December 14, 2017

 

To ring in April, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin had himself quite a week. The burly big man slapped up 31-8-5 while shooting almost 68% from the floor (and a sizzling 54.5% from deep) as Los Angeles went 3-0 for the week. The Clippers are now 7-2 in their last nine games, and with the playoffs looming, are looking to ride that momentum to their own Holy Grail: the western conference finals. In the sixth year of the Chris Paul Era and with a pivotal summer looming, it’s imperative that the Clippers make a postseason statement, and Blake Griffin recent dominance is vital.

And not a soul outside of Los Angeles cares.

Once upon a time, Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin was among the crown jewels of the NBA. With a chiseled frame like Karl Malone, the bounce of Russell Westbrook and the wit of Bill Murray, Griffin took the basketball world by storm; you’d have to go back over 40 years to find the other rookie season equal to or greater than Blake Griffin’s 22.5 points, 12.1 rebound, 3.8 assist, and 50.6 percent shooting inaugural year.

With Chris Paul’s arrival at his side in 2011, visions of O’Brien trophies danced through the Staples Center. Powered by the dynamic duo, the Clips won 60%, then 68%, then almost 70% of their games.

In the 2013-2014, Griffin had a season for the ages: he became the fifth player in league history to average 24 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists per night (The other four players are legendary Hall of Famers Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

And with CP3 shelved for February of that season, Griffin showed the world the full spectrum, torching all comers to the tune of 27.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game and leading the Clippers to a 12-6 record sans their diminutive point guard. LA  ended up winning 57 games, and Blake, at 24 years old, finished third in MVP voting. The best was yet to come; the league braced itself for for the prime of Hurricane Griffin.

Fast forward to the present, and we’re still waiting. One has to wonder where the timeline fractured, how we went from squinting under the bright shine of Griffin’s ascending star to shrugging when he puts up monstrous numbers. After seasons winning 56, 57, then 56 games, Los Angeles won 53 last year, and this year are on pace to win 48 (the lowest total in the Chris Paul era).

As the win totals have declined, so, apparently, has Blake Griffin. Since that glorious 2013-2014 run, Griffin’s scoring, minutes, rebounding, field goal percentage and Player Efficiency Rating all have trended downward, and his rebounding percentage has tumbled from a robust 18.6 percent in his rookie year (that’s some Tristan Thompson, Zach Randolph, elite type stuff), all the way down to 13.5 (worst than Dwight Powell and Rondae-Hollis Jefferson) percent this year. And sandwiched between their 14-2 start and their recent 7-2 spurt, injuries and ennui saw Los Angeles stumble to 28-26 for the majority of the season.

How did we get here? How did we get from Blake Griffin dominating Tim Duncan’s Spurs to the tune of 24-13-7 in the 2015 playoffs, to him being stonewalled in the post by small forward Gordon Hayward in a toothless loss to the Jazz, or him being blanked on the low box then stripped by Harrison Barnes in the deciding moments of a historic collapse to the 31 win Mavericks? From the Clippers being one game from a Western conference finals, to them being an afterthought in a conference dominated by the glitzy Warriors, the stolid Spurs, the combustible Rockets, and the furious Westbrook?

We’ll never forget the sight of Griffin levitating over Timofey Mozgov and delivering one of the most electric in-game facial dunks ever-

but now the image of  5’8″ J.J. Barea somehow leveling Griffin with a forearm shiver as his Mavs defeated the Clippers has been added to Blake’s portfolio. Which one captures the real Blake Griffin?

Like much in life, there are no easy answers.

Is it Los Angeles’ (*cough*ChrisPauls*cough*) stubborn refusal to run run run, despite having two of the most athletic bigs in the NBA? The Clippers were relatively one of the slowest teams in the league during Paul’s first and second years with Griffin in la La land, ranking 25th and then 19th in pace. during Blake’s splendid ‘13-’14 season, the Clippers spiked to 7th; Lob City was all the rage, and with Blake and DeAndre tearing down court and Chris Paul pushing the pace, the Clippers finished second in the league in fast break points per game.

But while the Chris Paul’s fabled efficiency keeps the machine humming along, and his precise, ball dominant style has earned the raves of Clipper fans and stat heads alike, the rest of the league has zoomed on by. This season, Lob City has morphed to Plod City, as the Clips pace has held steady but they’ve have slipped to 16th in pace (and 13th in fast break scoring).

Is it wear and tear? Neither the torn cartilage Griffin suffered in college nor the broken kneecap he suffered prior to his rookie year seemed to slow younger Blake a bit; his highlight reel of dunks would make the most daring aerial daredevil blush.

