Culture of Hoops

Top 50 NBA Players of the 21st Century – #26 Blake Griffin

Well hello there! Welcome to my fifth annual Top 50 NBA Players Countdown! In case you are new here, or if you haven’t heard what will be different this time around, allow me to explain!

(That third exclamation point was not necessary)

Typically how this works is in the days leading up to the NBA season, I release a countdown of the Top 50 players currently playing in the National Basketball Association. This year I decided that it was time to remix this idea, expand the pool of players, broaden my horizons, and give myself an excuse to watch a bunch of old games on YouTube.

This time around I’ll be counting down the Top 50 NBA Players of the 2000’s (this means we’re looking at a seventeen season sample size that goes from the 1999-00 season all the way through the 2015-16 season). I’ve detailed the criteria I used to make this awfully long list. If you want to check it out, you can do so by clicking here.

The Resume 
6 years, 5 quality, 5 All-Stars … 3 Top Ten MVP Finishes (’11, ’14-’15), 4-time All-NBA (’12-’15), Rookie of the Year (’11) … ’14 Regular Season: 24-10-4, 53% FG, 72% FT, 3rd in MVP Voting … 2-Year Playoff Peak (’14-’15): 25-10-5, 51% FG, 73% FT (27 Games)

Overall Averages: 21.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steal, 35.3 minutes, 52% FG, 16.0 FGA, 66% FT, 7.0 FTA, 410 Games Played

5-Year Regular Season Peak: 21.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.0 steal, 35.5 minutes, 52% FG, 15.9 FGA, 66% FT, 7.2 FTA, 375 Games Played

No fancy introduction is necessary today friends; we’ve got serious business to take care of. Since 2010, no player has dealt with such a constant vacillation of how the basketball consuming fanbase feels about them as a player as Blake Griffin has. It’s my position that this back-and-forth in public opinion has been largely unnecessary. Blake’s progress as a player has been, at least to me, pretty easy to track, yet it’s equally easy to see why he’s been considered both overrated and underrated multiple times in the last seven years. It’s been the perfect storm of overexposure, underperformance, progression in some areas of his game, and stagnation or decline in others.

Here is a list of all of the times the public opinion of Blake Griffin swung too far in the wrong direction. Also noted are all of the times when it seemed like cooler, and more level heads prevailed when it came to finding Blake Griffin’s place in the league. As you’ll soon see, the pendulum of public opinion has never stopped shifting.

Overreaction #1: When the Los Angeles Clippers drafted Blake Griffin  

This wasn’t a tremendous overreaction; it was more of a devastating assumption that Griffin would be the next promising Clipper “star” unable to live up to the hype because they’re the Clippers and why would the Clippers be lucky or good? This brings us to …

Overreaction #2: When Blake Griffin missed the entire 2009-2010 regular season 

Oh boy, if the Clippers were LA’s only team the city would have been on collective suicide watch when Blake broke his left kneecap in the pre-season of his first season. Poor Clips fans didn’t get a chance to watch Blake in a regular season game until 16 months after they drafted him. Meanwhile, basketball fans and Clippers fans were alike were bracing themselves for Blake to be the next Shaun Livingston; all of the talent in the world, one (literal) bad break that took it all away.

Correct Reaction #1: When Blake Griffin made “Mozgov’d” a word 

It didn’t take long for Blake to make all of those cautious Clips fans forget their worries from time to time. It took an equally short amount of time for Blake to make anyone who doubted how effective he could be in the NBA, or how effective he’d be after missing a year with a knee injury, say to themselves, “Yep, I was wrong … this dude’s got a chance to be really special.” This was also the game when Blake established himself as the first ever Highlights on Social Media MVP of the NBA, a wordy title he carried until Steph Curry snatched it away two years ago.

It all culminated on a November night when the New York Knicks were in town. The Knicks won, but Griffin went absolutely bonkers. He scored 44 points, pulled down 14 rebounds, began a 27 game double-double streak where he averaged 25 points, 14 rebound and 4 assists per game, and made Timofey Mozgov a hard-to-pronounce household name. Mozgov is an NBA Champion and he recently signed a $64 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Lakers … he will never be more famous than he was on Twitter and YouTube on November 20th, 2010.

Rookie Blake was a delight, ahead of the curve and better suited for the NBA than most people realized. Most notably, he was an amazing watch. The Clippers quickly became the league pass darlings and for the most part, fans had an understanding of what Blake Griffin was: a glob of clay that given time, development and the blessing of good health, could become a beautiful vase or sculpture or whatever kind of shit you make with clay.

Overreaction #3: When Blake Griffin won the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest 

It doesn’t make any sense that it would happen this way, but it seemed like after Blake won the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest in less-impressive-than-everyone-thought-he-would fashion, there was a subtle turn on Blake. He was the internet’s hero for months, but when he didn’t do anything truly memorable on All-Star Weekend, it left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth. He didn’t actually jump over a car. He didn’t actually jump from the free throw line. Sure, there have been at least ten better performances in the history of the Dunk Contest than Blake’s in 2011, but that shouldn’t have resulted in fans forgetting A) He was the best in-game dunker in the league, and that’s a distinction he still might hold, and B) He was in the middle of a Rookie season where he was averaging 23 points and 13 rebounds per game. So yeah, at this point, I think Blake was actually underrated, even though people began saying he was overrated. My head is starting to hurt.

