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Person of Interest: Blake Griffin

The first 100 games

Stardom in the NBA runs through two distinct but intertwined economies. At the top is a championship economy, in which a player can only be gauged by his ability to collect rings. The feeder for the championship economy comes from the league’s highlight reels and never-ending excitement over Tremendous Upside Potential. Most NBA superstars pay their dues in the highlight economy before graduating to the bulletproof status of being “champions.” In fact, when a player in the highlight economy doesn’t graduate, he is branded a selfish disappointment, the gift from God who refused to give back to the city that worshipped him. All this is obvious — it’s how fans and the media have judged players for years. Isaiah Rider is x. Bruce Bowen is y. Can Carmelo Anthony be y, or is he, like Tracy McGrady before him, just another brilliant x who perpetually teased us with an imminent but never actualized transformation?

Over the past decade, those lines have been blurred by a new way of watching basketball. There are now players whose contributions to the highlight economy are so visibly staggering and so efficiently distributed that these athletes take on a different sort of superstardom. The expectations of graduation come almost immediately — once enough people have watched your videos on YouTube, some of them are going to say, “It doesn’t mean anything until he wins a championship.” Vince Carter was a prototype for the new hype — a year after breaking the dunk contest, Vinsanity took the Raptors to the East semifinals, where he lost to Allen Iverson’s Sixers in one of the most thrilling playoff series of the last 25 years. Famously, on the morning of Game 7, Vince flew to Chapel Hill to walk in his college graduation ceremony. Twelve hours later, he finished a stinker of a game by missing a 20-footer at the buzzer. The media immediately questioned Vince’s commitment to basketball while lauding Iverson’s determination, and the storyline for both men’s careers were set. Iverson now gets more credit for hauling that Sixers team to the Finals than most players get for actually winning a championship, while Vince — fairly — has become the icon for aimless basketball talent.

Vince was 24 years old in 2001. Since then, the path between the highlight economy and the championship economy has become both steeper and shorter. Players used to be allowed five, six years within the highlight economy before their desire/ability to win came into question. Now, the timetable lasts about two years.

The arrival of Blake Griffin — the man who made “Timofey” an acceptable spelling of “Timothy” — has supercharged the highlight hype machine. He has played exactly 100 NBA games. Before this season started, several pundits were calling him one of the best players in the NBA, including ESPN’s preseason #NBARank, which listed him at no. 10.

No player since Vinsanity has taken up more space in the highlight economy. This means two truths are inevitable, neither of which have anything to do with Blake Griffin. First, he automatically becomes the most overrated player in the NBA. Second, his “winningness” will be discussed, dissected, and judged before it’s ready. Which is too bad. Because, above all other things, Blake Griffin is the league’s most interesting project. He is a thoroughly flawed player whose myriad clunks can all appear fixable. He could be a no-doubt Hall of Famer who racks up rings with Chris Paul and dominates both from 18 feet and around the rim. He could blow out his knee and end up his generation’s Antonio McDyess.

Blake Griffin is already a superstar. Nobody trends more often on Twitter. Nobody keeps Jose 3030 busier. But the highlight honeymoon will soon be over — one morning, Griffin will wake up and someone will have asked, “Does Blake care more about dunking than winning?” That day is coming soon, and Blake’s next five years will be defined by how he, and the team on which he is clearly the second-best player, respond.1 So how can Griffin graduate from being the prodigy of the highlight economy to actually becoming one of the NBA’s ten best players?

Through 18 games this season, the majority of Blake’s possessions have come in the post, where he’s scoring 0.8 points per possession. (The advanced statistics in this article come from Synergy Sports Technology.) That’s not a great rate. He’s worse in isolation and spot-up situations. Altogether, these three situations comprise roughly 56 percent of Blake’s total offensive repertoire. His struggles in these spots stem from indecision. If there’s a general criticism to be levied against Blake’s game, it’s that he nullifies his unbelievable explosiveness with a series of hesitations. When he decides to explode to the rim, he can explode. When he decides to go straight up for a jumper, he can score with decent efficiency. And when he decides to go straight into a post move, he generally can create the space for an easy opportunity. But on too many possessions, the one player in the league who really shouldn’t have to think about exactly where he’s going gets hit with basketball’s version of the yips.

