defensive proficiency. We’ve seen what Griffin can do when he puts his mind to repetition and improving upon one key aspect of his game; the mid-range jumper. We’ve seen what Griffin can do when wants to improve his free throw shooting; he posted a career-high in free throw percentage last season. We’ve seen what Griffin can do when he desires to handle the ball more and be a creator; he posted a career-high 5.3 assists last season and then dished out 6.1 per game in the playoffs. Now we might be witnesses to seeing what Griffin can do when he stays resolute on defense and wants to shut opposing big men down. Strap in, buckle up, do whatever you have to do to get ready for this season. Blake Griffin is going to take us on a wonderful ride. He might be getting a little defensive.