The Los Angeles Clippers looked like a team that could make a run at the post-season last year. They had developing talent in-house, a still above average Baron Davis running the point and a rookie phenom in Blake Griffin that looked to be the sure favorite to win Rookie of the Year.
But then that supposed Clipper curse struck as Griffin landed awkwardly after a nasty pre-season slam and the resulting injury would cost him his entire rookie season. From there, the Clippers season was all downhill. They had the league’s third worst offense and the eighth worst defense and again took a backseat as their L.A. counterpart captured their second straight NBA title. With the Lakers in town, its hard to imagine why anybody would still call themselves a Clippers fans but those who do had to endure another train wreck of a season.
And then those same die hard fans got to go through an off-season with the false hope that a big name free agent was coming to LaLa land to compete with Kobe for the limelight. They weren’t as high on their chances as Knicks fans were but they did believe they had a good shot at LeBron. Shortly after James chose Miami, the Carmelo rumors started popping up, again raising the hopes of the Clipper faithful, and for good reason in this case, as the Clips possessed valuable trade assets with Chris Kaman, Eric Gordon and rookie Al-Farouq Aminu and Los Angeles seemed like a logical destination for Anthony as his wife was seeking a more public home city.
As of now, Melo is still a Nugget and any deal involving him will likely send him East and not West. The Clippers ended up losing out on all major free agents and aside from their two rookies (Aminu and Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe), swingman Ryan Gomes, scoring reserve Randy Foye and head coach Vinny Del Negro seem to be the only impactful additions.
Luckily for the Clippers, their most important player has looked like one of the best players in the entire league this pre-season. Blake Griffin technically isn’t an addition, he was drafted last summer, but he’ll be playing his first game as a Clipper this October and from what I’ve seen this summer, that’s a scary thing for the rest of the league and a coveted bit of good news for fans of the franchise.
Griffin is one of the league’s most dominant athlete and one if its most reckless competitors. Much like Gerald Wallace, who plays with no regard for his own safety, a style that earned him the nickname of Crash, Griffin uses his athletic abilities to reek havoc all over the court. Griffin has the perfect build for a power forward, standing tall at six-foot-10 with a chiseled and beastly core. His ability to bully around players in the paint will make him a dominant rebounder right away and he could compete for a rebounding title as soon as this season so long as his knees hold up and he’s able to stay on the floor.
On offense, the Clippers have been showcasing Griffin this pre-season by running him through a number of pick and rolls. No matter who the guard he was running it with was, Griffin was always on a fast track to the basket and was unstoppable once he started rolling. Even if a defender is in his way, attempting to prevent him from reaching the basket, Griffin has gone right through or over him, the latter being the more impressive and legal route. In just a few games, Griffin has already given us an array of highlight finishes at the rim because his leaping ability allows him to get to any lob thrown his way, whether its a good pass or a poor one.
Griffin’s offensive game may be limited to dunks and finishes off the pick and roll but if the Clippers go to him as much as they should, his ability to do those two things an extremely high rate will make him a 16 or 17 points per game scorer. And with an off-season to work on his game rather than rehabbing his knee, one would have to imagine Griffin can develop somewhat of a mid-range game, but even a consistent 15-footer would make him one of the most dynamic post scorers in the league. And with his ability to rebound the basketball and body up his man defensively, the Clippers did quite nicely this summer by reacquiring Griffin’s services, or at least that’s how they can spin it to the fans.
Blake has emerged as the face of the franchise because of the enormous amount of potential he possesses on top of the raw abilities that already make him a superb player, but the Clippers have a solid group of starters to go with a passable bench.
Shooting guard Eric Gordon didn’t show much improvement last season after an impressive rookie season, but during his run with Team USA this summer, Gordon stood out as one of the better shooters and undersized defenders in the league. Gordon has shot 38% from three-point range and by the looks of things, the Clippers will run a lot of pick and rolls this season, freeing Gordon up for a lot of open looks from the wing. He has a quick release and can get his shot off at any time and despite being a few inches taller than the shooting guard he checks on a nightly basis, he’s a good defender. Gordon has the potential to be more than a spot-up shooter, but he’s an effective one if that’s the role he’s asked to play this season. And if he’s asked to do more, he can. Gordon has room to improve the mid-range (he shot 44% from 16-23 feet as a rookie but declined to 36% last year) and is a solid ball-handler that can run sideline pick and rolls with Griffin all night long.
Griffin’s partner in the paint will be all-star center Chris Kaman. Kaman may have been overrated a bit with that selection but he is one of the top five centers in the league thanks to his versatile offensive post-game. Kaman averaged 18.5 points per game last season and was able to remain an efficient scorer despite an enormous increase in usage rate. Kaman was the Clippers top offensive option last season and he produced well, and with Griffin now in the line-up, Kaman will get to settle into a lesser role. That’s not a bad thing, he may see his scoring average decrease but his efficiency should rise and Griffin’s ability to get to the rim will likely create more open opportunities within the immediate range of the basket for Kaman. And on the boards, a Griffin/Kaman duo will be one of the best in the league.
