Big men are initiating offense and taking 3s. Stephen Curry routinely shoots from near the half-court logo. Matthew Dellavedova is getting paid more than $38 million and Yi is back. Positions? What are positions? The NBA is changing. And Blake Griffin is ready to change with it.
The Clippers forward possesses a rare blend of force and fluidity. Athletes that explosive and that agile don’t come around very often. But Griffin has another gear, and the Clippers need him to find it if they want any chance of getting past the Warriors. Any team competing for a title will need to throw the kitchen sink at the Dubs this season, so Doc Rivers will have to get creative and use Griffin in new ways to neutralize the Warriors’ attack.
We know Griffin can evolve his game because he’s already done it. As his list of injuries has grown over the years, he’s made an effort to improve his health by modifying his game. He’s dunking the ball less and shooting and passing more. Astoundingly, in the first four years of his career, nearly one-third of his made field goals were dunks. That number has dropped to one-seventh over the last two seasons.
That’s bad news for curators of pulverizing Blake Griffin–dunk Vines, but he still produces highlights, just of a different intensity. Now that he’s a threat to score from all levels of the floor, he’s become a true franchise cornerstone. His visits to Lob City may be less frequent, but the next phase of Griffin’s career could end up being his most impactful.
Griffin has already established himself as one of the league’s best post-up scorers, and he launches deep 2-point jumpers at a high volume as well, hitting 40.9 percent of his tries since 2014. He has always been too quick for lumbering bigs and too strong for slimmer forwards, but playing further away from the rim has made him even more difficult to handle in isolation situations. This past season, he scored a tremendous 1.05 points per possession on isolations, per Synergy, a figure that ranked ninth among 109 players finishing at least 50 possessions.
Griffin also shares the wealth, posting an assist percentage greater than 25 in each of the past two seasons. That makes him just one of only six qualifying bigs or forwards to reach that mark twice, placing him in good company alongside the likes of Kevin Garnett and Larry Bird, per Basketball-Reference. The majority of Griffin’s assists come via his usual play types or within the flow of the Clippers offense, but he’s still capable of doing more. Griffin turns 28 this season, and as he ages, taking on more of a playmaking role could be the key to both extending his career and increasing his productivity.
The video above shows the Clippers running a set that utilizes Griffin as a playmaker. A guard, usually Chris Paul, sets a back screen for Griffin at the left elbow. If Blake has any breathing room, he usually finishes loudly in the paint. But this is the extent of Griffin’s structured calls in which he initiates a play that resemble a pick-and-roll. Per Synergy, less than 6 percent of his possessions last season came as a pick-and-roll ball handler, which is a low rate.
It’s a shame, because Griffin scored the most points per possession of all pick-and-roll ball handlers with at least 30 chances last season. That’s a small sample size, but it’s still remarkable production.
Just think about that for a second: Griffin was the best in the NBA at it last season, and yet dudes like Jeff Green, P.J. Tucker, and Tayshaun Prince ran the pick-and-roll more frequently. Imagine if Shaq shot from inside the paint just 6 percent of the time, or if Reggie Miller thought “live by the 3, die by the 3,” meant you could literally die by shooting 3s. That’s how crazy it is for Griffin not to be running pick-and-roll at a rate of stars like Kevin Durant (19 percent) or Giannis Antetokounmpo (10 percent). Griffin is one of the most talented ballhandling and passing bigs in league history and the Clippers need to take advantage of that. It’s time for Doc Rivers to take a few pages out of the Cavs and Warriors’ playbooks.
The Warriors regularly use Curry and Klay Thompson to set screens for Draymond Green, which puts stress on the defense and tends to force a switch. The Cavaliers have done the same thing with LeBron James and J.R. Smith or Kyrie Irving.
The Clippers should deploy Griffin in the same way. Chris Paul is an elite floor general, but he’s also a knockdown shooter, hitting 42.3 percent on spot-up 3s since 2013, according to SportVU. Rivers could cast CP3 in the screening role; or he could use Jamal Crawford, who sinks 37.4 percent on spot-up 3s; or Austin Rivers, who shoots 38.4 percent; or J.J. Redick who sinks spot-up 3s at a blistering 45.9 percent. This is how it would look:
In this play, Orlando’s defense is jumbled, and it leads to a wide-open 3 for Crawford. If the Magic switched, Victor Oladipo would have no chance of stopping Blake from backing him down on the post, and the screening guard could either fire away or break Nikola Vučević’s ankles.
The Clippers want the ball in Paul’s hands as much as possible. That makes sense. But the more varied an offense is, the harder it is to defend. This is especially true in a playoff series, in which every half-court possession matters. But it’s also the case for transition play. Instead of always looking for Paul, Clippers bigs should outlet the ball to Griffin, considering he’s one of the NBA’s best in the open floor.
Paul and Griffin’s basketball relationship is key to whatever success the Clippers will have this season, and the same is true for Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. There aren’t many big men who can facilitate as well as Blake or finish as well as Jordan, which makes them a tandem nightmare for opponents.
Over the past three years, DJ shot a ridiculous 84.2 percent on the passes he received from Griffin, per SportVU, making them one of the league’s most efficient quarterback-receiver combos and causing defenders to scream NOT THE BEES when they see Clippers duo link up.
Griffin and Jordan should connect as much as possible. If the defense overloads on Jordan, Griffin has the space to pull up to shoot or rumble to the rim. If they don’t, two bigs aren’t accustomed to switching on-ball screens and weak-side help defenders are asking to get put on a poster if they step in front of Jordan.
Griffin has already extended his range to improve the Clippers’ spacing and developed his rapport with Jordan, but Los Angeles still hasn’t made a long playoff run. Increasing Griffin’s distribution role, something he already does at a Hall of Fame level for his position, could be the solution to their playoff problems.
Everyone, especially Chris Paul, would have to buy in. Paul is racing up the NBA’s all-time assists leaderboard, so would he accept a reduced distributing role? Coach Doc would have to do a lot of selling, and GM Doc would need to consider the implications, with both stars set to hit free agency in 2017. The pitch is simple though: The Clippers have run face-first into a postseason brick wall over the past five years; the time to experiment is now.
That’s how glorious it would look like if the Griffin-Jordan pairing ran more pick-and-roll, with elite spot-up shooters like Redick and Paul spacing the floor. If the weak-side defense helps, Redick is shooting flames from 3. If not, Jordan is throwing down a thunder dunk. If they switch, Griffin is taking advantage of the mismatch. The bonus is that CP3 is a significantly better spot up shooter than Blake, which would create more spacing for everyone on the floor.
It’s now or never for the Clippers to prove they can get over the hump, otherwise the next chapter of Griffin’s career could occur surrounded by a new roster, after both he and Paul hit free agency. There’s always a chance Griffin is dealt before then, but a league source told me trade talks involving Griffin have “calmed down.”
Whatever the market is, opposing franchises are still licking their chops like Big Baby at the mere thought of getting Griffin into their system. It’s easy to see him utilized full-time as a power guard, but he could also extend his range to three (he’s hit 32.2 percent of his triples since 2013). If he evolves, he can adapt to any lineup configuration. Teams know Griffin has another level, but do the Clippers?