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NBA Saturday: Blake Griffin Keeps Getting Better

Coming off an impressive playoff performance and a busy offseason, Blake Griffin is playing at an elite level early this season.

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Stephen Curry has been the focus of attention through the first week and a half of the NBA season. He somehow looks even better than last season and is again filling up the stat sheet, draining contested step-back three-pointers, dishing out highlight assists and leading the Golden State Warriors to blowout victories. If voters had to cast their ballot for MVP today (I know, the NBA season isn’t even two weeks old yet), Curry would unanimously win MVP and no one would argue against it.

However, Curry’s dominance has overshadowed the all-around excellent play of Blake Griffin, who has also picked up from right where he left off last season. Through five games, Griffin is averaging 28.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and four assists and has an impressive true shooting percentage of 63.1 percent from the field. He is third in the NBA in scoring, has a 31.8 Player Efficiency Rating and through four games is second in the NBA in Kevin Ferrigan’s Daily RAPM Estimate (DRE) at +7.93 (behind, you guessed it, Stephen Curry).

Griffin has led the Los Angeles Clippers to a 4-1 record and has played better than anyone not named Stephen Curry so far this season. Though the Clippers have only played five games so far, we can still take a look at what has happened on the court thus far to see how Griffin has been so effective up to this point.

The first thing to note about Griffin’s play so far this season is that his jump-shot looks better than ever. Per Basketball-Reference, Griffin is shooting 38.3 percent from 10-16 feet, and 54.1 percent from 16 feet to just within the three-point line, which is well above his career average from that distance. His shooting mechanics look smoother and more natural than ever and he is showing a lot of confidence with that part of his game right now.

In this first play, Griffin looks for DeAndre Jordan cutting to the basket, which draws the Suns’ collective attention towards Jordan. Were Griffin not a willing or effective passer, Brandon Knight and Tyson Chandler probably would have stuck with Griffin, but instead both leave him open for a jumper, which he might have passed up in years past.

 

We see that same confidence in this next play where Paul sucks just about the entire Suns’ defense near the basket, including Griffin’s defender Markieff Morris. Morris is in no man’s land, not close enough to contest Paul and not close enough to close out on Griffin. Griffin recognizes that Morris is out of position and steps into his jumper with no hesitation.

 

While Griffin shot the ball better last season than earlier in his career, we would often see his hitch return from time-to-time. So far, the hitch at the top of his shot has been non-existent and it looks like he is thinking less, which is encouraging. Griffin spoke with our Alex Kennedy during the offseason and explained that he worked on just about every part of his game. One thing that he clearly worked on was his jumper and if he keeps this up, defenses will have a really tough time figuring out how to guard him.

Also, Griffin continues to utilize his unique ball skills to the Clippers’ advantage. Griffin is one of the few true power forwards in the league that can grab a rebound and lead a fast break. In this play he dribbles up the court and goes directly into a post-up against Morris. The post-up is kind of an archaic offensive move in the modern pace-and-space NBA, but it still has value. Griffin draws the collective attention of the Suns, who collapse within or near the painted area. The Clippers’ spacing isn’t optimal in this particular play, so Griffin doesn’t have an obvious pass to make to a three-point shooter (though Stephenson was wide open above the arc) and so he decides to go right at Morris. Though his post-up moves aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, he has improved his footwork and touch around the rim, and registers another two points here.

 

Now that defenses have to respect Griffin’s post game, he will likely continue to draw double-teams, opening up his teammates on the perimeter. This means that players like J.J. Redick and Lance Stephenson will get a healthy dose of open jumpers when opposing defenses rotate to double Griffin, such as in this play against the Golden State Warriors.

 

Teams have countered this part of Griffin’s game in the past by blitzing him with early double-teams, which would fluster him at times and cause him to take a tough fall-away jumper or force a bad pass. Griffin seems more patient and decisive in the post so far this season and is finding his teammates easier scoring opportunities as a result.

In addition, Griffin continues to excel at things that have made him such an effective player throughout his career. Griffin is arguably the best playmaker at the power forward position in the league and shows that often with his ability to find open teammates in transition. In this next play, Griffin gets the ball in the backcourt off a made free throw and sprints up court, beating most of the Suns in transition and finding Redick in the corner for an open three-pointer. There are few, if any true power forwards that could outrun opposing players while dribbling up the court, leading to an open corner three-pointer for a teammate. By recognizing the inattentive defense and decisively running up the court, Griffin never let the Suns’ defense get set, and the result is an easy three points for the Clippers.

