Blake Griffin is truly a leading man now. With Chris Paul gone, Griffin is averaging a career-high 24.8 points per game, and he has more control of the Clippers offense than ever before. According to NBA.com/stats, he’s holding the ball for two seconds more per possession than he did last season. Griffin is healthier than he has been in years, and at 28, his mind has finally caught up with his body. The game slows down for players as they get older. Their experience allows them to think two or three steps ahead, anticipating where everyone else will be before they make their move. Griffin entered the league blessed with a freakish combination of size, speed, and leaping ability. It took him eight seasons to maximize it.
Griffin has improved as a shooter every year. He took the final step this season. After dipping his toes in the water and taking 1.9 3-pointers per game last season, Blake has dived in with 5.8 per game. As his 3s have gone up, his long 2s (shots 16–24 feet from the basket) have gone down, from 28.3 percent of his field goal attempts last season to only 6.9 percent this season. Griffin isn’t jacking up shots without Paul; he’s taking only 1.4 more per game than his career average. The reason he’s scoring more is because he’s getting an extra point on a lot of them. Griffin probably won’t shoot 41.4 percent from deep all year, but he will still be a much better player if he can hit them at a league-average rate.
Opposing big men are helpless against him that far from the paint. The defensive strategy against Griffin has always been to live with him shooting and play a step or two off him. Defenses want to give up long 2s off the dribble. They can’t live with players taking open shots when those shots are 3s. If a defender even hesitates on his pump fake, Blake can blow past them. The threat of the 3-pointer is as important as the actual shot. Just having it makes the game easier:
Griffin doesn’t have to work as hard as he used to. Why wrestle with Derrick Favors in a phone booth when you can make him chase you in an open field? Living in the paint means putting your body through a meat grinder, and all those high-impact collisions have taken a toll on Griffin. He missed 83 games over the past three seasons, and injuries knocked him out of the playoffs the past two seasons. Paul isn’t there to pick up the slack anymore. In a stacked Western Conference, Los Angeles needs its best player every night. Griffin has learned to pick and choose his spots.
Not mashing the turbo button all the time means he has more juice when he needs it. Check out his turn-back-the-clock dunk on Rudy Gobert. The Jazz center, one of the most aggressive shot-blockers in the NBA, didn’t even put his hands up. He just tried to get out of the way:
Smaller and faster defenders don’t have an answer for Griffin either. His post game isn’t the prettiest or most fundamentally sound, but it can still be brutally effective against players without the strength to hold their ground against him. Griffin has become a mismatch machine. He faces up bigger defenders and goes around them; he backs down smaller ones and goes through them:
Griffin is a bridge between two eras of power forwards. He has the body of guys from the previous generation who waged trench warfare in the paint, and the perimeter skill set of the new generation. Teams who have downsized at the position to spread the floor are defenseless against a player like Griffin. Last week, the Blazers started a converted small forward at the 4 (Al-Farouq Aminu), and he didn’t have much of a chance of muscling up with Griffin, who shot 10-of-16 from the field in the game.
The timing has been perfect. Griffin put it all together just as he was getting the chance to show everything he could do. He has always determined the Clippers’ ceiling. The highest point in the Lob City era, their first-round victory over the Spurs in 2015, came when Griffin had the best playoff series of his career, averaging 24.1 points, 13.1 rebounds, and 7.4 assists a game. He has been tagged as a playoff disappointment because Paul brought him to the big stage before he was ready. Big men generally take longer to develop than guards, and Griffin was an unfinished product playing on instinct in his first few seasons in the league. Paul has spent his career getting his teams to the brink as their best player, but he wasn’t big enough to push them over the top. He could only point the way to the promised land. Griffin had to lead them there.
Lob City Ain’t Afraid of Chris Paul’s Ghost
Teams with elite point guards tend to play a less democratic style of basketball. Great decision-makers want to make as many decisions as possible over the course of the game. Paul was no. 7 in the NBA in average time with the ball per possession last season. Everything in the Clippers offense was built around him, and they fell apart when he wasn’t in the game. They had a net rating of plus-14.9 with him on the floor last season, and minus-5.3 without him. Instead of asking one player to fill his shoes, the Clippers remade their team without him. Griffin is only no. 31 in average time with the ball per possession this season. Los Angeles has no choice but to get everyone involved.