 

Blake’s pneumatic hops made him a nightmare for defenses to cover, be it the threat of him screening and rolling, or busting out on the break, or attacking off the bounce. Last season a torn quadricep (and a terrible decision leading to a broken hand), derailed first his season, then his playoff run. This season, Griffin missed about a month (18 games) with “minor” surgery on his right knee; since his return he seems like his efficient (50.2% shooting, 38.8% from 3), versatile (7.6  rebounds per game, 5.2 assists per game), and productive (22 points per in only 34 minutes a night) self.

But as the Clippers spark has seemingly waned, so has Blake’s impact on the glass. Where Griffin was once part battering ram, part pogo stick, he’s now much more perimeter oriented. Per Basketball-Reference, less than 24% of his shot attempts were from 16 feet or further in his first four years; this season that number has ballooned to almost 39%. That means that of the 16 shot attempts he’s getting a game, over 6 of them are long jumpers or threes.

And the bouncy exuberance that once was Griffin’s (and by extension the Clippers’) hallmark is now largely  missing, only seen in the rare opportunistic rim attack or quick hitting alley oop. He sizes up from the perimeter and burrows into set defenses, or grinds his way into awkwardly acrobatic post flips, or takes that deliberate set midrange jumper. His passing is still a sight to behold (his assist rate has bloomed to 25.9% over the last 3 seasons, way up from the 18.7% of his first four seasons), but his megawatt smile and the joy he once brought to the court has been replaced with constant yapping at refs and a stoic stone face.

His rebounding numbers have also trended mostly downward since his strong rookie year, with this season being the second lowest of his career. A lot of that can be attributed to playing beside a glass eater like DeAndre Jordan (no less than 13.6 rebounds a game over the last 4 seasons), but seeing as the Clippers haven’t finished higher than 17th in rebounding rate in the last four years, the reasoning doesn’t quite fly.

Is it the chemistry? Reports have floated around for years that the Clippers really just don’t like each other. Earlier this season, quotes from a Zach Lowe ESPN piece basically confirms that, at times, the vibe of the team was off.

“It used to be, if we lost, everyone might be, ‘It’s his fault! We need to change this and that!'” (Chris) Paul said.

“There’s no finger pointing now,” (Blake) Griffin added.”

And this:

“But there were bad times, especially when Griffin and Jordan were younger — and in Paul’s eyes, perhaps not ready to win. “We won 17 straight in ,” Paul said, “but the spirit wasn’t right.”

“We had rifts,” Griffin recalled of that team.”

And perhaps most tellingly, this:

“Griffin’s rise to superstardom muddled the team’s hierarchy, since he needed to siphon some ball-handling duties from Paul. “When you have multiple alphas, multiple guys in a lot of TV commercials, there is always going to be some tension and clashing,” J.J. Redick told ESPN.com.”

(You can read the rest of Lowe’s early season take here.)

That last nugget from Redick is the one that rings out. Chris Paul, all 6’1” of him, arrived in Hollywood in his prime, with the swagger, the reputation, and the game of The Man. All young Blake had to do, goes the thinking, was follow his lead, be his wingman, and voila, hello Finals. But while we tout Paul’s leadership, and there’s no doubt he’s one of the most skilled players in the NBA, is it possible that the Clippers savior is the 6’10” slab of marble, Blake Griffin? Is it possible for the Clippers to be more Blake-centric while still having Chris Paul hold the reins? We’ll never know; while Chris Paul’s field goal attempts have stayed the same and his usage has trended up during his time in L.A., and while DeAndre has gotten more touches and minutes over the years, Blake has at best plateaued, and at worst has statistically regressed.

Maybe it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. The Core Four of Paul, Jordan, Griffin, and Crawford have been at it for five years now; throw in J.J. Redick and that’s four years of win compiling followed by playoff disappointment.Hell, it was almost two years ago thatDoc Rivers opened up to Lowe about his roster approaching it’s possible expiration date.

“We’re right on the borderline,” Doc Rivers tells Grantland during a long sit-down at his office. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”

(peep the rest here.)

For all of the regular season success the Clippers have had ( assuming they win 50 games this year, they’ll have played 476 games in the Chris Paul Era, and have won 313 of them), they’ve had just as much playoff heartbreak. They yakked away a 2-0 lead to the Grizzlies. Chris Paul brain-locked while 60 seconds from going up 3-2 on the Thunder. The Clippers turned into the Keystone Kops while up by 19 and a little over  a quarter away from upending the Rockets and bursting into the Western Conference Finals.