Rounding out the Clippers’ suddenly potent starting line-up, is the enigmatic Baron Davis. Davis is the x-factor this season for the Clippers and their ability to use this season as a stepping stone towards the playoffs rather than a stepping stone towards a winning record will depend on him and whether or not he wants to bring it every night. If he does give each game his all, Davis is still one of the league’s best point guards. He’s got size, strength and is a very good passer. The problem last season was that he didn’t have a full commitment to winning because of the pessimistic attitude around the team. Perhaps with this refreshing feeling Griffin’s return has brought to the organization will put Davis back into team player mode, where he flourishes as one of the league’s best.
If he does that, and Eric Gordon continues to play like a borderline all-star, and Chris Kaman continues to be one of the league’s best centers and Blake Griffin produces at the rate he has in the pre-season over the course of 82 games, the Staples Center might be home to two playoff series at the end of the year.
Blake Griffin’s combination of youth and superb abilities make him the choice for breakout player and team MVP but don’t sleep on Eric Gordon, who could go from good shooting guard to a top five gunner at the position. Rookie Al-Farouq Aminu is a year or two away so he isn’t in this discussion yet though I project him as a good defender at this level that will score well in the flow of an offense.
Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Blake Griffin has looked amazing this pre-season and though its never a good idea to base your overall judgement on one’s performance when the games don’t count, Griffin is simply displaying the same qualities that made him the player of the year in Oklahoma two years ago at a higher level against better opponents.
The six-foot-10 power forward has shown tremendous abilities and looks to have the potential to be a top five power forward in this league very soon. He is a strong and reckless player that flies around the court, rebounding the ball over his opponents, dunking on them and throwing his body around in the post whenever he gets the ball in deep position. Perhaps his inability to control his emotions and actions on the floor is his greatest strength and weakness. On one hand, his undying pursuit of the basketball will make him one of the top rebounders in the league this season but it will also but him at risk when it comes to injuries. Its good to see that his serious knee injury from last year hasn’t made him timid but it would probably be a good idea for Griffin to cool his jets a bit so that he can remain healthy for the duration of the season.
So long as he does that, Griffin will be one of the most exciting players in the entire league this year and one of the most effective as well. Griffin has been used very often during the pre-season in the pick and roll game and that seems to be the area where his abilities are maximized. Griffin is strong and sets good screens and is an unstoppable force once he starts rolling to the rim where he has good hands and tremendous leaping ability that propels him above almost any player that gets in his way. At some point, it would be beneficial for Griffin to develop a consistent shot from 10-15 feet that he can use consistently. It would keep defenses honest and make him less dependent on a playmaker setting him up, which is essentially what he is now because of his lack of a jumper and a set of moves in the post. Griffin can score down low, but most of the time, its the work he does before the catch that establishes great postion and allows him to make easy finishes.
On the boards is where Griffin will likely provide his most value. His aforementioned pursuit of the basketball is one of the big reasons I project him to compete with Dwight Howard and Kevin Love for the rebounding title this season and why I think he will end up winning one with three seasons. With Chris Kaman drawing double teams when he posts up on the low block, Griffin will be able to hound the glass on the offensive end often this season, which is one of the reason’s I see his efficiency starting off at a very high rate this season (projected PER of 23, a mark that defines a borderline all-star). On the other end, his strong frame makes boxing out easy for him and his ability to rise over almost anybody allows him compensate if he is caught out of position.
Defensively, Griffin will have to prove that he can defend NBA level power forwards, which is something we haven’t seen from due to his lack of in-game action against the league’s best. It seems as if he is up to the task, though. His large frame gives him the ability to bang with the back-to-the basket forwards around the league and his quickness and athleticism should allow him to defend the Dirk Nowitzki’s and LaMarcus Aldridge’s of the world relatively well. Griffin did show a lack of a basketball IQ on this end of the floor at Oklahoma and Vinny Del Negro is hardly the guy to change that. He’s also a below average shot blocker for someone of his height and wingspan, which was measured at six-foot-11 during pre-draft camps.
Griffin will have an immediate impact this season for the Clippers and should emerge as the team’s best player despite being just a rookie. He may not win the rookie of the year because of John Wall’s flashiness and overall brilliance but his efficiency will likely be at the top of the 2010-2011 rookie class.
Record: 44-38, 3rd in the Pacific Division, 10th in the Western Conference
- Blake Griffin will finish second in rookie of the year voting. He will average 18 points and 11 rebounds this season. He will shoot 51% from the field.
- Chris Kaman will see his efficiency increase as his scoring numbers go down.
- Eric Gordon will see his three-point percentage jump to 42% this year.
- Baron Davis will average eight assists a game and will play the season full motivated.
- DeAndre Jordan will shoot a career high 39% from the free throw line.