The roles were more rigidly defined in the Lob City era. Paul and Griffin handled the ball, while J.J. Redick spaced the floor and DeAndre Jordan rolled hard to the rim. Luc Mbah a Moute started at small forward the past two seasons, playing defense and staying out of the way. Redick is an elite shooter, and Mbah a Moute is an elite perimeter defender, but both have clear holes in their games. They are specialists in an era of generalists. They followed Paul out the door in free agency, creating room for more well-rounded players in their spots. Los Angeles had two ball handlers (Paul and Griffin) and two shooters (Paul and Redick) in the starting lineup last season. Now they have four of each.
The Clippers are deeper this season. They traded Paul for seven players (most notably Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams), signed Milos Teodosic from Europe, and gave Austin Rivers a bigger role in the offense. Beverley has thrived in a larger role now that he is playing without James Harden for the first time in his NBA career, averaging 13.2 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting. Williams, essentially a younger version of the departed Jamal Crawford, is averaging 12.4 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting off the bench. Teodosic and Rivers have been more of a mixed bag, with Teodosic out indefinitely due to a foot injury and Rivers shooting only 38.9 percent from the field.
Los Angeles used the money they saved by trading Paul to acquire Danilo Gallinari on a three-year contract worth $65 million. He is the type of multidimensional forward they could never afford when most of their salary cap was tied up in Paul, Griffin, and Jordan. At 6-foot-10 and 225 pounds, Gallinari can shoot off the dribble, post up, and make plays for teammates. He has struggled mightily so far, and the Clippers are counting on his improvement going forward to balance out any regression from Griffin, Beverley, or Williams. He could form a dynamic combination with Griffin as they develop more chemistry with each other. They can both attack mismatches on the perimeter and in the post, spread the floor, and pass out of double-teams. The question for Gallinari is whether playing with Griffin will offset being moved to the 3, where he doesn’t have the speed edge has has at the 4. One story line to watch is how much Doc Rivers splits up the playing time of his two starting forwards.
The Clippers ... Have a Bench Now?
The team’s changes didn’t just happen on the court. After four seasons as the coach and general manager where he seemed to endlessly cycle through his former players, Rivers was stripped of his front-office duties. Coaching an NBA team and assembling a roster are full-time jobs, and the track record for guys who do both isn’t good. Former Nets head coach Lawrence Frank has the final say on personnel matters, while Jerry West has joined him in an advisory role. They have done well so far. They received more for Paul than most teams in their position tend to get, and they upgraded a bench that has long been a weak spot.
Willie Reed is the best backup Jordan has ever had. Doc preferred well-traveled veterans who could create their own shot, like Marreese Speights. Reed isn’t as flashy, but he’s a solid two-way player who sticks to his role on both sides of the ball. At 6-foot-11 and 245 pounds, the 27-year-old protects the rim on defense and rolls hard to the rim on offense. His ability to anchor a second unit was one of the keys to Miami’s turnaround last season. Reed protects smaller players like Gallinari and Wesley Johnson on defense and the glass, allowing them to play at the 4 and spread out second units.
Maybe the most important reserve is rookie Sindarius Thornwell, the no. 48 pick out of South Carolina. A 22-year-old with an NBA-ready body (6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan) and an advanced feel for the game, he is the rare rookie to earn Doc’s trust immediately. Thornwell beat out Sam Dekker for the final spot in the rotation. He’s one of their only guys with the size and athleticism to match up with bigger perimeter players. If he proves he can be a consistent 3-point shooter, he could earn an even bigger role going forward.
The Achilles’ Heel Remains
The Clippers still have a glaring weakness. They do not have enough perimeter size to match up with the best teams in the league. Look at the measurements of their top four guards:
The Clippers Backcourt Is Quite Small
The situation is not much better at small forward. At this stage of his career, Gallinari is an offensive-minded wing with the foot speed of a power forward. Johnson has always been inconsistent on both sides of the ball, and Thornwell is a rookie. It’s never a good sign when your best perimeter defender is 6-foot-1. Beverley is a great defensive point guard and Rivers has made strides on that side of the ball, but they will have a hard time guarding guys like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Harden in a seven-game series. If the Clippers want to get out of the first round, they will likely have to knock off a team with one of those players. To upset the Warriors, they will need to guard Durant, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry at the same time.
One of Golden State’s biggest strengths is its ability to pinpoint a weakness and exploit it mercilessly. There’s nowhere to hide an undersized perimeter defender against the Warriors. The Clippers have the best rated defense in the NBA, but they have also had one of the easiest opening schedules in the league. They have yet to face a team who can attack them at the wings. Their game against the Warriors on Monday night will be a good test to see how they can hold up.