Remember Blake Griffin’s first game in the NBA?
He had lost the previous season to a knee injury, and all he did in his debut was jam home every ball in sight, flash some nice post moves and look fully healthy. He was an obvious star.
Griffin was equally exhilarating for the remainder of that season, and finished with averages of 22.5, 12 and 4 while shooting 51 percent. Unfortunately, the effort went to waste on a team that occasionally started Jamario Moon.
At season’s end, though, the Clippers glued Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to the ground and let everything else fly away in exchange for Chris Paul, and Lob City was born. And the team delivered, to some extent, tossing endless oops and piling up regular-season wins under Vinny Del Negro.
Only L.A. seemed to plateau right there: fun to watch, but not intimidating. The same went for their power forward.
Griffin came into the League as something like an A-minus player—easily dropped into any top-20 debate without reaching true upper echelon status. He produced roughly the same individual numbers in each of his first three seasons, which was some strange mix of frustrating, confusing and impressive. It appeared we knew who Griffin was and what he was capable of—20 and 10 with wild highlights—after three seasons.
And then…boom! Griffin developed into a strong focal point in Doc Rivers’ offense last season, upping his scoring to 24 points per contest. He dropped 35-plus five times during a six-game February stretch. He hit 71 percent of his free throws—a career best—and he ranked fifth in free throws made, one season after placing 20th. He then averaged 23 and 8 in the postseason, and guided L.A. to a defeat of the Warriors before falling to OKC in a series that nearly went the Clippers’ way.
Los Angeles wasn’t able to advance to the conference finals, but they had the look of a title threat. That’s a big step up after spending two years in the Maybe But Probably Not tier alongside teams like Memphis, Houston and Golden State.
Over the summer, the Clippers scooped up Spencer Hawes to absorb minutes previously given to the likes of Ryan Hollins and Rony Turiaf, and drafted CJ Wilcox, a 23-year-old sharpshooter, in the first round of the Draft. The biggest move, of course, was swapping out owner Donald Sterling for Steve Ballmer. And look at all of the awesome stuff that happened afterward:
Los Angeles is piling up positive mojo. They’ve got a real coach, a real owner and a real backup big man. Jordan came on as perhaps the League’s best rebounder last season, placing second in both offensive and defensive rebound totals. Meanwhile, JJ Redick delivered a strong debut season, and is complemented well on the wing by Matt Barnes. Jamal Crawford will return for another season of terrorizing opposing teams’ second units. Ekpe Udoh, Glen Davis, Jordan Farmar, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Hedo Turkoglu are quality veterans who can chip in on the backend of some rotations. Wilcox and second-year man Reggie Bullock offer some upside for an otherwise predictable supporting cast.
It’s a remarkably deep roster, all centered around Paul and Griffin. The former is entering his 10th season in the League without a conference finals appearance, and there’s no doubt that he’ll be hyper-focused.
That leaves the ex-Sooner and his retooled jumper. In the past, the Clippers have struggled to get buckets down the stretch, mostly because of Jordan’s inability to shoot from beyond six inches (plus the need to keep him in for defense) and Griffin’s mediocre mid-range game. Neither guy drags defenders out of the paint, which keeps CP3 from diving into the lane and getting the offense moving. We all saw what the development of Chris Bosh’s jumper opened up for Miami, and Griffin even sniffing that level of long-range efficiency would be a game-changer for L.A.
The table is set for Griffin & Paul’s team to shift from Kia-Hoppin’ Lob City to the No Bullshit Los Angeles Clippers—every piece from owner on down is in place. Griffin looked a lot like a superstar last season; his next act might Mozgov the entire League.
|#SLAMTop50 Players 2014|
Rankings are based on expected contribution in ’14-15—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.