Dispelling the Blake Griffin Myths

Los Angeles Clippers v New York Knicks

There are reasons to dislike Blake Griffin. He seems to grate on everyone’s nerves with the cultivated stone-faced tough-guy look he gives after dunks and a propensity for getting his arms tangled up with another big man underneath the rim — and using some exaggerated extrication technique to make damn well sure officials know someone has assaulted poor Blakey.

He flops. So does basically everyone, including your favorite player, but a chiseled, car-leaping behemoth resorting to such trickery seems to annoy folks more than Chris Paul or Manu Ginobili pulling the trick. (Manu is European after all, say Euro- and soccer-bashing critics who do not know where Argentina is.) Griffin has struggled, by his lofty standards, against the beefy Grizzlies in the playoffs, though untimely injuries haven’t helped in either series. There was a sense that Griffin’s fame, built upon unpolished dunky athleticism, outpaced his actual basketball achievements.

All of this gives rise to the single most annoying basketball fan myth: that Griffin is a one-dimensional dunker with no post game, no hoops sophistication, and nothing to fall back upon when leaping isn’t enough to win. Seriously: You can’t tweet one positive thing about the guy without a legion of critics screaming about how empty Griffin’s game is.

As the Clippers continue to win without Paul, it becomes increasingly clear the “HE CAN ONLY DUNK!” crowd simply does not watch Los Angeles Clippers basketball. The schedule has been easy and heavy on Eastern Conference teams, but the Clips are 9-3 since Paul went down, and Griffin has been sensational in shifting into a role as the team’s clear no. 1 option. Griffin has produced in exactly the sort of varied ways the screaming mobs claim are beyond his skill set. The Clippers have had the most efficient offense in the league since Paul’s injury — read that again, but also consider the schedule — and Griffin has shot better overall and gotten to the line more often this season with Paul on the bench, per NBA.com. He is not a remora fish mooching off a shark.

The Post Game

Griffin is attempting nearly six post-up shots per game in Paul’s absence, up from about 3.9 post-up shots on average before Paul’s injury, per Synergy Sports. Griffin has shot 48 percent on the block post-Paul and has drawn shooting fouls on an astonishing 26 percent of his post-up possessions in that stretch, per Synergy. The Clips have scored 1.03 points per possession over those games on all Griffin post-ups that end with Griffin shooting, drawing a foul, or turning the ball over.

That figure would rank fifth overall among 79 players who have finished at least 50 post-ups this season, per Synergy. The four players who have exceeded Griffin’s post-Paul efficiency on the block: LeBron James (the best player alive, though Kevin Durant is closing the gap); Brook Lopez (out for the season); Boris Diaw (not nearly as frequent a post-up scoring threat); and Dirk Nowitzki (sort of a well-known post-up guy). Griffin’s post-ups this season have produced .981 points per possession, meaning he’s actually been better without Paul, even while assuming a larger burden. But even so: That .981 figure ranks Griffin 12th among those 79 players, in a virtual tie with some dude named Kevin Durant. Respected post scorers below Griffin include Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, David Lee, Al Jefferson, Zach Randolph, Kevin Love, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Pekovic, and many others.

You can scream all you want that Griffin doesn’t have a post game. You are just wrong, and your argument looks increasingly like the hysterical shouting of a crazy person who points to a sunny sky and tells you it’s raining.

The Crunch-Time Play

The related knock on Griffin is that his lack of refinement, combined with his poor foul shooting, makes him a useless cog late in games. It’s time to revise that as well. Griffin is shooting 71.5 percent from the line this season, easily a career high, and he’s hit 75.5 percent over 30 combined games in December and January. He is 7-of-14 in the last three minutes of games in which the scoring margin is three points or fewer — a qualifier that includes just 30 total minutes for the Clippers this season, per NBA.com. That equates to about 17 shots per 36 minutes, a healthy total, right in line with those of Mike Conley, Ginobili, LeBron, Damian Lillard, and Tim Duncan. (The numbers and ranking are similar if you expand the parameters to five points and five minutes.)

Griffin is never going to be Durant or Paul in crunch time. The list of high-volume crunch-time shooters includes few big men, though fellow power forward stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Love have been more frequent late-game shooters this season. Aldridge, in particular, has an unblockable shot he can get against any defender whenever he wants. Griffin doesn’t have that simply because he’s shorter than Aldridge, with a smaller wingspan.

But Griffin isn’t some crunch-time wallflower, hiding from the ball like Andris Biedrins. He has been the hub of the Clippers’ offense down the stretch in several recent wins, including roadies in Chicago and Toronto. His midrange jumper isn’t a weapon, but it’s at least a semi-reliable option that does not make the L.A. coaching staff cringe. Griffin is shooting 40 percent combined on shots taken between 15 and 24 feet from the basket, up from 33.5 percent last season, per NBA.com.

How He’s Improved

Griffin has post moves and countermoves. I repeat: Blake Griffin has actual post moves. He prefers to work from the left block, as most righties do, and if he’s backing you down there, he’s probably going for his righty jump hook in the lane. Sit too blatantly on that, and he’ll fake it, watch you jump, and go to a lefty up-and-under layin. He’s gotten stronger as a back-down force. You can’t guard him with weaker post defenders anymore, and he even knocked Joakim Noah off-balance with shoulder blocks last week in Chicago.

