The Re-imagination of Blake Griffin

One of the most curious story-lines in the past decade of NBA basketball is the career of Blake Griffin. The 6’10, 250 pound-er has been nothing short of noteworthy every single year of his career, even in seasons cut short by injury.

With the highlight of his career being behind him as one of the key figures in the Lob City Los Angeles Clippers, Griffin was presented with a choice once Chris Paul left: adapt, or get left behind.

After Paul’s departure from Los Angeles, and as DeAndre Jordan’s best years appeared to be past him, the writing was on the wall that it was time for the Clippers to build anew. They got many, many pieces back in exchange for Paul, but nobody as integral to the system they had prior as CP3 had been. And while players like Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams continue to put in work for LAC, the ownership group seemed to believe that a team of an aging DJ, Blake, and a bunch of good rotation guys had a clear ceiling, and it wasn’t as high as they had probably hoped. As unexpected as the move was at the time, you could pretty easily understand their rationale. They got back a good return for him too, as they gained, among other things, Tobias Harris and the pick that became Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Harris would later be flipped in rookie Landry Shamet and 2 first rounders courtesy of Philadelphia. So, the rebuild turnover was quick and effective, as the Clippers now have 2 max cap spots, multiple quality role players, and plenty of picks to surround any high caliber free agents with young talent.

The metrics of the Clippers’ trade business aside, the reality for Blake Griffin seemed to settle in fast. It’s not that he wasn’t as good as he thought he was; although maybe that thought crossed his mind. It was moreso that he needed to embrace the way the league was changing, and utilize whatever skills he had in order to keep pace. One of the defining characteristics of “modern” basketball is the embrace of the 3-point shot across any and all positions. It’s not a necessity for every player, but when available, it is something that should be taken advantage of, with some bigs like Meyers Leonard, Brook Lopez, and Mike Muscala having the 3-pointer as integral parts of their value to a team. Blake Griffin, as a power forward, was not immune to this shift.

In the early years of his career, from around 2011-2014, Griffin shot percentages ranging from 12% to 29%, on less than .6 3PA per game through all of those seasons. After the 2015 season, Griffin’s 3-point shooting made a leap into the consistent mid-30s range, which is good for his position and even better considering it wasn’t a foundational piece of his game until that point in his career. However, the most notable thing about Griffin’s shooting isn’t his completion percentage jumping up-it’s his attempts. After Chris Paul left LA, Griffin’s 3PA jumped from 1.9 to 5.6 per game, and since the start of his first full season in Detroit, it’s been 6.8 attempts per game from 3. Compared to even his 4th year in the league, this is nearly a tenfold increase in 3-point shots taken, and with a completion percentage about as good as he’s ever had.

Some things improve naturally over the course of a player’s career. Griffin, for example, is shooting about 10% better on free throws than in the early years of his career. This is expected with the natural progression of a player’s skillset. What isn’t expected is taking 10 times as many 3-pointers, and making nearly twice the proportion of them. That’s not a natural progression, that is a player taking their game back to the drawing board and redefining their play.

The trade to Detroit was surely a hard one to swallow for Blake. One thing is for certain, though, is that the free roam he has on that talent and shooting deprived team, along with a new look coach in Dwane Casey, Blake Griffin has had the breathing room to make these kinds of sweeping changes to his play-style, and it’s seemingly all for the better.

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The Playoff Picture: Who’s in and what does that mean? (Eastern Conference)

Unlike the West, the Eastern Conference projects to have a reasonable level of stability with who is in the top 8 seeds going into the playoffs, and while individual seeds may shift a bit, there’s little reason to believe that the 8 teams currently in can’t stay there. In the West, the 1 seed and 9th seed are only 4 wins apart, albeit with differing game totals, so there is plenty more opportunity for moving and shaking: being in or out could be decided by a few 4 game win streaks in February and March. Likewise, being the 3 seed vs being the 8th seed might come down to a single game. The order of the East is not nearly so fragile and has way fewer asterisks. So with this current group of 8, what does the Eastern Conference have in store for the post-season?

While I will look at the playoff picture with these 8 teams, I will change the seeding just a bit. This is partially due to certain seeding placements currently being very subject to how many games have been played, and teams that have better outlook going forward (i.e. Indiana getting Oladipo back). With that said, this is the playoff bracket I would expect, using the 8 teams currently qualifying:

1 Toronto Raptors vs.
8 Orlando Magic
4 Boston Celtics vs.
5 Indiana Pacers
3 Philadelphia 76ers vs.
6 Detroit Pistons
2 Milwaukee Bucks vs.
7 Charlotte Hornets

Going match by match, here are some expectations:

Raptors/Magic: Not much to say here, most likely a sweep as the defensive prowess and overall depth of the Raptors would be very difficult to overcome for the extremely inexperienced Magic, even for a single game. Raptors win 4-0.

