- Justin Verrier, NBA
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Chris Paul is never one to miss an open teammate. So when asked for his first-half MVP pick last week, Paul quickly lobbed one up for his new pick-and-roll partner.
"Blake," Paul said, nudging his head ever so slightly in Blake Griffin's direction. "I'd give it to Blake."
It's hard to argue with most basketball-related decisions Paul makes. But ever the dutiful point guard, his response seemed more like an attempt to spread around the spotlight just like he does shot opportunities.
Truth is, Griffin couldn't pull off MVP honors on his own team, let alone the entire league. With Paul's fingerprints all over the Los Angeles Clippers' rise to the top of the Pacific Division -- from the 14-point difference between when he's on and off the court to the 6.3 points he averages in the fourth quarter (second behind Kobe Bryant), according to ESPN's stat whizzes -- the pint-sized point has positioned himself as the most worthy fallback option for this year's Podoloff trophy should voters choose to (again) overlook LeBron James and his career-best campaign.
But while you won't find Griffin on most hypothetical midseason ballots, the value of the hulking power forward, in Paul's steely eyes, is quite clear: Without him, Paul wouldn't be where he is today. Literally.
The trade that lifted him out of a toxic situation down on the bayou, the revitalization project of a forlorn franchise that Paul has rallied so ardently for on talks shows and in interviews, that Mediterranean-style mansion in Bel-Air bought from a pop star, the recognizable (albeit a bit banal) new team moniker, the seemingly wide-open postseason possibilities all of it begins with Blake.
With one 82-game season, Griffin turned one of the greatest point guards ever into a believer, and in turn altered the fates of virtually all 30 teams in the league.
That may not be worth an MVP, but that's valuable.
Griffin's career has made a leap of, well, Griffin-like proportions since he finally stepped onto the scene, the 22-year-old's "Appetite For Rim Destruction" tour in his (delayed) debut season not only launching him into the YouTube lexicon but also into the extended Mount Rushmore of the NBA's elite.
But while Griffin's career arc has mirrored the explosiveness with which he dazzles on the court, the lack of refinement to his game also explains why his most valuable asset is the player he can become rather than the one he is now.
Griffin's raw numbers have actually dipped ever so slightly in the Lob City era, despite no change in his usage rate. But his player efficiency rating (PER) keeps rising, as his 23.51 mark places him in the top 10 in the NBA and ahead of the uber-efficient Paul at this stage of his career. He has more dunks and points in the paint than any player this season, and his rebound rate ranks among the league's 25 best.
But more than any player save James, Griffin -- the closest thing yet to James' otherworldly combination of size and athleticism -- is defined more by what he can't do.
Blake can't defend. Blake can't post up. Blake can't shoot free throws. Blake can't hit the jumper.
We all hear it. And so does he.
"No matter how many times I shoot, whenever I do miss a jumper, miss two or three, people are going to say, 'Oh, well he needs to improve,'" Griffin said.
He has every right to be a bit miffed by such harsh criticisms just 135 games into his NBA life, and with far more different hairstyles than minutes in truly meaningful games.
But they aren't wrong, Blake.
Griffin excels at the rim, where he shoots 72 percent (the same success rate as Dwight Howard), according to HoopData. But from 16-23 feet out, that number dips to 31 percent. Such a steep drop-off wouldn't matter for someone like Howard, who ventures out that deep about as often as Jesse Katsopolis lets others touch his hair. But Blake is firing off four long 2s per game (one more than last season) as he and the Clippers attempt to jam the J into his game.
"We need him to make it," coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He's so good on the move with his athleticism that, as he feels more comfortable to make that shot, he almost becomes unguardable at times."
Even the president is encouraging him to let 'em fly from mid-distance. But so far, defenses aren't as impressed.
Teams back off when Griffin catches the ball just inside the arc (usually off the high pick-and-pop with Paul), often conceding an open look from midrange in favor of preventing the more dangerous foray to the rim. Some defenders don't even bother to stick a hand up when he does commit to the shot.
We need him to make it. He's so good on the move with his athleticism that, as he feels more comfortable to make that shot, he almost becomes unguardable at times.
”-- Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro
But rather than making things easier, the extra time and space only seem to confound him. Griffin excels in situations that require mostly athleticism and strength -- dunks, put-backs, fast breaks more dunks. Put him in areas that require more refined basketball moves though, and his movements look clunky and unnatural, like he's thinking about his form instead of the shot. Griffin agrees.
"Part of the thing on improving that for me is, when I know I'm open, just catch and shoot, not even think about whether I should shoot or not," he said, adding later that his goal is for his shot to be more "natural reaction."
The same problem persists at the free throw line, where his percentage has dipped below 60 percent on the season, and in the post, where his points per possession have dipped slightly (from 0.9 to 0.87) despite rising from No. 67 to 38 in Synergy Sports' rankings.
Griffin has developed a few worthwhile moves down low, but you can often see the gears turning as he attempts to execute them, his motions more a part of a coach-drilled routine than a response to what the defense is giving him. Like with his shooting stroke, the inability to rely on his explosiveness -- in this case, because of a lack of space -- often saps the speed, confidence and effectiveness with which he plays in other situations.
Everything else on the floor comes so natural, so quick -- including the type of post-call complaints and bewildered facial expressions that only 14-year veteran Tim Duncan can rival. Everywhere else he's a star, his deadpan delivery in Kia commercials (he's a natural on that stage too, of course) often entertaining the Staples Center crowd when his vicious slams aren't. Griffin only needs to figure out how to find the fast-forward button in the nooks of his game that don't come to him so easily.
Or perhaps we need to find the pause. Everything Griffin needs to succeed outside and up close appear to be there: the strength to muscle his way closer to the basket, a quick spin to roll away from contact, a shooting form straight out of an instructional video. All he may need from us is the one thing we now ask him to get a better grip on: patience.
That may tough. With the Clippers' division lead down to just one game with 19 contests on the horizon in the month of March alone, including five straight on the road over the next week, they need all the star power they can get on the offensive end to counterbalance a defense still ranked in the bottom third of the league.
I guess having Paul around will have to do for now. That one's an easy value judgment.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com.
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