In the bright lights of Hollywood, style is important. But under the microscope of the NBA, substance reigns supreme—especially when you share a home court with a franchise as storied as the Los Angeles Lakers.
From the moment he stepped foot on an NBA court—our rather, launched himself off one—Blake Griffin’s ferocity and athleticism has captivated NBA audiences. Thunderous dunks came early and often in his career, and there were few obstacles he couldn’t jump through, or over:
The aerial shows pleased the crowds and distracted from the substance in his game, which was substantial, if unrefined. His overall evolution has pushed Griffin towards the top of the NBA’s elite, combining classic physicality with modern versatility to create the mold for modern NBA power forwards—putting him eighth in our BBALLBREAKDOWN Player Rankings heading into the 2015-2016 season.
Griffin’s development as a player has been a gradual ascent, starkly contrasting with his explosive leaps. Though he’s been an All-Star every season he’s played in the NBA, it has taken time for him to learn to channel his gifts through more than his athleticism. Behind the physical nature of his game is a cerebral player with a deft touch and court sense who understands the team dynamic. But it took other variables coming together—a better supporting cast, a new coach, and his own self-awareness as a basketball player—to create an environment that would allow his full potential to shine through.
During his time in college at Oklahoma, Griffin learned how to flex his physical superiority, but needed to work on little else. Though he retained advantages in athleticism in the NBA, they were less pronounced against teams equipped to cut off angles and lanes while exploiting his defensive missteps. Those nascent, pre-Chris Paul Los Angeles Clippers forced Griffin to push his game in directions he hadn’t learned the steps to, looking for lanes not always there.
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But just as important to Griffin’s development as building out his own skillset has been the improvement of his teammates and lineup continuity. Chris Paul’s arrival brought a point guard with the ability to properly use a weapon like Griffin. The level of success Griffin’s had requires more than setting a screen for Paul and letting him do the work for you. Having a teammate with the ability to tilt the defense revealed Griffin’s superb court vision and acute sense of spacing and timing; just as the emergence of DeAndre Jordan and their developing chemistry unveiled Griffin’s great interior passing.
These traits were always inherent in Griffin, but it took all these factors converging to provide him the perfect climate to fully unleash every facet of his game.
Today, Griffin has added a few tools to his repertoire that allow him to utilize his court sense in ways that don’t propel his body recklessly towards the rim—rebuilding his jumper and refining his footwork and handle. Gone are the days where he dunked everything in sight. During his first three years in the NBA, 17-20 percent of Griffin’s field goal attempts were dunks. That number dropped to eight percent last season while his shots beyond 10 feet increased to 48.2 percent of his overall attempts.
Using BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Buckets Tool, Griffin’s expanding arsenal is evident when looking at the progression of his shot frequency over the last three seasons. As time has gone on, more spots on the court have become scoring opportunities for Griffin—partly out of skill expansion, partly out of self-preservation:
Teams can no longer account for what Griffin will do as a threat in pick and roll. Give Griffin space, and he’ll pull the trigger. Closeout hard, and he’ll blow right by the defender off the dribble. Double team him or bring help on the drive, and Griffin is equally comfortable muscling through or dropping a dime to an open teammate hovering around the three-point line or rim. They now have to be ready for all possibilities.
What could make Griffin’s game deadlier is the further expansion of his shooting range. He has yet to consistently explore the three-point line, attempting just 25 last season; but given the shooting improvements over the course of his career, becoming a threat from this range remains a possibility.
The average distance of his field goal attempts has risen from 7.2 feet during his rookie season to 10.4 feet last season. But with Griffin’s increased jump shot frequency, he has yet to sacrifice any effectiveness. As seen in the chart below, Griffin’s percentage of shots beyond ten feet has risen each season and so has his field goal percentage from the same distance. If Griffin, who shot 40 percent on a limited number of three-point attempts, could increase his attempts while maintaining at least a 30 percent clip, he’s be able to add some “stretch” to abilities as a playmaking four.
Outside of LeBron James, there isn’t another player of Griffin’s physical profile exhibiting the finesse he shows when handling the ball and facilitating it to teammates. There aren’t many players that can do this:
Or even this:
This isn’t Shaquille O’Neal or any number of other big men clumsily running the break against indifferent defenses in an All-Star game. Blake Griffin functioned as the Clippers point guard with Paul hampered by injury during their second round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets. Griffin can capably run the break as a secondary ball handler, possessing the knowledge to read defenses and skill to deliver precise passes to teammates—giving Doc Rivers lineup flexibility and solving for whatever spacing issues might arise with Jordan.
Griffin was second to LeBron James in assists per game among non-guard with a career-high 5.3 per game; achieving the difficult feat of increasing his assist percentage while decreasing his turnover percentage.
For all his drastic development on the offensive end, Griffin still lags far behind defensively. Some have fairly questioned his defensive intensity, including Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, who had some pretty harsh criticisms:
And Griffin is incredibly talented; when you see him excel on D, really dig down and refuse to be budged or play the pick-and-roll aggressively and as designed… you wonder about all the other games when you saw him do nothing of the sort.
In my view, Blake is following the Carmelo Anthony career path on D: The very good offensive player who tried a little bit on D early on but decided to shut it down somewhere in the middle of his career to conserve energy for offensive endeavors.
The Clippers’ aggressive schemes place a lot of responsibilities on hedging bigs, and given their lack of depth, preserving energy is an understandable tactic. Griffin doesn’t collect many blocks or steals, but with Jordan patrolling the paint, Paul playing the passing lanes and point of attack, and Griffin’s offensive value, he doesn’t need to be a plus defender. When Griffin was of the court last season, the Clippers’ defense improved marginally, surrendering 9.9 points less per 100 possessions, but were outscored by their opponents. When Griffin was on the court, the Clippers were +12.6 points.
Last year, the Clippers got a glimpse of Blake Griffin’s fully-realized potential in a seven game first round playoff victory over the San Antonio Spurs (including a transcendent Game 7 triple-double) and through most of their second round series against the Houston Rockets. Griffin averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, two combined blocks and steals, and 6.1 assists in 39.8 minutes per game in the two series, and was arguably the best player in the NBA Playoffs.
In disappointing fashion, the Clippers blew a 3-1 lead against the Rockets. By the end, Griffin had exhausted every ounce of energy in his body and couldn’t drag his team any further.
This offseason the Clippers went shopping for additional reinforcement to bolster a thin bench, adding Lance Stephenson, Josh Smith, Wes Johnson, Cole Aldrich, Chuck Hayes, Pablo Prigioni and Paul Pierce. Most importantly, they retained Jordan, whose chemistry with Griffin allows the Clippers to maintain larger lineups in a game increasingly reliant on spacing.
Depth is the key for the Clippers, allowing Griffin to stay razor sharp for longer stretches of time by reducing his overall workload and minutes per game. It’s yet another example of how surrounding good players with resources brings out the best in them.
Blake Griffin’s ascent to the top didn’t start with last season’s playoff run, it just became more pronounced. Though Griffin should continue to dazzle with occasional aerial acrobatics and scoring prowess, it’s not about style anymore for the Clippers (as their logo and uniform rebrands made abundantly clear).
It’s the substance in Griffin’s game that makes him great.
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