Somewhere between the time he jumped “over” a kia in 2011 and Chris Paul separated his shoulder on January 3rd, Blake Griffin’s game was taken for granted. Not his highlights, of course. The jaw-dropping dunks that made Griffin a superstar his rookie year came more frequently than ever. But the crux behind his eroding reputation as a player had as much to do with those posterizations and alley-oops as any sudden deficiencies. Was Griffin, he of dropping raw statistics for consecutive seasons, really much more than the league’s best dunker?
The short answer: Of course. Per-game averages distort actual on-court impact and ignore crucial context. That Griffin’s scoring and rebounding numbers dipped in both 2012 and 2013 doesn’t really matter; the addition of Chris Paul and a more managed load of minutes – among many other ancillary factors – account for those downturns. Griffin developed as a shooter, passer, and defender in the past two seasons, facts that a simple eye-test and myriad advanced statistics all reflect. Los Angeles had the playoff appearances to show for it, too.
Skepticism of his overall improvement was nevertheless running rampant when the Clippers were eliminated by Memphis in May. That was never fair. To glean an opinion of Griffin off that series – one in which he was severely limited by a high ankle sprain in games five and six – was irresponsible, but that didn’t stop pessimistic masses.
Griffin was a flopper, they said. He had no post-game. He couldn’t shoot. Maybe the Clippers should explore trading him; Paul’s prime was being wasted with Griffin as his sidekick.
Why Griffin and not Paul has born the brunt of criticism for Los Angeles’s playoff shortcomings is a discussion for another time. Or, perhaps it won’t be needed to have at all. For behind Griffin’s awe-inspiring all-around play, the Clippers seem more poised than ever for a run deep into spring this time around.
The basic statistics are very, very impressive: in the 18 games Paul missed from January 3rd to February 8th, Griffin averaged 27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game on 55.4% from the field and 69.2% from the line. No player in the league – not Kevin Durant or LeBron James – has reached that 27/8/4 threshold this season, and only six players have accomplished said feat in the modern era. Griffin’s year-long numbers fall short of that distinction, obviously, but that he maintained such a rare level of play for more than a month without Paul goes to show just how dominant an all-encompassing offensive force he’s become.
That realization is not exactly shocking to anyone that’s paid full attention. Griffin, remember, advanced his game in each of the last two seasons despite no uptick in production, and he’s only 24 – he was hardly done developing. The timing behind his rapid ascent to elite offensive fulcrum, though, has left those that doubted him scratching their heads, and even the more optimistic lot a bit surprised.
Paul’s playmaking wizardry was supposed to account for at least some, if not much, of Griffin’s impact. After all, he’d assisted on 46.9% of Griffin’s 292 baskets this season before succumbing to injury. The notion that Griffin would struggle shouldering a heavier offensive burden was what had fans and analysts alike so disheartened by Paul’s absence; the Clippers needed him to maintain a top-flight offense and, thus, keep pace in the West.
The story is well known by now. Los Angeles went 13-5 with Paul sidelined, owed chiefly to its offensive rating of 112.1 over that timeframe. That mark would lead the league by almost three points and is nearly four points better than the Clippers’s season-long mark. And though the play of Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison deserves kudos for that supremacy, it was Griffin’s new, singular brilliance that spearheaded LAC’s relentless attack when Paul was injured.
Griffin was assisted on 55.9% of his field goals without Paul, a 17.4% decrease from when before the Point God went down. And his efficiency and production increased! Griffin, then, isn’t just basketball’s preeminent finisher, but one of the game’s best individual scorers, too. Consider: Kevin Love gets help on 63.1% of his made baskets, and LaMarcus Aldridge 60.4% of his scores. Those are the league’s en vogue power forwards, the players routinely discussed as the best at their position and even as longshot MVP candidates at different points in time this season. Griffin doesn’t receive similar acclaim, a byproduct of playing alongside a guy like Paul.
But it’s clear now that Griffin, at the very least, deserves consideration as basketball’s best power forward. Love and Aldridge are great players, and sterling examples of how far the game has come. True ig men with their combination of shooting and rebounding prowess didn’t exist ten years ago. But Griffin’s evolution into a legitimate all-court playmaker could be an indication of where basketball is going. How many bigs in history are capable of sequences like those below?
It really depends on your definition of “big man”: James and Durant routinely make these plays. But as far as full-time posts go, no one in the league is a more versatile offensive cog than Griffin. And combined with his improvements from mid-range, at the free throw line, and on the block, it’s arguable the same can be said for any non-LeBron/KD player in basketball. That’s how far Griffin has come since his rookie season, and how eye-opening his play has been over the past month.
For the Clippers to take the proverbial next step this season, they always needed and expected more from Griffin. Paul and Doc Rivers said as much in the offseason. But even they have to be somewhat surprised by the extra long strides Griffin has recently taken. He’s not just a dunker or even Paul’s running man; Griffin, clearly, is among a handful of the best players in the world. For Los Angeles to play into June and public perception to come around, he’ll have to perform like it as the season wears on.
*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.
Follow Jack Winter on twitter.