 

As the expectations mount, year after year, racking up oodles of regular season wins loses some meaning; being “really good” in Los Angeles with players of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul’s level isn’t enough. The Clippers won 56 games with Vinnie Del Negro at the helm; the deft touch of Doc Rivers and the emergence of DeAndre Jordan were supposed to take this team to The Promised Land.

But here we are, four years later- the Clippers are winning 50 games, but seem no closer to reaching the pinnacle. In that time, the league’s gotten faster, the three pointer has been even more highly weaponized, and the NBA big man has morphed from bruiser to sniper. In 2013-2014, only three teams topped a pace of 100 or more (Blake & Co. were 7th with a pace of 98.3). 7 teams sported a three point rate higher than the Clippers’ 29.1%, and 9 teams took more threes than their 24.9.

Today, a full nine teams are playing at a pace over 100, and the Clippers’ 98.37 pace is middle of the pack 16th. Los Angeles has bumped it’s three point shooting numbers up a bit, with a three point rate of 32% and 28 attempts a night, and that’s all well and good….but the top three teams all take at least 39% of their shots from behind the arc, and all three (Houston, Cleveland, and Boston) are taking over 34 treys a game.

And while Kevin Love, Draymond Green, Al Horford, Ryan Anderson, Kristaps Porzingis, and a host of other big men are now comfy stepping out to 27 feet and launching threes, stretching the defenses thin, Blake Griffin and the Clippers are doggedly clinging to convention. Per Basketball-Reference, they’re 23rd in percentage of shots taken at the rim, and tied for the highest percentage of long twos (16 feet out to the three point line) in the league with the Pacers. Griffin’s made a not-terrible 35% of his three points attempt over the past two seasons (that’s good!), but he’s only taken a little over a single three a game in that span (that’s not really helping).

And ask most fans (and writers, and bloggers) who’re the top three power forwards in the league currently, there’s a good chance that Griffin, now 28, is nowhere on the majority of those lists.

Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks

And back to Blake’s big week:

-it came at the expense of the Wizards, the Suns, and the Lakers; the Wiz are a good team, but all three squads are 24th or worst in defensive rating since the All Star break.

-Markieff Morris, Marquese Chriss, and Julius Randle aren’t exactly a Murderer’s Row of defenders.

-Griffin averaged 16.6 points, 5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists on 39% shooting in the four games prior.

The Clippers will win 50 or more games, and are more than likely going to face the rock solid defense of the Utah Jazz in the 4-5 first round playoff matchup. If everything works out for them, they’ll earn the right to face the mighty Warriors, a team they have not defeated since 2014, in the second round. The Clippers will most likely lose.

(There IS a glimmer of hope. Maybe Blake Griffin somehow morphs back into the destruction engine that, between closing out the Spurs and going up 3-1 on the Rockets, averaged almost 26-13-7 for a stretch in the 2015 playoffs. That Blake Griffin appeared when from Chris Paul was limited by a hamstring injury. Just sayin’.)

This summer, J.J. Redick, Chris Paul, and Blake Griffin could all possibly be free agents, and all parties involved, the players and the franchise, have huge decisions to make. If all three remain in Los Angeles, the Clippers will be capped out, and Doc Rivers will have to be creative as he attempts to flesh out the roster and keep his sliver of a window open and relevant.

Be it playing style, system, fatigue, wear and tear, or personality issues, something has to change in Clippersville. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results; Doc Rivers would be mad to run back this same team, a year older, a year more jaded, and expect to compete in the track meet of the Western Conference.

Blake Griffin is having (by his own standards) a pedestrian year, but he recently became just the ninth player ever to score over 10,000 points, grab over 4,350 boards, and dish out over 1,900 assists in their first 7 seasons. He’s one of the most dynamic players of his generation, but as the game has shifted from his strengths, he’s been pushed aside in the Age of Curry, Westbrook, and Kawhi.

Where once Blake was the most coveted big man in the game, the sudden influx of unicorn behemoths (big men who can shoot with range, protect the rim, and also dominate the box score) and the seeming stagnation of his own game has rendered him an afterthought, a modern day dinosaur at the ripe age of 28. Will he remain with the Clippers, a key cog in the Chris Paul driven machine, looking up at the Warriors and the Spurs? Will he look to grow his legacy and reclaim his spot among the power forward elite for a new franchise? This future of the Clippers, much like where Blake Griffin now stands in the modern NBA landscape, just like Blake back in his halcyon days, is still very much up in the air.

James Holas

Suffering Celtics fan. Lefty post dominator. Purveyor of the finest Steakums cuisine and candy corn.

View all posts

Subscribe on YouTube

BBALLBREAKDOWN on Twitter