Kevin Durant was recently voted the NBA’s MVP after two years of LeBron James winning the award. Durant earned the award by carrying the Oklahoma City Thunder to the second-best record in the Western Conference as Russell Westbrook battled through multiple knee surgeries. However, Durant will face stiff competition next season from someone other than James. Considering his improvement this season, strong work ethic and overall skillset, Blake Griffin has as good of a chance as anyone to win MVP next season.
Griffin had a breakout season this year, finishing third in MVP balloting behind Durant and James. He averaged 24.1 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 steals and got to the free throw line 8.4 times a game, where he shot 71.5 percent (up from 66 percent last season). In addition, he shot 52.8 percent from the field and improved his midrange jump shot significantly. Yet, these numbers seem somewhat mundane when compared to Durant, who averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists a game, and shot 50.3 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from beyond the arc. In addition, Durant got to the free throw line 9.9 times a game and shot 87.3 percent.
However, there are several reasons to believe that Griffin will build off the momentum he generated this season and come back even better next season. First, Griffin is one of the hardest working players in the league. For several seasons now Griffin has worked with shooting guru Bob Thate, who told the Orange County Register in April 2013, “When he becomes a face-up guy and takes the shot that’s there, he’ll be incredible. When you look at Blake and LeBron James, they’re equal in physical gifts. In time they’ll be the best two players in the league every year.” This may seem far-fetched, but Thate works more with Griffin than anyone, and even told Clippers’ broadcaster Mike Smith that he believes Griffin will be one the best shooters in the league at some point. Not one of the best shooting big men, but one of the best shooters in the league overall.
It is hard to imagine Griffin as a top shooter in the league, until you hear quotes from newcomers J.J. Redick and Doc Rivers, who have said they were caught off guard by how dedicated and diligent Griffin is with his workout routines. Jamal Crawford even described Griffin as the “hardest worker” on the team. In addition, Griffin takes elite care of his body, working with trainer Robbie Davis, who earlier this year told Bleacher Report, “He has an incredible understanding of his body now… He’s educated himself on how to train properly, eat properly and recover properly. He’s more knowledgeable than any other athlete I’ve had.” At just age 25, Griffin displays the same work ethic that made Karl Malone one of the best power forwards of all time. Entering the NBA, Malone was an average shooter, but continued to improve and eventually became one of the most dominant power forwards of all time. It is not hard to imagine Griffin following the same career arc. If Griffin manages to further improve his shooting, he will truly become unstoppable on offense, and will open up more opportunities for him to set up his teammates, which he is already very good at.
Also, much of Griffin’s improvement this season comes from being a moving piece within Rivers and Alvin Gentry’s offense. Under former head coach Vinny Del Negro, Griffin was used primarily as a screener for Chris Paul. It was up to Paul to improvise after the screen to score himself, generate an open shot for Griffin or pass the ball out to the perimeter and reset. The other major set was simply isolating Griffin in the post and spreading the other four players out on the opposite end of the court. These sets were effective because of the individual talents of Paul and Griffin, rather than the effectiveness of the sets themselves.
Now, Griffin is often the beneficiary of teammates running backdoor screens for him, and pin-downs that often end up with Griffin receiving the ball against one defender on the elbows or one-on-one with deep position under the basket. Teams can no longer run aggressive traps at Griffin in the post, or during pick and rolls because there is so much movement being generated from other players like Redick, Crawford, Matt Barnes and DeAndre Jordan. Defenses can still take away certain options, such as packing in defenders in the paint and forcing Griffin to shoot a midrange jumper or make a play for teammates, but the point is that the offense is not predictable anymore, which makes Griffin even more dangerous.
Lastly, this was Doc’s first year with the Clippers, and the team spent the better part of the season learning how to play within his system. It stands to reason that next season, with more familiarity with the system and one another, Griffin will be even more effective. He has found a balance between attacking the basket in transition, positing up opposing big men, rolling to the basket off of pick and rolls with Paul, and setting up teammates like Jordan for easy scores at the rim. It will be interesting to see what other niches Griffin can find next season, and how his game will improve overall. This includes the defensive side of the ball as well. Griffin will never be an elite defensive player like James, but under Rivers’ structured, disciplined defensive system, Griffin can continue to improve as a team defender. The improvement from his rookie season to this season is apparent, but there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Durant may still have the edge next season because of his unbelievable ability to score the ball, and LeBron will have a say in the matter as well, as he is currently the best overall player on the planet. However, with his work ethic, improving skill set, elite athleticism and increased familiarity with Rivers’ system, Griffin will make it tough for Durant and James.
– Jesse Blancarte