 

While Griffin has always been able to score and make plays for others, he has been criticized for being, at best, an average defensive player. To be sure, Griffin will never be an elite defender in this league. He has a short wingspan for his size, which means he will never be a consistent shot blocker and he has always focused more on his offense than defense. However, Griffin has improved his defensive awareness and defensive chemistry with Jordan in particular each season, and so far this season, he is proving to be a more effective all-around defender.

Griffin’s mobility at his size allows him to check point guards and wing-players on the perimeter in certain situations. In this play, Griffin ends up one-on-one against Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe. Griffin uses solid footwork to stay in between Bledsoe and the basket and his quickness to stay close to Bledsoe’s body, taking away his ability to shoot over the top of Griffin.

 

To be fair, Bledsoe got the ball with just about five seconds on the clock, so he wasn’t able to use a more creative move on Griffin to get a shot off before the buzzer. In fact, in the fourth quarter of this game, Griffin ended up one-on-one with Bledsoe again off a pick-and-roll switch, but this time Bledsoe had about nine seconds on the shot clock, which allowed him to get set, size Griffin up and attack him off the dribble more effectively. Bledsoe used a quick pivot to get away from Griffin and made a big layup right before the shot clock expired to bring his team to within three points of the Clippers with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game.

Nevertheless, Griffin showed solid footwork and focus on both plays, rather than leaning in and drawing a foul, which has happened often in the past. In addition, as previously stated, Griffin is showing better focus on defense and is making crisper rotations. On this play, he knows that teammate Jamal Crawford is positioned between Morris and the basket and recognizes that Chandler is in position for a free put-back with Jordan out of position after attempting to block Knight’s layup. Griffin makes the rotation and stuffs Chandler at the rim, preventing a sure two points that would have brought the Suns within one point of the Clippers with 2:20 remaining in the game.

 

Again, Griffin will never be a top-level rim protector, he occasionally ball-watches and he still makes slow rotations a few times each game, but his attention, awareness and communication on defense has improved significantly.

This is the major takeaway from Griffin so far this season. He hasn’t evolved his game so much as he has refined it. He is doing the same things he has done in the past, but he is simply doing most of those things slightly-to-significantly better now. From his jumper, to his post moves, to his playmaking, to his defensive awareness, Griffin is playing at peak-level right now and it doesn’t look like he will be slowing down any time soon.

We saw Griffin’s full arsenal on display in the second quarter against the Warriors on Wednesday night. The Clippers were down by 17 points to Golden State when Griffin and the rest of the Clippers’ starters started to undo the damage done by Los Angeles’ reserves. Griffin first hit a twenty-foot jumper, then on the next play drove to the rim, made the shot and was fouled and hit the subsequent free throw. He then assisted Paul, Redick and Stephenson on three consecutive plays for three-pointers and followed that up with a slam dunk off an assist from Stephenson. Griffin was directly involved in producing 16 straight points for the Clippers and it wasn’t until Paul got to the basket for a layup that Griffin didn’t register an assist or score the points himself. Paul took over from there and the Clippers ended the first half down just seven points. The Clippers ultimately lost the game, but that was a crucial stretch where the game could have gotten out of hand, but Griffin didn’t allow that to happen.

Normally I would remind readers that this is a small sample size and that Griffin could regress moving forward or caution that this level of play is unsustainable. But Griffin is simply picking up where he left off from last postseason, where he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.1 assists, one steal and one block per game and was a matchup nightmare for the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. In addition, the Clippers’ starting lineup (with the notable switch of Stephenson replacing Matt Barnes) has proven itself to be an efficient and consistently elite lineup with Griffin as its anchor. So long as Griffin continues to be the main catalyst and engine of that unit, he will continue to rack up points and assists and be the key piece in one of the best units in the NBA.

Stephen Curry is the MVP right now and it’s not particularly close. He is playing at a historic level right now and it’s unclear if he’ll ever come back to Earth. But that shouldn’t completely obscure what Griffin is doing and has done since last season’s playoffs. He has become a complete player and is consistently doing things that no other player in the league can do at his position. He certainly has some shortcomings, but it’s hard to ignore how impressive he has been this season, even with Curry taking the league by storm.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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