The Los Angeles Clippers have made a handful of important moves this offseason, but their championship legitimacy in the 2013-14 season will likely come down to one factor: the development of 24-year-old power forward Blake Griffin.
Through three seasons, Griffin has accomplished much, yet his production hasn’t been enough to get the Clippers past the second round in the last two postseasons. As a result, he has become a scapegoat for the Clippers’ on-court issues and fallen under intense scrutiny.
Pundits cite his postseason struggles (just 17 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting and 6.4 rebounds), unreliable jump shot and poor free throw shooting as indications that Griffin isn’t worthy of being a franchise cornerstone. Some even say that, if not for his athleticism, Griffin would be a merely average player. Former teammate Chauncey Billups also suggested that Griffin can be soft at times and is “too nice of a guy.”
While there is some truth to the criticisms of Griffin’s game, most of it is overblown. By almost any statistical measurement, Griffin is in the conversation for best power forward in the league and one of the best 15 players in the NBA.
Still, for the Clippers to separate themselves from the rest of the Western Conference contenders, it’s apparent that he has to improve certain elements of his game to take the next step.
First, and most importantly, Griffin needs to improve on the defensive end. He has made tremendous strides since his rookie season, but he’s still far from an elite, or even good, defender. He has become a better pick-and-roll and help defender -- and has long been an underrated post defender -- but he’s often a step too late when helping or recovering back to his man and doesn’t provide much resistance at the rim.
With Doc Rivers implementing his defensive schemes from Boston, it’s reasonable to assume Griffin will progress defensively. Most of his mistakes are easily fixable through maturation; he just needs the right structure and guidance.
Given his 6-11 wingspan -- a below-average figure among NBA players his height (6-10) -- Griffin will likely never be a dominant rim protector. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective defensive cog -- he has the strength and athleticism to switch onto perimeter scorers, provide timely help-side rotations and body opponents inside.
The Clippers’ defensive ineptness has been their undoing in the past two postseasons. For that to change, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan must cultivate better defensive chemistry and turn the Clippers into a two-way force. With a slew of new shooters and another year for Griffin and Chris Paul to grow together, the Clippers’ offense will be one of the best in the league. Their defense, however, is the wildcard that can make them the favorites in the west to make the NBA Finals.
Speaking of offense, though, outside of Paul, Griffin is the Clippers’ most important piece by a wide margin.
Despite the popular notion that he doesn’t have a post game, Griffin’s post scoring has improved each season, as has his overall shooting efficiency (57.2 true shooting percentage last season). He’s already one of the best passing big men in the league, equally capable of finding shooters and cutters from the block or the high post, and is also one of the few big men with the ballhandling ability to attack from beyond the arc or go coast-to-coast off a defensive rebound.
The Clippers’ offense would function better if Griffin caught the ball on the move and/or facing the basket more often (i.e. as the roll man off pick-and-rolls or cuts). His face-up game is noticeably better than his back-to-the-basket game (his lack of length allows opponents to contest his shot), yet last season the Clippers constantly dumped the ball inside to him where he wasn’t as efficient.
Jordan’s limited shooting range complicates Griffin’s movement -- Jordan often clogs the space Griffin is cutting or rolling to, thus stagnating the offense -- and it will be interesting to see how Rivers addresses this problem.
Of course, Griffin’s most glaring weakness on the offensive end is his free throw shooting and midrange jumper. The Clippers hired shooting coach Bob Thate to specifically work with Griffin and Jordan last season, but the results were mixed. While Griffin shot a career-high from the charity stripe (66 percent), he regressed in his shooting from 16 to 23 feet (just 34 percent), the area big men have to master to become viable pick-and-pop threats.
Thate had Griffin focusing on his release point and eliminating the hitch in his shot -- Griffin often holds the ball too long in the air, causing him to shoot on the way down -- so it’s understandable that his consistency fluctuated.
With a full offseason of adjusting to his new form, though, it’ll be difficult to make excuses if Griffin doesn’t improve his perimeter shooting next season. The Clippers would rather have Griffin attack the rim than spot up, but a reliable outside shot would help space the floor and make the offense more potent.
Griffin also needs to be more assertive when given the ball in scoring position. He’s prone to bouts of hesitation in the post, negating his athletic advantage over his defender or, even worse, allowing a second defender to collapse on him.
When Griffin knows the move he is going to make before catching the ball and can size up his defender, he’s almost unguardable. His first step and burst of momentum are impossible to contain without fouling, which is why Griffin consistently ranks among the league leaders in free throw attempts. When he chooses to stall, dribbling in place or surveying the floor for too long, he’s much less effective.
There are other minor aspects of his game that Griffin has to work on -- making contact when boxing opponents out and setting better on-ball screens come to mind -- but that’s just nitpicking. Griffin has already established himself as an All-Star player with a unique skillset. He just needs to fine-tune the nuances of his attack.
Since he came into the league so polished and ready to contribute, most of Griffin’s improvements have been subtle in comparison with his counterparts. He has worked to add new facets to his game each offseason, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to develop.
It’s time for Griffin to take the next step in his evolution. The Clippers’ fate depends on it.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, HoopData.com, MySynergySports.com, DraftExpress.com and Basketball-Reference.com.