He can work from the right block, too, but he’s a bit more predictable from there. That’s why the Clippers will often try to get him a head start by running Griffin off several screens on his way to right block post-ups:

If he’s backing someone down on the right block toward the middle of the paint, he’s very likely to spin back toward the right baseline for a little righty bank shot/half-hook — his favorite move. But he can hit a lefty jump hook in the lane, and he’s obviously capable of facing up from either block and beating a slower defender off the bounce. He’s experimenting with various turnaround and fadeaway jumpers, but those are still low-efficiency shots.

Griffin’s post game is not stylish. It is brutish and low to the ground, and that ugliness makes for an interesting contrast with Griffin’s high-flying open-court game. But too many fans have conflated unappealing aesthetics with poor results.

Griffin post-ups are not a fun watch. The lack of space is too constricting for Griffin to take much advantage of his leaping ability, and since he can’t go over defenders, his average stature and short arms become more of an impediment than usual. He has to find ways around and through defenders, and that takes some grunt work. Griffin uses shoulder fakes, jab steps, spin moves, and little shoves to get his defender off-balance or in a straight-up vertical position — a position in which the defender has lost leverage and knees-bent jumping ability. If those moves fail, Griffin often looks as if he is just spinning himself into the ground, accomplishing nothing. He’s not above just putting his head down and butting it into his defender’s stomach, hoping to disrupt the defender’s balance:

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He looks a bit like Homer Simpson being a jerk outside Stampy’s elephant habitat:

Once the defender is off-balance, Griffin will launch an unattractive layup/floater over his defender, often by bringing the ball back away from the rim and flicking it toward the basket.

It’s Griffin’s way of hiding the ball from reaching arms and carving out a useful arc trajectory for it. It does not look nice; in fact, when shots like these go in against good contests, it almost looks lucky. But it’s not luck, and Griffin has mastered these tricky little buggers.

Griffin is one of the game’s great big-man passers, a skill that proves useful since teams almost automatically send help toward Griffin post-ups at this point. News flash: NBA coaches don’t send help at guys who can’t score on the block. Griffin has assisted on 17 percent of L.A. baskets while on the floor, a very good mark for a big man, and among bigs, only Marc Gasol records more “hockey assists” per game than Griffin.

The Clippers in Paul’s absence have let Griffin stretch himself a bit. He’s allowed to bring the ball up more often, and having a big man do that can create all sorts of havoc for a scrambling defense:

He’s facilitating more from the elbow area, and just generally touching the rock more often. Griffin has dribbled the ball on average 80 times per game since Paul’s injury compared to just 54 times before, according to analysis from the SportVU data-tracking cameras provided to Grantland. He’s holding the ball on average for 40 combined seconds more per game.

(Aside: The real post-Paul star by these fun measures is, as you might expect, Jamal Crawford. He’s bouncing the ball about 200 times per game since Paul’s injury, twice as many dribbles as he took on average when Paul was playing, per SportVU. Crawford’s average time of possession has jumped from about 2:05 per game to 3:45 — a massive leap.)

None of this is to say Griffin is perfect in the post. He can struggle against defenders who are both long and strong — guys too bulky to move, and too big to shoot over. This is why teams often have their centers defend Griffin, leaving power forwards or less-accomplished defenders to deal with DeAndre Jordan. Memphis has cross-matched this way with Gasol at times in the postseason, and several teams have done it in recent games using Tyson Chandler (Knicks), Noah (Bulls), Jonas Valanciunas (Raptors), and others. This kind of targeted scheming is a bigger deal in the playoffs, and the West is stacked with teams that can throw multiple big bodies at Griffin.

The Defense

Griffin is still growing defensively, though he’s far from the sieve his critics imagine him to be. He’s mobile and alert, essential qualities for Doc Rivers’s strongside overload scheme, and he can use his speed to contain pick-and-rolls in a variety of styles. Griffin generally tries hard, which is half the battle on defense. Bigger guys can still give him issues on the block, and genetics have ensured Griffin will never be a scary rim protector who deters drivers.

He has gotten better. The Clips rank eighth overall in points allowed per possession, and they’ve been a hair stingier than their overall average with the Griffin-Jordan duo on the floor, per NBA.com. That’s an important change from last season, when the team’s bench propped up starter-heavy units that couldn’t defend well enough.

The young L.A. bigs aren’t stoppers, separately or together. Teams have shot nearly 52 percent on close shots when Jordan is near both the shooter and the rim, a below-average mark for a big man playing heavy minutes, per SportVU data. (In fairness to Jordan, this number has been gradually coming down from about 60 percent over the last six weeks.) Opponents have hit 62.6 percent of shots in the restricted area against the Clippers, the seventh-worst mark among all team defenses, per NBA.com.

Jordan is still occasionally late on weakside rotations and can space out at bad times. The two bigs still have blips of miscommunication that result in one opposing big man being left wide open. The Clippers have fallen off a bit defensively since Paul’s injury, and while the falloff doesn’t amount to much in terms of L.A.’s place in the league’s defensive hierarchy, it’s worth monitoring, considering the blah competition. The Clips might be 9-3 without Paul, but they’re just 3-2 in that stretch against teams currently at .500 or better, and two of those wins came against teams — Chicago and Toronto — that are just two games over .500 combined.

The Clippers, like basically every team, have some issues to sort out. But this non-Paul stretch has been a sort of second coming-out party for Griffin — the very loud announcement of his maturation as a player. The critics should take note.

Filed Under: NBA, Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA