• Matt Chin

Can We Please Set Point Forward Blake Griffin Free?

When Chris Paul discharged himself from Los Angeles and landed in Houston, it opened up a window for something that hoop heads have spent years praying for. Point Blake. Behind Blake Griffin’s internet viral poster dunks hides one of the most uniquely skilled big men in the league. At 6’10, Griffin has the passing and ball handling abilities of a traditional point guard. He’s one of only 13 players in NBA history who are 6-foot-9 or taller and had a season with an assist rate higher than 25 percent. Last season, Griffin was second in the league amongst all big men in assists per game, dishing out 4.9 per contest. And with Chris Paul’s high usage rate (24.3 in six seasons with LAC) out the door, Griffin is poised to take on the top facilitator role.

For five years, Griffin watched as the offense was molded to cater to Chris Paul. Lob City was constructed on Paul’s ability to get opposing bigs to hedge to him, and Griffin was the beneficiary of some tantalizing ally oops. In return for the easy dunks, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were tasked with setting countless off ball screens to free up J.J. Redick, which also padded Paul’s assist numbers. But if the Clips embrace Griffin’s rarified playmaking ability, he might switch from the inheritor of the lobs to the architect of them. Griffin has averaged 21.2 points, 9.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 2.6 turnovers per 36 minutes without Paul on the floor, according to NBA.com.

The blueprint for the Clippers new offense is in Doc Rivers’ hands. Entering his 5th season at the helm in Los Angeles, Rivers has had a long history of uncreativity as a coach and general manager. His inability to simultaneously handle both jobs is a primary element for why the CP3/Blake Clippers never made it to a Western Conference Finals. Accordingly, Rivers has been d̶e̶m̶o̶t̶e̶d̶reassigned from his general manager duties, and will work as head coach only. For Griffin, the writing may be already on the wall. Rivers seems prepared to adopt a more contemporary scheme. "We want [Blake Griffin] to be an aggressive player, an attack player.” Rivers said. "He'll bring the ball up at times. He'll be one of the guys we use as a facilitator."

Facilitators come in all shapes and sizes nowadays. From Ricky Rubio, to James Harden, to LeBron James, to Ben Simmons, to Nikola Jokic, the modernized NBA has proven that if a player can proficiently decipher defenses and create open shots for teammates, then it doesn’t matter if he fits the traditional “point guard” image. Griffin offers an unparalleled combination of size, speed, body control, and vision, and the majority of big man defenders simply cannot stay in front of him when he maneuvers in the open floor. Griffin has an innate ability to grab a defensive rebound, take off on the fast break, out pace three defenders, and scurry around two more for a coast-to-coast dunk. In half court sets, Griffin is also a virtuoso when asked to catalyze the offense from the high or low post.

Unsurprisingly, Griffin’s use has been predominantly limited to traditional power forward roles in Rivers’ system. Post-ups, spot ups, P&R roll man, and off ball cuts made up 54.5% of Griffin’s play types last season, per Synergy Sports. He’s reasonably effective in those areas, but underutilizing Griffin’s playmaking ability is like having a Ferrari that you never take on the highway. His advanced numbers suggest that there is room for sustained growth. Griffin was used a P&R ball handler only seven percent of his possessions. Yet the Clips scored 1.043 points per possession with Griffin as the P&R ball handler, more efficient than Damian Lillard (1.02) and James Harden (1.01 PPP).

Griffin’s outside shooting is the only concern about his potential ability to work as a full-time distributor. Although his 3-point percentage has improved with higher volume over the years, he remains just a 29.9% shooter from distance for his career. He’s notably better from just inside the arc, shooting close to 41.9% from 15-24 feet last season, but Blake has been a spot up shooter who launches off of the catch. In a distributor role, opposing defenders will challenge Griffin to knock down an open jumper off of the dribble, something that he’s yet to consistently show. He hits the occasional jab step, one dribble, pull up. But if Griffin is going to become a truly elite point forward, he needs to have the ability to pull up for jumpers off of multiple dribbles. If Griffin can’t reliably hit those shots, his playmaking becomes negated, rendered ineffective when his defender assuredly shades off him to disrupt passing lanes.

However, the Clippers have added plenty of shooting, which should optimize spacing for point Blake to operate. The addition of marksman Danilo Gallinari (39% from 3 last year) will offer space the floor on the wing. Gallinari can be deployed at either forward spot, and the Clippers haven’t had that kind of offensive wing versatility since Griffin was drafted. Gallo is lights out from beyond the arc, and defenders can’t cheat off of him without paying a price. Ideally, Gallo can stay healthy, and the Clippers won’t have to turn to Sam Dekker, who is a far inferior floor spacer. 2017 will be the NBA debut season of 30-year-old Serbian passing sensation Milos Teodosic will bring along his 38% career 3-point rate. After Griffin, Teodosic will share the secondary ball handling duties with Patrick Beverley, one of the more versatile 3 and D guards in the NBA.

Griffin’s mix of power and finesse provides him with the ingredients to become the number one option on a winning team. He can stretch it out to 18 feet. Opposing bigs have to respect his jumper, but when they over commit, Griffin is one of the best at attacking closeouts and getting to the rim. He couples those skills with a soft touch and intrinsic sense for converting off balanced shots near the rim. If a help defender shades on the drive, Griffin is excellent at delivering crisp passes to open teammates for spot up jumpers.

Griffin may a specimen, but he shouldn’t be deployed as goliath enforcer. He hasn’t had a healthy season since 2013-14, and his role as a bruising interior scorer has caused significant wear and tear on his body. His durability is the primary question for whether he will yield equal value to his max level salary. Sustaining Griffin’s health is paramount for the Clippers success. He’s their only isolation scorer and their best decision maker. Playing him out near the perimeter could enable him to use his talents in a less physically straining role. Griffin’s offensive rebounding numbers would inevitably take a hit, but Los Angeles already has an elite glass cleaner in DeAndre Jordan. Griffin should remain a volume rebounder on defense. The Clippers have $173 million invested in Griffin through his age 32 season. They should do everything in their power to guarantee that he’s healthy for the duration of his contract.

Big men aren’t used to defending ball handlers, especially not ones with added size and strength. Rivers only has to be mildly creative to get Griffin into some advantageous positions. Imagine Blake in a dribble handoff with DeAndre where Griffin gets the defender on his hip and dives to the bucket alongside a rim running Jordan. 22% of Griffin’s assists last season went to Jordan, per NBA.com. They could wreak havoc in a 4-5 pick and roll, where Blake is too powerful to be defended by most 4s and too agile for most 5s.

Griffin was once one of the most popular players in the NBA, but injuries and the perception of a disjointed Clippers environment has led to a slew of criticism thrown toward him. At age 28, he no longer possesses the superhero-like nuclear dunking ability, but Griffin doesn’t get enough credit for the polish on his offensive game. He’s reportedly won’t suit up until December, but if the Clippers are truly going to turn over the ball handling duties to him, then Los Angeles will become one of the more intriguing league pass teams to follow.

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