Blake Griffin was once one of the most popular players in the NBA. It feels like a lifetime ago now. His game has been picked apart mercilessly, while his body has betrayed him. He has been knocked out of the first round by injury in each of the past two years. After six seasons playing together without a single trip to the conference finals, his partnership with Chris Paul has gone stale. With both players entering unrestricted free agency this summer, the Lob City era might be coming to end. Regardless of whether or not Griffin returns to the Clippers, something has to change for him to live up to his considerable promise. Whatever team signs him should look to James Harden’s career for inspiration: Make Griffin the full-time point guard and let him play with the ball in his hands the entire game.
Positional designations have become increasingly meaningless in recent years, but who brings the ball up the floor and initiates the offense still matters. Just look at how Harden’s offensive responsibility shifted in his first season running point:
Harden isn’t the only nontraditional point guard who has thrived as his team’s lead ball handler. After starting his career as a small forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo became one of the best players in the NBA when the Bucks gave him full control of the offense. Harden and Giannis don’t need anyone else setting them up. They are at their best when they are creators rather than finishers; the threat of their offense opens up the game for everyone else.
Blake is one of the best passers, 6-foot-9 or taller, in NBA history. He is one of six current players his height to have a season with an assist rate higher than 25 percent, and one of only 13 players to ever do it. There have just not been many basketball players with his combination of size, speed, and ballhandling and passing ability before, and the best way to utilize him is to have him be the player throwing alley-oops, not catching them. Not only would using Blake as a point guard make him a better player, it would give his team more flexibility when it comes to the types of lineups he could be used in and the players he could be put around.
There’s only so much impact Griffin can have as a power forward. While he has expanded the range of his jumper in recent years, he’s still an inferior outside shooter in comparison with most of the players at his position. Playing Griffin with DeAndre Jordan, another non-3-point-shooting frontcourt player, has forced the Clippers offense to operate in handcuffs, since the opposing defense can shrink the floor by keeping both of its big men in the paint. One possible solution would be to play him as a small-ball 5, à la Draymond Green, but his below-average wingspan (6-foot-11) puts a clear ceiling on his ability to protect the rim, and even with his incredible leaping ability, he has never averaged a block a game. Using Griffin as a point forward would allow his team to forgo a traditional point guard, creating room in the lineup for another multipositional defender who could stretch the defense as a spot-up shooter, while still keeping a rim-protecting 5 on the floor next to him.
The key to Milwaukee and Houston’s success last season was playing unconventional lineups. Malcolm Brogdon, a Bucks second-round pick who was named 2017 Rookie of the Year this week, was the smallest player in their postseason starting lineup at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. The Bucks didn’t start a single player with a wingspan shorter than 6-foot-10. The average wingspan of the Clippers’ starting backcourt, in comparison, was 6-foot-4. Some of the Rockets’ best lineups came when they played Harden next to two combo guards in Eric Gordon and Lou Williams. Under Doc Rivers, Los Angeles has one of the most rigid lineups in the league: The team starts an undersized point guard and shooting guard who can’t switch screens with three frontcourt players who can’t stretch the defense. Griffin has clear limitations as a shooter and a defender, but his ability to score, pass, and rebound at a high level allows him to be paired with more limited role players who can make up for some of his weaknesses.
Griffin came into the NBA with a reputation as just a dunker, which was always overblown. He has consistently improved his game in each of his seven seasons in the league. People see him struggle to consistently score over length in the post and think of him as an unskilled brute when he is really a round peg who has been stuffed into a square hole his entire career. Look at this highlight reel of Blake running, driving, and dishing and ask yourself why a short-armed player with his skill set is being asked to wrestle for position in the low post and execute drop steps like he’s Shaq:
The numbers (via Synergy Sports) bear it out. Griffin spends most of his time doing things he’s only average at, at the expense of the one area of the game where he’s truly exceptional:
The problem for the Clippers is there’s no way for Blake to play with the ball more without taking it away from Paul. The strengths of CP3’s game are his ability to control the tempo of the game and to direct traffic. Spotting up off the ball and letting someone else run the show goes against every instinct he has, and a 6-foot player can be only so effective as a spot-up shooter against NBA defense, since it’s much easier to close out on a player with such a low release point. While Griffin and Paul are both high-IQ basketball players who are skilled enough to make things work without an ideal amount of floor spacing or an optimal distribution of roles, they have both been better without the other in recent years. The floor is spaced much better when it’s just Paul and Jordan running pick-and-rolls with three shooters around them, and it would be the same story with Blake, Jordan, and three 3-and-D wings. There’s no synergy between the Clippers’ best two players, which is why they have consistently been less than the sum of their parts.
We have never gotten the chance to see what Blake could do with his own team. The Clippers acquired Paul after his rookie season, and the veteran immediately put his stamp on the organization. Blake hasn’t been the primary option since, except for one month in the 2013–14 season when Paul went down with a shoulder injury and he averaged 27.5 points on 55.4 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a game. He’s a player capable of extraordinary things. The last time Griffin was healthy in the playoffs, he averaged 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game against the Spurs in the first round of the 2015 playoffs.
Giving Blake the keys to the offense full-time would be a huge risk, considering his injury history. However, playing him with more versatile defenders could relieve some of the pressure on his body, since he could be hidden on the opposing team’s worst wing player on defense, which would prevent some of the banging he receives when battling bigger players for position in the post. Paul and Griffin were supposed to be a new-age version of John Stockton and Karl Malone, but Griffin is himself a hybrid of Stockton and Malone who doesn’t fit cleanly into either role. Any team that signs him to a contract north of $100 million needs to give him the ball as much as possible to get the most out of him. Just because he has the size of a battering ram doesn’t mean he should be used like one. Blake Griffin is only 28. There’s still time for him to be the player he was meant to be.