There's an excitement around the Clippers right now. Sure the team is 1-4 in the preseason, but no one cares about that. The only thing that matters is that Blake Griffin, the first overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, is back on the court and better than ever. His comeback has caught the eye of many basketball writers already.
You know by now that Griffin suffered a fractured knee cap last October and missed all of last season. In perhaps the best single example of the Clipper curse to date, their prized rookie was the MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League last year, and also lived up to his billing in the 2009 pre-season, only to have the injury diagnosed just prior to the first regular season game. To make matters worse, an injury that was first projected to have him out of action for six weeks eventually required season ending surgery.
Because he missed the entire season, Griffin is eligible this year to win the Rookie of the Year award. Most of the early polls had John Wall of the Wizards, 2010's top pick, as the ROY favorite. But Griffin has been fully recovered from his injury for months now, and has served notice with his performance in pre-season thus far that he's the man to beat. Or really, you can just shorten that to he's the man.
Blake Griffin has yet to play an NBA game, so there are of course unanswered questions about him. But at this point, it seems those answers may be taking shape:
Q - Does he have all of his vaunted explosiveness post-injury?
Maybe you should ask DeMarcus Cousins, or Renaldo Balkman or one of the dozen other players Griffin has posterized so far in preseason.
Blake Griffin putback slam over DeMarcus Cousins (via jaywest909)
The guy is as breathtaking an athlete as there is in the NBA. If he was more athletic before than he is now
(a) I certainly can't tell the difference and
(b) that would not really have been fair. It's already pretty unfair as it is.
Is it any wonder that I'm campaigning for Blake Superior as his nickname?
Q - Is he ready to contribute right away? After all, he's still a rookie.
Oh, he's ready. Griffin and the Clippers have talking points about how he's not really a rookie, how he's been through a season of travel and he's watched all the film and how he's really better this year, after his year off. That always seemed like so much happy talk to me.
But I will accept that he's just that much hungrier. The kid loves to play basketball, and it was taken away from him for a year. He's that proverbial man on a mission. Of course it's only pre-season, but it's been obvious from his play that he's going to be a major factor on this team from day one.
Q - Who will win the Rookie of the Year, Wall or Griffin?
I think we can safely assume that other candidates for Rookie of the Year will emerge. Stephen Curry (drafted 7th) and Brandon Jennings (drafted 10th) finished second and third last year to Tyreke Evans (drafted 4th), so it's a little simplistic to say "Hey, we've got two number one picks, one of them will be ROY." DeMarcus Cousins will get minutes right away in Sacramento now that Samuel Dalembert is out for a couple of months, and rest assured another rookie or two will break out during the course of the season.
But as of now, don't you pretty much have to go with Griffin?
Yes, John Wall will have the ball in his hands, and yes that's a big advantage. And Wall is certainly having a solid pre-season for a rookie. But the truth is that when you look at the pre-season numbers so far, there's no comparison. Wall's numbers are very good; Griffin's are elite.
Wall has averaged 15.6 points and 8.4 assists in his first five pre-season games. Impressive. Griffin's number look good too: 17.4 points and 12 rebounds in his frst five games. So that's pretty close, right? Well, when you look a little more closely, you notice that Wall has averaged 35.4 minutes per game, compared to Griffin's 28.4. On a per 36 minute basis, Wall's numbers are essentially the same (15.9 and 8.5) while Giffin's shoot up to 22 points and 15.2 rebounds. That's 22 and 15 - an absolutely elite level of productivity. Then there's the fact that Wall is shooting 40%, while Griffin is shooting 63%.
It's apples and oranges to compare a point guard and a power forward of course. For one thing, we're looking at assists for Wall and rebounds for Griffin in an attempt to gauge what they do other than score. So let's try to put it into a bit of perspective. The top three per minute rebounders in the league last season were Kevin Love (13.8 per 36), Dwight Howard (13.7) and Marcus Camby (13.6) - Griffin's pre-season rebounding productivity is quite a bit better than the best in the NBA last season. Wall's 8.5 assists per 36 certainly puts him in good company compared to last season's leaders, but he's still far behind Steve Nash's 12.1 assists per 36.
