When Blake Griffin made his NBA debut on Oct. 27, 2010, he changed the fortunes of the Clippers franchise almost instantaneously, bringing them to a level of relevancy the team hadn’t known since they acquired an already broken down Bill Walton. Having the high-flying Griffin on the roster made it feasible for the Clips to go after Chris Paul a year later, moving the Clippers from an entertaining but ultimately losing team to a flying death machine of lobs and pick-and-roll execution. And in the end, wins and playoff appearances.
Since his belated breakout rookie year, Griffin has been a curious case. His raw numbers were still very good in seasons two and three, but not on the same level as his rookie season; Griffin’s scoring and rebounding per 36 minutes dropped in each successive season, and his shooting, which took an uptick in year two, dropped down again in his third season. In those years, countless arguments over Griffin’s actual on-court value have been thrown out.
This season, Griffin is playing at a level commensurate to the All-Star recognition he’s received his whole career, helping the Clippers crank up their offense and now working to keep them afloat in the absence of Chris Paul. That’s reflected in numberFire's metrics - Blake is in the top 10 in nERD, coming in at 11.6. That puts him at number seven, still behind CP3 but ahead of power forward luminaries like Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Griffin’s field goal and effective field goal percentages have both dropped this season, although both are still manageable: 52.7 and 53.2, respectively. Last season, Blake took 32.5 percent of his shots from midrange, while 46 came at the basket (all shooting location numbers via NBA.com). This year, his attempts at the basket have held steady while those midrange shots have nudged up to 34.6 percent of his shots, and he’s jacked up a few more three-pointers.
Blake's conversion rate is down a little on his rim attempts from last season, from 73.8 to 69.1 percent, but his midrange shooting has risen to 38.6 percent, up from 35.1. Not bad for a big man, but not quite at the elite level of a guy like Chris Bosh or Serge Ibaka.
Some of the dip in field goal percentage can be attributed to Griffin’s new-found decisiveness, which may come from new coach Doc Rivers. Instead of holding the ball on the perimeter, unsure of what to do with it, Griffin seems much more willing to let it fly when he catches out there. The numbers seem to back that up, as NBA.com's player tracking data shows him taking 4.7 catch-and-shoot jumpers per game, defined as shooting within two seconds of catching the ball and not taking a dribble. He's knocking down 40 percent of those shots.
One of the biggest areas holding Griffin back has been his atrocious free throw shooting. For a player that goes to the rim as often as Griffin does, taking many hard fouls, that puts him at a major disadvantage. He seemed to develop a hitch in his shot at some point, and in his second and third years he shot a combined 59 percent from the line. Paired with another big man that can’t hit his free throws (DeAndre Jordan, who owns an unprintable free throw percentage), the Clippers faced some scary late game scenarios.
This season, though, Griffin is doing something right at the line. He’s above 70 percent on the year (70.7, precisely), while taking his highest free throw attempts per game (7.7) since his rookie year. Griffin has been downright torrid (for him) since December, shooting 76.7 percent in December and 73.3 percent in January. While it’s tough to say what has changed for Griffin -- his stroke looks the same as ever -- perhaps the consistency with which he’s getting to the line is helping him knock them down.
This is where things get a bit interesting with Griffin, as his value gets a little cloudier. The Clippers are a bit of an up-and-down team defensively: they rank in the top 10 in two of the Four Factors on defense (eFG% and and turnover percentage), but 19th in the other two (defensive rebounding percentage and free throws per field goal attempt).
Let’s look at the bad for the Clippers. Blake pulls down 24.1 percent of available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor, while frontcourt partner Jordan comes in at 29.0, so it’s hard to place blame there. Griffin has certainly stepped up his glass work this season after some slippage in 2013. He pulls down more than 66 percent of his rebounding opportunities, and more than 40 percent of his rebounds are contested, per NBA.com’s player tracking.
However, Griffin does have a propensity to foul that is above that of other All-Star level big men, hacking his man 3.4 times per 36 minutes. That points to a problem that Griffin can’t really help - he is undersized. Listed at 6’10” and the owner of notoriously short arms, Blake is quite often facing a size disadvantage when he’s forced to guard the post.
However, Griffin has been surprisingly effective as a defender down low. Griffin faces 5.9 attempts per game at the rim, allowing his man to score on just 3.2 of them, good for 53.4 percent, per NBA.com’s player tracking. That ranks far below league average in scoring at the rim.
The aforementioned defensive pairing - Griffin and Jordan - is likely the crux of the Clippers’ championship hopes. Rivers came aboard insisting that those two could be the starting and crunch time front court of a contending team, and he’s let them go out to try to prove it in fourth quarters unlike former head coach Vinny Del Negro.
The pair has, through 39 games, logged the most minutes of any duo on the Clips, over 1,100 to date. When the two share the floor together, they’ve had some real positive results. In fact, their defensive rating drops by more than three points, from 102.7 points allowed per 100 possessions down to 99.4, per NBA.com. That figure would rank them second in the League behind Indiana. The team’s rebounding rates rise at both ends, as does their opponents’ turnover rate. However, they do tend to foul more than the Clippers do as a whole, as can happen when your center tries to block everything and your power forward comes in on the small side.
Unfortunately, Blake and DeAndre can’t play a full 48 minutes every night, and the Clippers’ back up bigs - Ryan Hollins, Byron Mullens and Antawn Jamison - definitely leave much to be desired on defense.
Losing the best point guard in the world is never a good thing. Somehow, including the game in which they lost him, the Clippers have managed to go 4-1 as they navigate without their captain. Griffin has proven that he's capable second-in-command over the past two seasons, but are his improvements this season enough to carry the Clips during Paul’s 3-5 week absence?
Through those five games, the answer has been a pretty resounding yes, albeit against some weak competition. After beating Dallas in the game Paul suffered his shoulder injury, the Clippers got whitewashed by the Spurs, then beat up on some subpar competition. During that stretch, though, Griffin has upped his already stellar play. His eFG% is up a point, and his true shooting percentage has risen by five points thanks to his increased activity and accuracy at the free throw line.
The most encouraging sign of Griffin’s ability to take control of the offense on his own is his playmaking ability. Blake has long been an underrated ball handler and passer, especially out of the post, but he’s taken the opportunity presented when 11.2 assists per game left the lineup. Without Paul, Griffin has averaged 5.0 assists, up from his season average of 3.2. For the year, Griffin has created 6.5 assist opportunities per game, per NBA.com’s player tracking, cashing in on about half of them. That he’s racking up 5.0 per game over these past five games shows not only increased opportunity to set teammates up, but a strong ability to make the right passes with his upped responsibilities.