Celtics/Pacers: The C’s are a team that got moved from their current seeding, as despite their slow start they are perfectly capable of figuring it out, and possibly making some trade-deadline moves. The Pacers should also improve as they’ve been coasting without star guard Victor Oladipo. The 4/5 match-up is logically going to be the closest, and it will be on Indiana role players like Darren Collison, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner to make their value known in order to contend in a 7 game series against a deep but somewhat vulnerable Celtics. In this simulation, the Celtics have home-court advantage as well, adding another burden to Indiana’s load: winning a game in the Garden. I see a Celtics win 4-3, however this could easily be an upset, and is probably the most likely candidate for one of the first 4 sets.

Sixers/Pistons: Embiid might have a chance to cash in on his real estate in opposing big men’s heads again in round 1, as the current trends would have the Sixers playing Andre Bumm-I mean, Andre Drummond’s Pistons. Like Hassan Whiteside before him, Drummond will probably get exposed just a little bit, which will put so much more of a burden on Blake Griffin to keep his all-star level play up in a playoff series. Likewise, the moves the Sixers are likely to make before the post-season will only make the matchup harder on Detroit, as they lack any capable shooting outside of Griffin and some streaky guards like Ish Smith. I think the Pistons take one at home, Sixers win 4-1, although this could easily be a sweep as well with the lack of playoff experience some of the role players have, and how problematic the team vs. team match-up can be.

Bucks/Hornets: Similarly to the previous matchup, the Hornets simply do not have enough surrounding Kemba Walker to make this an appealing set. He could go for 60 each of 4 games, and it wouldn’t matter because the Bucks have too many people capable of shooting 3-balls to cover, even if their numbers regress a little bit into the post-season. Oh, last I checked, the Bucks have that greek dude too. I’ve heard he’s okay. I think Bucks win 4-0, but the Hornets can steal one if Kemba detonates and freaking Brook Lopez has a bad shooting night, or something.

That about wraps up the first round, leaving the following sets in the Semis:

1 Raptors vs. Celtics (possibly Pacers) and the 2 Bucks vs. 3 Sixers, which I think is all but a lock to occur unless Boston breaches the top 3 seeds. So what would those sets look like?

Raptors vs. the 4/5: I think the Raptors win this one convincingly, as well. Toronto is hard as hell to play in, and unless you have LeBron you need that home-court advantage badly. Kawhi is the perfect player for modern basketball, as he locks down the perimeter and prevents any and all funny business from the arc. If Boston wins the first round, I could see a 7-game series as the Garden is extremely hostile and Brad Stevens is a chess-master in the post-season, who might just out-coach rookie HC Nick Nurse enough to win at home. If Indiana wins the first round, I see this as a sweep. Oladipo isn’t enough to overcome full-court defense that strong, and the depth Toronto has in the paint will likely prevent Turner and Sabonis from getting any real value. Raptors win 4-3 over the Celtics, or 4-0 over the Pacers.

Bucks/Sixers: This is, by far, the most difficult game for me to try and parse for a 7 game series. The Bucks are deep, and are playing the modern NBA like a fiddle to maximize Giannis Antetokounmpo, and blow out nearly every team they beat. Moreover, the Sixers as currently constructed are relying on inexperienced players like Shamet to keep the shooting up, or Mike Muscala who could get hunted on defense. The Sixers are likely to make a move before the trade deadline to bolster their bench, and that is what makes this a hard one. Additionally, the shooting that makes the Bucks so proficient as a regular season team is bound to regress, and at that point you’re relying on Brook Lopez to score against Embiid, or Khris Middleton to score at the arc against Jimmy Butler or Ben Simmons, two guys who can at least force some tough shots. Essentially, this would come down to who wins between a team with 1 crazy guy and 6 average guys, versus a team with 3 extremely talented guys but not quite to the level of Giannis, and 3 guys who can back them up. Does the trifecta of Simmons, Butler, and Embiid outweigh the gravity created by Giannis, or is the supporting cast not good enough to capitalize on the mismatches? Who knows, as so much could change come round 2 of the playoffs. Simmons is just getting hot for the first time all year in the past few weeks. Butler is doing well but still nestling into his role. Embiid is playing like an MVP but needs to stay healthy and not be too worn by April. Giannis is shooting plenty of 3’s to get his confidence up, but can he do that if the shot doesn’t solidify before the end of the season? What if any of the Bucks role players get hurt? There is so many questions both ways in this match-up, but I think that will make it all the more fun to watch.

Thank you all for sticking around through this slightly longer post. I’m going to cut it off there as being unable to decide what makes the match-up between the Process and the Deer makes it equally difficult to decipher their respective matches against Toronto, who might win either way. I do plan on doing something similar to this for the West soon, but I’ll definitely have to change the formula to account for the insanity going on in those standings.