Blake’s “going problem” has leaked into every bit of his offensive repertoire, but it’s important to remember that he’s played a grand total of 168 games of competitive basketball between college and the pros, and that players with such an extremely high level of physical talent sometimes take longer to hone the finer parts of their game. When you can just run and jump over the guy who knows his fundamentals, well, you just keep running and jumping over him. Karl Malone, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Shawn Kemp all came into the league with comparable athleticism. All three played with Hall of Fame point guards who created easy opportunities that helped hide the gaps in their game. Malone had the good fortune of not playing without Stockton until his final year as a Laker, when he reinvented himself as a defensive tough guy. Kemp’s various appetites certainly contributed to his troubles in Cleveland, but in his first year without Payton, his true shooting percentage, which hovered around .600 at his peak in Seattle, dropped to a pedestrian .512. We’ve also seen roughly 100 games of Amar’e with the Knicks, but they’ve rendered a much stronger verdict — without a point guard getting him the ball, the four years and $72 million left on his contract might be one of the ten worst deals in the league.

Last year, Blake played with Baron Davis and Mo Williams at point guard — two players with wildly different styles, neither of whom were particularly invested in playing for Los Angeles’ uglier team. This year, Blake, who has a reputation for being one of the hardest-working players in basketball, is playing with two Hall of Fame point guards. Under Paul’s guidance, there’s a good chance Blake eventually turns into a Kemp Supreme, but through 18 games this season, it doesn’t appear as if Paul’s presence has been able to patch over some of the inefficiencies in Griffin’s offensive game.

Blake in the Post

The shortcomings in Griffin’s post game come from his college days, when, as Oklahoma’s center, he racked up numbers by outmuscling and outjumping opponents. In the pros, two truths about Griffin have been exposed: (1) he’s not 6-foot-10, and (2) he plays too physically. When you watch Griffin over several possessions, you begin to see the influence of all those highlight reels and the confidence of a young player who understands, and perhaps overvalues, his athleticism. Tim Duncan can create space by clearing his elbows and squaring up to the basket. Griffin, mostly because he’s shorter than many NBA power forwards, tends to get smothered when he faces up. He’s an excellent ball handler for his size, so you’d expect him to blow by his defender and get to the rim. The reality is a lot clunkier.

On about half of his possessions in the post, Griffin pivots and faces up to the rim. He almost never goes directly into a move. Instead, he robotically sets his feet and squares his shoulders. From that position, he either tries to blow by the defender, or, if he’s on the right block, he spins left and attempts a bank shot. If the defender stays in front of him, Griffin turns into basketball’s version of Dwight Freeney — spinning, spinning, and spinning until he can create separation. And when he finally gets that space, he, too often, goes into something called …

The Clunkin’ Duncan. This dance goes like this: You bash your shoulder into your partner’s chest, spin, bash your shoulder into his chest again, spin, and lose your balance. As you fall backward, you toss the ball up off the backboard and yell that you’ve been fouled.

Blake’s reliance on the Clunkin’ Duncan comes from his desire to impose his strength and athleticism on defenders. This strategy worked in the Big 12, but it doesn’t work when Blake tries to bowl over gully NBA veterans like Nazr Mohammed.

The Jump Shot

Through 18 games this season, 9.5 percent of Griffin’s possessions ended with a spot-up jumper. He hit 36 percent of these attempts, down 5 percent from last year. This doesn’t tell us much — most big men don’t shoot well from 15 to 18 feet. Hell, almost nobody shoots all that well from that range. But it’s a shot that any athletic big man needs in his arsenal, both to extend his career and to keep defenders from playing two steps off him. Chris Webber became much more dangerous when he stopped splitting his touches between bad 3-pointers and dunks. Amar’e Stoudemire never would have come all the way back from microfracture surgery without an effective jump shot. Karl Malone made a career out of the 18-foot pick-and-pop with John Stockton. Blake Griffin will probably, at some point in the next few seasons, develop a reliable jumper. But to do so, he needs to figure out a way to shoot in rhythm.

In Sunday night’s game against Denver, Blake took four jump shots. Three of these attempts were set up by Chris Paul. When Paul dribbles near the foul line, help defenders tend to slip a couple steps off their men and into the lane. This creates wide-open looks for the big men who play with Paul. This scheme worked in New Orleans when the passes were going to David West. And they would work with greater efficiency in Los Angeles if Griffin would go straight into his shooting motion.

