While the Kevin Love trade rumors drag on seemingly all summer, dominating most basketball discussions, Blake Griffin’s name has been out of the spotlight, save for his awkward ESPYs chuckle at a Donald Sterling joke.
Unfortunately for Team USA, that changed this week with the news that Griffin will miss this summer’s FIBA World Cup games because of a back fracture.
Griffin’s absence is obviously more justifiable than Love’s, who is so desperate to leave Minnesota that he wants to avoid any potential risk that could compromise a trade including, apparently, a handful of international games. Love hasn’t played in a competitive basketball game since April 16, or three and a half months ago.
For Team USA, the timing of Griffin’s injury is especially unfortunate, as he developed into arguably the best power forward in the NBA last season, a result of finally improving in three keys areas— the midrange, low post and free throw line.
Looking at Griffin’s first three seasons, his scoring and rebounding numbers declined each year, and there was a concern that Griffin may not live up to his impressive rookie numbers, when he put up an eye-catching 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.
Clippers Coach Doc Rivers deserves a lot of the credit for Griffin’s offensive improvement. Rivers made Griffin a focal point of the offense. He also allowed him the freedom to handle the ball in the open court, often leading — and finishing — fast breaks, in a similar fashion to LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Griffin averaged 79.4 touches per game last season, more than any non-point guard besides Joakim Noah and Kevin Love, per NBA.com’s sportVU data. Griffin led the Clippers offense and did not allow the team to lose ground in the Playoff race even when Paul missed 20 games because of injury. During the 18-game stretch Paul missed, Griffin led the Clippers to a 12-6 record.
The Clippers had the best offense in the league last season, averaging 109.4 points per 100 possessions. When Griffin sat, that number dropped to 104.7, 13th in the league, which is what the lottery-bound New Orleans Pelicans averaged. Grantland’s Zach Lowe went to great efforts to disprove the popular myth that Griffin lacks a post game earlier this year. Lowe found that Griffin ranked fifth overall in post-up scoring back in January. Griffin’s post game may not be aesthetically pleasing, but you can’t argue with its effectiveness.
Griffin hasn’t been a double-figure rebounder the last two seasons, but that has a lot to do with DeAndre Jordan’s emergence as arguably the best rebounding center in the entire league. There simply aren’t as many opportunities compared with his rookie season.
Even with last season’s improvement, the 25-year-old Griffin has a fair amount of room for improvement. Griffin made strides with his jump shot, but for him to take the next step, he has to become an above average shooter from other locations on the floor besides the left elbow. Similar to how Karl Malone progressed over the course of his career.
Griffin’s continued improvement will be key to the Clippers’ title chances. Although the Western Conference is as competitive ever, there isn’t a clear favorite. San Antonio has played more than 200 games in the last two seasons and has never won back-to-back championships. Oklahoma City hasn’t made it to the NBA Finals since trading James Harden, while Harden’s current team, Houston, lost its third best player this summer.
Griffin is entering his prime and, along with Jordan and Spencer Hawes, should boast the best front line in the conference. With the Donald Sterling drama hopefully over, this could be the Clippers’ year, depending largely on Griffin’s development. No pressure, Blake.