The Los Angeles Clippers entered the 2015-16 season as one of the Golden State Warriors’ biggest threats out West, having shored up their one major weakness—bench depth—while managing to retain center DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Seeing as they were one ill-timed collapse from an appearance in the Western Conference Finals last year, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the Clippers making another deep playoff run this spring.
Through the first quarter of the season, however, L.A. is nowhere near the level of Golden State or the San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers are 14-10, good for fourth place in the Western Conference, but their plus-1.7 point differential trails a whopping six teams out East, along with the Warriors, Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder. Their record is deceptively positive, too, as they’ve largely feasted on rebuilding teams while losing to just about every legitimate playoff contender they’ve faced.
Because the Clippers have been so decidedly mediocre, Blake Griffin’s MVP-caliber season is flying mostly under the radar.
Griffin’s per-game averages of 23.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.6 blocks are impressive, but they only scratch the surface of his value to the Clippers. With him on the court, the team averages 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which would be tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder on the season for the league’s second-most efficient offense. When Griffin heads to the bench, though, Los Angeles scores just 94.1 points per 100, which is ahead of only the nuclear wasteland known as the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Oklahoma product has been outright lethal within the restricted area, hitting 109 of his 156 shot attempts (69.9 percent) from that range. His real growth has come in the mid-range, though, as he’s setting career highs in field-goal percentage on shots from three to 10 feet from the hoop (48.5 percent), 10 to 16 feet (41.4 percent) and 16 feet to the three-point line (41.5 percent). He still hasn’t quite mastered the three-point shot, knocking down just 30.8 percent of his looks from deep, but he’s become far more comfortable shooting from any area inside the arc.
Tracking Griffin’s evolution over the years is as simple as looking at his shot charts. As a rookie in 2010-11, he largely feasted near the basket, attempting a whopping 72.6 percent of his shots from within 10 feet. Just 15.4 percent of his attempts, meanwhile, were two-point shots at least 16 away from the hoop, and for good reason—he knocked down only 33.5 percent of those looks.
Five years later, he looks like an entirely different player, as he’s completely unafraid to pull up from mid-range at a moment’s notice. Now, fewer than 50 percent of his shot attempts are coming from within 10 feet of the basket, as mostly he’s allowing Jordan to occupy the air space in the paint. Instead, a career-high 44.2 percent of his shots are coming from between 16 feet and three-point range, a far cry from his first few seasons in the league.
Having that shot in his back pocket gives the Clippers an added dimension offensively, as they can run him in pick-and-pops to their heart’s content. They did just that in L.A.’s 83-80 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Dec. 10, a game in which Griffin was the team’s only reliable source of offense for the first two-and-a-half quarters before being ejected for clotheslining Chicago big man Taj Gibson. Both Chris Paul and J.J. Redick picked up assists as they utilized a screen he set and then dumped the ball off to him for a mid-range jumper:
Griffin has also become confident enough in his shooting stroke to lull opposing bigs to sleep defensively before leaking out and calling for the ball. He did that against Gibson early in the first quarter Thursday:
The five-time All-Star’s expanded shooting stroke is opening additional opportunities for him offensively, as opponents must respect him when he lingers around the perimeter. That creates driving lanes for cutters such as Paul, Redick and Lance Stephenson and prevents opposing bigs from doubling Jordan. Since Griffin has preternatural passing ability for a big man, he often punishes opponents for those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t decisions by feeding a teammate for an easy bucket. He’s setting a new career high in assist percentage, assisting on 27.7 percent of the Clippers’ made baskets while he’s on the court.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Griffin is smashing his personal bests in offensive box plus/minus (4.2) and player efficiency rating (25.5). He has the fifth-best OBPM among all forwards this season, trailing just Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, along with the league’s sixth-best PER. The six-year veteran also currently holds top-10 marks in value over replacement player (ninth), box plus/minus (ninth) and win shares (tied for 10th), which is all the more impressive when considering he’s accomplishing this with a career-high usage rate (30.5 percent).
As his teammates flounder around him, Griffin is helping keep the Clippers afloat on days in which he doesn’t earn flagrant-2 fouls for ill-timed WWE moves. He’s first on the team in just about every advanced metric imaginable, including PER, win shares, box plus/minus and VORP, to name a few. Without Griffin, L.A. would be on the fringe of the Western Conference playoff race rather than fourth in the standings.
That’s not to say Griffin is deserving of actually winning the MVP award, especially in the wake of the scorched earth Stephen Curry is leaving everywhere he goes. If, for whatever reason, Curry doesn’t walk out with the award this spring, Griffin would face considerable competition from the four aforementioned forwards along with Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, Golden State Swiss Army knife Draymond Green, and Houston Rockets 2-guard James Harden, who finished second in voting last season. Basketball-Reference’s MVP Award Tracker currently has Griffin ranked 10th in the race, trailing obvious candidates like Curry, Westbrook and George along with dark horses such as Green and Toronto Raptors floor general Kyle Lowry.
Until the 26-year-old Clippers big man becomes more formidable defensively, he stands little chance of beating out one of the league’s elite two-way players. Griffin is having minimal effect as a defender this season, both on an individual and team basis. Opponents are shooting just 0.5 percentage points lower than their average when he’s guarding them, while L.A. is considerably better defensively without him, allowing 5.5 points per 100 possessions fewer when he’s on the bench.
Though Griffin likely won’t upset the current MVP hierarchy, he deserves to be recognized for his sensational play this season nevertheless. His continued evolution into one of the league’s most offensively gifted big men is a far cry from the days when critics labeled him “just a dunker.”