Here is a typical sequence that ends in a Blake Griffin jumper: He catches the ball, pivots, sees his defender sagging off of him, looks for driving lanes, and then looks for somewhere to pass the ball. If none of that is available, he sets up for a very slow jump shot. Through the first 15 games, Griffin shot 77 jumpers. The only times he caught the ball and went straight up have been at the end of the shot clock. On 21 of those 77 shots, he hesitated for more than two seconds. On unguarded catch-and-shoot situations, he made 15 of 45 shots. Blake has a reputation for hard work, so we can assume that his shot will come around. What’s concerning is that he doesn’t seem to have a feel for when to shoot, when to drive, and when to move the ball. He hesitates even more when nobody’s around.

Blake excels in every other offensive situation. He’s the league’s best big man in transition and he’s in the top 20 percent in efficiency when he cuts to the basket. He struggles in the pick-and-roll when he hesitates, but when he gets a head of steam going to the basket, Timofeys get Mozgov-ed and the Kendrick Perkins game face gets smashed. But every offensively dominant big man in NBA history has made his hay in the post, from the free throw line and from the elbow. Until Griffin figures out that part of the game, Lob City will be a part-time party.

I’ve attended nine Clippers games this season. My notes from those games have been folded into the preceding paragraphs to accompany the usual tape study. But this past Monday, Blake played a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder that encapsulated his strengths and weaknesses so perfectly that I felt compelled to deliver it via running diary.

Thunder at Clippers

Game 100 of Blake Griffin’s career

First Quarter:
11:27 — Blake catches the ball on the left block, spins toward the basket, and gets stripped. Serge Ibaka guards him tonight — a great matchup. Ibaka is long, mobile, and several inches taller than Blake. Against a player with Ibaka’s size and energy level, there’s no reason to predictably establish Griffin in the post. It’s not the strongest part of his game. Better to feed Griffin in the post and have him kick the ball out to Caron Butler or Chauncey Billups on the perimeter.

8:00 — Blake outruns the defense down the court. Here’s the thing: He was running backward. Now that’s a Kia commercial!

6:52 — Blake gets the ball in two spots on this possession — first on the right elbow, then on the left. He’s open when he catches the ball, but doesn’t pull the trigger. On the first catch, he pivots and passes across the court. He’s open again on the second touch, but hesitates, dribbles between his legs, and shoots a fadeaway that misses long.

This must be maddening for Chris Paul to watch. Back in New Orleans, he had a big man in David West who would catch the ball in that spot and go straight into his shot.

5:08 — The Clippers don’t seem particularly concerned with setting Blake up on the block. He’s had zero touches in the paint and is working more as a facilitator. The Clippers are up 20-13.2

4:20 — Blake catches the ball on the elbow and tries to assert his physicality on Ibaka. He takes two power dribbles into the paint, pump-fakes a few times, and tries a contested, no-look layup with his left hand. Of all the times I’ve seen Blake in person this year, this is the worst he’s looked. Luckily, Tuff Juice is lighting it up from outside and DeAndre Jordan keeps outworking Kendrick Perkins.

3:02 — Blake finally goes straight up on an 18-footer and buries it.

Second Quarter

With Blake not really engaging on offense, the Clippers score 36 points. The ball moves better when he’s not catching it and hesitating. This doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t use Blake on the offensive end, but someone needs to teach him how to make quicker decisions. Too often, he looks like he’s thinking the game and not playing it.

11:48 — Blake holds off Nick Collison in the post, catches a lob pass, and converts an and-one. Again, Griffin’s strength is apparent. Collison is among the league’s most physical defenders, and Blake just jumped through his chest.

11:20 — Blake starts bitching at the refs.3

10:05 — Larry King walks by. His skin is the color of Pluto.

10:55 — Blake goes back to the robo-post game. This time, he tries to muscle down Nazr Mohammed and throws up another blind hook shot. This one gets swatted. When playing against long defenders like Mohammed and Ibaka, Blake needs to figure out how to establish deep post position and go straight up over his left shoulder. Anytime he dribbles in the post, the defender gains an advantage.4

Blake sits for the rest of the quarter. The Clippers build an 18-point halftime lead by going small with Mo Williams, Chris Paul, Juice, and Billups. The ball just moves better without Griffin on the court. This DOES NOT mean the Clippers should bench Blake for the rest of the season, but it does hammer home what should already be obvious — Blake Griffin needs to become less methodical and keep the ball moving. A team with both Paul and Billups should create the most open opportunities in the league. This clicks into place in the second quarter. The Clippers shoot five of six from long range.