It's only pre-season which ultimately is meaningless in this race, but it looks to be Griffin's trophy based on what we know right now.
Q - Will the team show improvement with Griffin? After all, he's replacing Camby in the lineup.
That's an excellent question. For those looking to take the Clippers' 29 win total last year and simply add a bunch of wins to the top through the addition of Blake Griffin, not so fast. Marcus Camby was top three in the NBA in both rebounding and blocked shots last season, and those are big shoes for any rookie to fill. Can Griffin even produce at Camby's level for an entire season, let alone improve the team?
In fact, if the Clippers are going to improve this season, Griffin's impact must go beyond his individual statistics. For several years now, LA's other team has dropped off the pace early, and stopped playing hard as the season wore on. For all of his considerable talents, Blake Griffin's single greatest asset may be his incredible drive. He never quits on a single possession. It's hard to imagine that he's going to allow his teammates to mail it in, or that they would even be inclined to do so with him breathing down their necks in practice.
Q - Which Clipper benefits most from the addition of Blake Griffin to the team?
Griffin's presence on the court helps almost every Clipper. Chris Kaman hasn't had as complete a player lining up next to him since Elton Brand left town. Defenses will be less willing to leave Griffin to double team Kaman than they were when Marcus Camby was the power forward - this should result in better looks for the newly offensive minded center. Likewise, Eric Gordon should find more space on the perimeter with Griffin commanding attention in the post. Among his other skills, Griffin is an adept passer and will find guys when they're open.
But his impact may be most profound on Baron Davis. More than most NBA players, Baron wears his emotions on his sleeve. A motivated Baron Davis is among the elite point guards in the NBA, but an unmotivated Baron is a different story. Judging from the three Davis assists that led to Grffin dunks in the fourth quarter against Denver Thursday night, it looks like Griffin may make playing basketball a lot more fun for Baron. Having a world class finisher at the other end of his passes may be just the element that Baron needs to get back to an all star level.
Q - Is there a concern that he'll be injured again?
No... and maybe. Last season's injury did not leave the knee less stable, he's not playing with a brace, he's got all of his explosiveness; by all indications, he's 100% recovered and there's no reason to suspect that last season's injury could predispose him to another issue.
However, because he plays all out all the time, Griffin seems to take at least one hard fall per game. Against San Antonio in Mexico City on Tuesday, he went into the photographers trying to chase down Manu Ginobili on a fast break, and crashed to the floor hard as he came over to block Tim Duncan's shot - all in the first quarter. Clippers fans collectively hold their breath every time he dives over the scorer's table or gets pushed as he's soaring through the air to catch a lob. He's going to have to learn to protect himself a little better.
Q - So, is there anything Blake Griffin can't do?
As good as he is, Griffin's offensive game is decidedly lacking in polish at this time. His jump shot is dicey and his post moves are mediocre. His scoring at this point consists mainly of running the floor and putting back misses. He has the quickness to take most fours off the dribble, but until he adds a reliable 18 footer to his repertoire, defenders are simply going to back off and dare him to shoot. Even with defenders playing off, he'll still get to the rim some.
All of this only serves to illustrate how much better he will be eventually. With his work ethic, it's a matter of time before his shooting stroke and post moves improve. When he develops a go to move in the post, and gets his jumper to the point where defenders can't afford to play off him, he'll be unstoppable.
Q - What about his free throw shooting?
His free throw shooting is definitely sub-par. He barely shot over 50% in college, and he's been shakey in pre-season so far. However that work ethic and determination may already be in evidence at the stripe. After making only 10 of his first 24 in his first three pre-season games, he went on to make 12 of 14 in the next two. Solid free throw shooting will be crucial to his first season, as many defenders are going to have no choice but to foul him or risk getting embarrassed. My guess is he'll be good enough to negate the "Hack-a-Griff" this season, and will continue to improve from the line until he becomes a very good free throw shooter.
Q - Is Blake Griffin the most exciting rookie in Clippers history?
Without a doubt, yes he is.
Q - Will Blake Griffin lead the Clippers to the playoffs?
Some day. Whether he can do it this season remains an unanswered question. We'll just have to wait and see on that.
For more Clippers news and information, be sure to read Clips Nation.