By Sunil Narasimhan
Early season NBA excitement illustrates the impulsivity of every true basketball fan. Every year, fans – eager to express their hopes for the upcoming season – buoy their arguments on early season stats that may or may not indicate long-term trends. However, this is exactly where early season NBA excitement lies. Making substantial claims based on unsubstantial data is precisely what makes early-season NBA action fun. There’s just something so invigorating about getting one of those ridiculous claims right. Keeping that in mind, take a look at the following stat lines of three different players:
Player 1: 24.2 PPG, 13.9 RPG, 5.0 APG, .499 FG%, 4.5 FTM, 5.7 FTA, 29.4 PER
Player 2: 25.5 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 3.7 APG, .508 FG%, 6.8 FTM, 8.5 FTA, 27.0 PER
Player 3: 29.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.5 APG, .622 FG%, 6.5 FTM, 8.8 FTA, 32.1 PER
The first is Kevin Garnett’s line from his MVP campaign in ’03-‘04; the second is Tim Duncan’s during his first MVP season in the ’01-’02 season; and the third is Blake Griffin’s, through five games this season. Admittedly, it is early, and it might be premature to start making these comparisons. The Clippers’ strength of schedule thus far has been paltry at best– playing the anemic Kings (twice), the disheveled Mavericks, the on-the-rise Suns, and the defending champion Warriors. However, the fact of the matter is that, through five games, Blake Griffin is having the best season of his career.
Griffin has shown flashes of brilliance on both sides of the ball – especially on offense, where he’s scoring what would be a career high 29.5 points per game in an entirely different way than he has for the first five years of his career. Instead of simply rushing the rim with brute force, he’s exhibited an entirely new side to his offense – specifically, expanding his mid-range jump shot and demonstrating that he can and will knock it down consistently out to 20-feet on the pick-and-pop with Chris Paul.
Griffin is converting a gaudy 60% on two point attempts following a pass from Paul, per the NBA’s Sport VU player tracking data, and the Clippers have taken notice, often starting their half court sets with Griffin setting a high screen for Paul and rolling right into a pass at his sweet spot at the elbow. He showed flashes of this tool last season, but through five games, appears to have improved over the offseason and integrated it into the Clippers’ offensive game plan.
This addition frees up tons of space in the paint for Deandre Jordan. By spreading the defense out, Griffin makes it much more difficult for defenses to key in on him, Jordan, Paul, and whichever shooter of the JJ Redick – Austin Rivers – Paul Pierce – Jamal Crawford foursome Coach Doc Rivers puts on the floor with them. This court does clog up a bit more when players with less consistent shots like Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, or Wes Johnson get minutes, but the fact of the matter is, the Clips’ offense flows much more smoothly now than it did last season when Griffin and Jordan both needed the ball in the paint to perform offensively.
The expansion of Griffin’s game stretches further than simply the addition of a jump shot, however. Through five games, he trails only reigning MVP Stephen Curry with a Player Efficiency Rating of 32.1. (Curry, having put up godlike numbers through five games, leads the league with a ridiculous rating of 47.1; Thunder PG Russell Westbrook is third in the NBA with a rating of 31.1). Griffin’s shown expansion in the versatility that he demonstrated last year, handling the ball more often off rebounds and frequently running the fast break himself rather than looking for Paul or another outlet to pass to and slowing down the transition offense.
Most notably, he’s shown flashes of passing brilliance both in transition and in set offenses, assisting on 22.9% of his teammates scores, per Basketball-Reference. Additionally, Griffin’s teammates have benefitted from his growing ability to distribute the ball, with Pierce (50%), Stephenson (42.9%), and Redick (62.5%) all shooting above average on three-pointers attempted following a Blake-Pass (Sport VU).
The Clippers are running more high-lows this season than they did last year, which puts both Griffin and Jordan in position to play to their respective offensive strengths. Additionally, he’s shown a greater control of the basketball this year, allowing him to cut his turnovers from 3.3 per game last year to 2.8 per game this season. The Clippers should by no means consider letting him run point-forward in stretches when Paul is out, but they should (and have) given him more freedom to face up at the elbow extended or in the short corner and take his man off the dribble to the rim. Griffin has taken advantage of this freedom, converting on 63.2% of his shot attempts coming after 3 or more dribbles, per Sport VU. He’s also upped this type of shot attempt from just 12.9% of his shot attempts last year to just over 20% this year, indicating a greater focus on catching, facing up, and taking his man off the dribble rather than relying on Paul to get him the ball in scoring position or rushing to the rim on backdoor cuts and broken plays for lobs (Sport VU).
Griffin exhibited all of these new tools in his most complete game of the season against the Kings on October 31, in which he had 37 points on 13-22 from the field and 11-15 from the FT line, along with 9 rebounds and 6 assists:
Some of the pre-existing issues still remain: Griffin did look a bit confused in Wednesday night’s game against the Warriors, who combated his improved skill by throwing every double team at him they could manage and limiting his attempts close to the rim. However, Griffin was still able to score 23 points, albeit on 10-21 shooting, pulled down 10 rebounds, and dished six assists while only making two turnovers. If this trend sustains itself long term and Griffin is able to consistently post strong numbers even against the stronger Western Conference defenses like the Warriors’, Grizzlies’, Thunders’, and Spurs’, don’t be surprised to hear his name come up in the MVP conversation in May.
Though it is a small sample size, if his play so far this season is any indication, he has a good chance of joining some historic company and finally making the breakthrough Clippers fans have been waiting on for the past three years. And don’t be surprised to see the Clippers in the conversation late into the post-season; the changes they made this offseason combined with the lessons learned from their collapse in the playoffs last year have them poised and more ready than ever to make a legitimate title-run. But until then, let all the irrational talk continue and just enjoy the fact that the NBA is back for the next eight months.