Third Quarter

9:55 — Blake hesitates, but still goes up from 18 feet and knocks down another jumper.

8:52 — You’ve probably seen it already, but this is when Kendrick Perkins gets Mozgov-ed. It’s the most impressive feat of athletic force I’ve ever seen up close — Blake went up, got hit in the neck, somehow transferred this force into more vertical lift, and then threw the ball through the rim. Somewhere in Denver, Timofey is smiling. On Blake’s poster, Mozgov’s face is fading away.

2:50 — Twitter has already blown up about Blake’s dunk. @Jose3030 gets the video up in eight minutes. Dozens of players have stacked exclamation points and every courtside reporter has quickly tweeted off his best approximation of orgasm-by-140-characters. The first animated GIF makes the rounds before five minutes of actual game time have elapsed. By the two-minute mark, hundreds of eulogies for Perkins have been written. Somewhere, a twee blogger who values his childhood too much is writing a series of haikus. The Blake Show doesn’t air on ESPN or KCAL9 or Prime West Ticket. It airs on social media.

Fourth Quarter

10:18 — Blake catches the ball; he’s got a wide-open 18-footer, but instead he passes to Chauncey in a bad spot in the lane. Luckily, Chauncey gets fouled. But I’ll be honest, the shockwaves from the dunk are still rippling through Staples. It’s hard to blame Blake for anything right now.

9:01 — “Blake Griffin,” “Kendrick Perkins,” “Perk,” and “Mozgov” are all trending in Los Angeles. So is Paula Abdul, for some reason. Something’s happening on the court, but a good portion of the crowd is lost on its phones, looking at the replay. Those awful “That was so 27 seconds ago” AT&T ads have come true.

7:22 — Blake has played efficiently this quarter, scoring on dunks and layups. What started as one of the worst games I’ve seen him play has turned into a 21-point effort on 9-of-15 shooting.

6:15 — Blake drops into the post, pivots, and tries to power up with his jump hook. He seems to be going to this move tonight instead of the Clunkin’ Duncan. Which would be good news, but Blake doesn’t really look at the rim when he shoots his hook shot. I understand the desire to work his way deeper in the post, but until he can learn to maintain his balance and get up a good shot, he’s better off passing the ball.

But fuck it, right? Nobody’s over the dunk yet. Nor should they be. One hundred pregnant women in Southern California simultaneously gave birth after that ball went through the rim.

4:11 — Blake catches the ball at the elbow and goes straight at Ibaka’s chest. Once again, Blake stumbles toward the basket, falls off-balance, and throws up the Clunkin’ Duncan. This time, the refs bail him out.5

2:05 — This game has four of the league’s ten best players to watch in person. Durant, Westbrook, Blake, and Chris Paul. If I had to choose one of those four to watch every night for eternity and beyond, I’d go with CP3 first, Durant second, Westbrook third, and Griffin fourth.

0:00 — The Clippers win 112-100. This is the first time this season Vinny Del Negro showed some real flexibility with the lineup. During a decisive run, the Clippers had three point guards on the court. It’s becoming clear that there can be a version of the Clippers where the ball moves fluidly around the perimeter and into the post.

By every statistical measure, the Clippers are a better team when Blake Griffin is on the court. In his second year, he has staked a legitimate claim as one of the NBA’s 20 best players. As Magic Johnson said on Monday night, Griffin might be the greatest in-game dunker in basketball history. His graduation from Mozgov-ing the league to becoming the best player on a playoff team depends on his ability to learn instinct, something Blake seems to lack in many offensive situations. This, of course, is extraordinarily difficult to do. Even Dwight Howard, who stands a good four inches taller than Griffin, has mostly improved by figuring out how to be effectively clumsy in the post. Blake will probably start going straight up on his jumpers, but can a player who hesitates before everything except thunder dunks really streamline his decision-making process? Or will he and Chris Paul figure out some other compromise? Whatever happens, Griffin will be the league’s most compelling project. Let’s just hope that ESPN and TNT and Twitter and YouTube give him enough time to develop, whichever way that may be.

Filed Under: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers, People, Teams