Here are a few reasons why Blake Griffin is an All-Star starter for the second consecutive year:
I: Outside of maybe JaVale McGee, there isn’t a player in the league whose in-game dunks generate more shock, awe, and bewilderment. Griffin is completely willing to test the limits of his athleticism in both fullcourt and halfcourt situations, which often make his missed dunks more enjoyable than his successful ones. I’ve seen it from near-courtside and from the upper decks; there’s a different tone that resonates after one of Blake’s missed dunks. The reaction lasts longer. Five, ten minutes after, the heavy sighs are still audible. The dunk is no longer a dunk—which kind of goes without saying, since it didn’t successfully happen—but an “if”, a wish you didn’t know you had before it descended upon you. For Griffin, whatever results from his time in midair is a formality. Success or failure, he’s left a dent in your memory.
II: He’s got an unlikeable, “punchable”, face, but he’s also got surefire charisma, and it’s an irresistible combination. While his stoic, condescending face is a bit of a bother at times, I never blamed him for it. I never bought into the “fake tough guy”—one of the worst terms in sports—accusation. I always figured it was his face’s natural predisposition, and I’m still of that opinion. There’s a disconnect between the exhilarating ride he takes us on with every single dunk/failed dunk and his face upon liftoff and landing. It’s not natural, and clearly upsetting to most, but that’s only because we aren’t Blake Griffin. We don’t know what it feels like to propel oneself so violently skyward, only to be ripped down by an opponent because of his fear of embarrassment. Or the crisis of wanting to give a show, but knowing that somehow, that same act of fearsome athleticism will eventually morph into a biting criticism. And for a player who does it night in and night out, we don’t know the mundanity of his exhibition.
He’s smiled more this season, which is fine, but only because it comes from a genuine place—the Clippers are very much a success story this season and he’s playing great basketball. And while we don’t enjoy his blank glares, we really don’t like wide-eyed smiles from fake people. So he has that going for him.
III: He is an incredibly marketable player making great commercials for one of the NBA’s most reliable sponsors. Kia’s Blake Griffin ‘90s Loopercommercials are funny, taking full advantage of Griffin’s well-known deadpan-ity. Griffin’s self-deprecation both affirms and softens the prevailing criticisms of his game (inability to shoot, one-trick dunking pony). It’s a twin-headed joke that gives a nod to those who only know Griffin as a SportsCenter phenomenon and a wink to those who have witnessed his improvements.
IV: And he has improved. His numbers over the last two seasons still don’t match the raw numbers of his rookie year but that’s what happens when you stop playing the entire game and stop being the only player on the team worth a damn. The only real noticeable decline is in his offensive rebounding, which can be attributed to actually running back on defense. He’s improved on that end. He’s showing off a more confident passing game, which we saw glimpses of his rookie season. He’s using turns and spins to both get closer to the basket and to create separation for hook shots that will never look like Kareem’s, but are far more natural than what he’s done in the past. It’s not a drastic yearly ascent like Kevin Durant, but it’s not nothing, either.
The All-Star game is a place where expectations from all aisles coalesce and reduce. Everything about the weekend is all in good fun; nothing more, nothing less. Griffin is encouraged to bring the ball upcourt and execute his crab-legged crossover and spin dribbles and dunk to his heart’s content. It’s what fans want of him, but more importantly, it’s the only thing they expect. To call Griffin a one-trick pony at this point in his career is ignorant, but there was a point when his highlight reel was the only thing that mattered. Not to say it was meant to be a ceiling or limitation to Griffin as a player—he is much, much more than just a dunker—but when the perception of a player shifts so suddenly from medium-defying visual phenomenon to hollow sideshow, being able to enjoy his talents without actively probing for demerits is a welcomed respite. Last year’s All-Star game was enjoyable, but was sullied in the end by LeBron’s failed heroics, providing an opening for the criticism outside of the All-Star capsule to seep in. Maybe Griffin’s supposed shortcomings as a player will one day reach that level of ubiquity, but it’s not there yet. Or maybe Blake is already well on his way to erasing them, straight-faced and plain, as though it was just one big joke of his.