Correct Reaction #2: When the Clippers acquired Chris Paul 

Lakers fans should skip over this section. When the Clippers traded for Chris Paul just weeks before the strike-shortened 2011-12 season began, rather than freaking out and jumping to conclusions, everyone took a deep breath (except for those aforementioned Lakers fans, who are still bitching about their trade for Chris Paul being vetoed by David Stern to this day) and came to realize, “Wow, this is a really good move for the Clippers. In theory, the Paul/Griffin partnership could be good enough for the Clippers to actually matter and actually contend for an NBA Title.” They weren’t wrong. If you asked most fans, they would have told you Paul was the Clips alpha dog and Griffin was the second option and their second best player. They too wouldn’t have been wrong. A rare moment of clarity in the Blake Griffin story.

Overreaction #4: When the Clippers lost in the 2013 Playoffs and Blake Griffin struggled 

The Clips made the 2nd Round in the 2012 Playoffs and lost to a much better San Antonio Spurs team. It was understandable and expected. The next year was the year the Clips were supposed to put it together. It was the first year when there were legitimate title aspirations. It was the year when the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin partnership to really shine. It went the other way; Griffin posted his worst statistical season to date, and when the Clips blew a 2-0 1st Round lead against the Grizzlies it highlighted a reality that Blake Griffin fans weren’t ready to face: their guy had, at least momentarily, plateaued, and that’s a frightening reality to face when you’re talking about a 24-year-old. He hadn’t evolved his game enough to make great defenders and smart defenses pay in big games. He hadn’t developed a touch from mid-range or a consistent arsenal of post-moves he could unleash on defenders that traditional gave him, and guys like him problems … I’m talking bulky defenders who don’t move in the post when you try to get physical with them, or lanky, longer armed smart defenders that can get decent contests on post shots even if you’ve got good position on them.

Correct Reaction #3: When Blake Griffin finished 3rd in the MVP Voting in 2014 

As quickly as his detractors could say, “Blake is overrated! He can only dunk!” Blake Griffin evolved his game to a staggering degree heading into the 2013-14 season. It was the first time for a prolonged stretch where it appeared as if he had put it all together. He was still the frighteningly bouncy athlete he was during his Rookie season, but now there was some polish to his game. He could hit a mid-range jumper with some consistency (the continued development and consistency of this jumper will probably determine whether or not Blake moves up at least ten spots higher on this list between now and the end of his career). He incorporated some shot fakes and nifty moves and niftier countermoves in the post that were much more aesthetically pleasing than the bully post-game he showed regularly in his first few seasons. He even had the opportunity to show off some of those ball-handling and passing skills that we knew he had in his repertoire somewhere when Chris Paul missed a month of the season.

At this point if you still claimed Blake didn’t have a post-game, or foolishly believe all he did was dunk then it just showed you weren’t watching basketball. Blake finished 3rd in the MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James, and in some years prior it would have been totally reasonable if he would have won the league’s MVP Award.

Overreaction #5: When the Clippers went 9-6 without Blake Griffin during the 2014-15 season and everyone thought they might be better without him 

But hey, you know how shit works … Where there’s a reaction, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. That may be Newton’s Law of Motion, but it works here with Blake Griffin too. When the Clippers were again bounced in Round 2 of the Playoffs in 2014, the whispers of whether or not the Clippers could win as currently constructed turned into to a steady conversation. When Blake missed 15 games during the middle of the season, the Clippers stayed afloat, Chris Paul played like an MVP candidate, DeAndre Jordan began to break out, and people started thinking yet again, “Ya know, I know Blake Griffin is really good, but is he really the best fit for this team?” Don’t feel too bad if you’re in that camp; I pondered this at the time and I still wonder about every now and then. This is despite the fact …

Correct Reaction #4: When Blake Griffin was dominant in the 2015 Playoffs 

That Blake Griffin was absolutely fucking unreal during the 2015 NBA Playoffs. It was everything and more than we could have ever expected from him, even though he was a number one pick and received stupid hype right out of the gate. It was the freakish athleticism and fearlessness attacking the basket (just ask Aron Baynes about that), the developed post game, the blossoming Point Forward package and the competitive DNA that we had all hoped Blake would put together someday and make that vase or sculpture or art thing I was talking about earlier.

Blake’s 2015 Playoff run established him as a franchise player, a generational talent and one of the most all-around skilled players the NBA has seen.

Overreaction #6: When Blake Griffin missed 47 games in 2015-16 and the Clippers were still a top four seed in the Western Conference and everyone thought they might be better without him 

This is also known as, “When Blake Griffin added a month onto the time he’d miss during the season because he broke his hand beating up a Clippers training staff member,” and it brings us to where we are in the present. Right now, the anti-Griffin backlash after a lackluster, injury-filled, controversial season has left him underrated. And that will probably change by next year at this time.

So why has Blake Griffin been so polarizing for so long? His off-court stumbles this past season didn’t help his cause, but it started way before he broke his hand on Matias Testi’s face. Blake’s always had a tendency to flop and bitch for calls and get under the skin of opposing players because of that flopping and bitching and all of the extended stare-downs after posterizing dunks. I’d argue that the reason Blake is so polarizing mostly has to do with what made him so special in the first place … his overexposure on Twitter and YouTube in his early years made him the posterboy for an era of instant gratification and overuse of highlights. There will be a time when another highlight machine supplants Griffin in this unusual spot of being universally revered and unfairly criticized for a portion of his game that is just a fraction of what we should love (and hate) about him. And then maybe we’ll start to remember Blake Griffin fondly.

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