Although the season's official halfway point is technically still a game away for the Clippers, Blake Griffin's 47-point explosion against the Pacers on Monday put an unofficial exclamation point on the first half of what is shaping up to be one of the best NBA rookie campaigns of all time.
Griffin's raw numbers alone would be cause for excitement. Through 40 games, he's averaging 22.5 points, 12.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and he hasn't failed to record a double-double since Nov. 18.
That kind of production is almost unheard of for a rookie forward, but the numbers are just the beginning of the good news. Griffin's play has improved as the season has gone on, and he has averaged 27.6 points, 14.4 rebounds, and 4.0 assists since New Year's Day.
And Griffin isn't just putting up numbers for a losing team anymore. The Clippers have won 10 of their past 14 games, have beaten both the Heat and the Lakers in the past week, and have played some inspired basketball since an abysmal start to the season. The best news of all, of course, is that Griffin appears to have only scratched the surface of his potential. He's the most exciting rookie to come into the league since LeBron James, only he's far more productive than James was during his first year in the NBA.
With all that in mind, let's break down the elements of Griffin's game that allow him to be so effective. Griffin is obviously tremendously gifted in a number of areas, but the main reason he has been so effective so soon is his unparalleled ability to create offense without the ball in his hands.
Griffin lives in the paint. That much is obvious. According to Hoopdata.com, Griffin makes a league-leading 6.9 baskets from inside 10 feet each game. If you assume Griffin draws most of his fouls near the rim and factor in his free throws, about 19 of his 22.5 points per game are the result of field goal attempts within 10 feet of the hoop.
What makes Griffin so effective around the basket is no secret. He can jump out of the gym, has incredible strength, and is extremely fast and explosive for his size. However, athleticism alone isn't what makes Griffin special -- it's the way he wields that athleticism. There are plenty of great athletes in the NBA, even ones Griffin's size, but there's a lot that separates a Blake Griffin from a Stromile Swift or a JaVale McGee.
Griffin is about the same size as LeBron James, possesses the same electrifying brand of athleticism, and is well on his way to having the same type of impact on a game that James has. However, while the two have comparable physical attributes, they apply those gifts quite differently. James is nearly unstoppable when he attacks the basket off the dribble, can bury a team with shots from the perimeter, and is one of the best passers in the league. However, when he doesn't have the ball in his hands, he spends as much time adjusting his wristbands as he does trying to put pressure on the defense.
Griffin is still coming into his own as a one-on-one scorer and playmaker, but he generates more points without the ball in his hands than just about any other player in the league.
While James is one of the league's best offensive creators, Griffin may already be the league's best offensive reactor. When he doesn't have the ball in the half-court offense, Griffin looks to make himself available and puts himself in position to receive a pass that will lead to a high-percentage shot. Every time the Clippers miss a shot, Griffin is in position to bounce off the floor and put it back up and in. (Not only does Griffin jump high, but he may get off the floor faster than anyone else in the league.) Every time a Clippers opponent turns the ball over or misses a shot, Griffin is sprinting down the court and looking to earn an easy basket or breathtaking alley-oop.
The term "hustle player" is used to describe players like Dennis Rodman, Joakim Noah or Anderson Varejao -- the kind of role players teams need to be successful. Because of that, praising Griffin's hustle may seem like something of a backhanded compliment, but effort is just as important a part of Griffin's game as his athleticism or skill.
The goal of every defense in the NBA is to keep opposing players from scoring at the basket: Griffin is able to score at the rim over and over again because he uses his athleticism and work ethic to create opportunities at the rim before the opposing defense can set up against him.
Griffin is more than a great hustle player -- he's a great player who hustles.
According to Synergysports.com, Griffin has made 139 of 212 shots on plays where he gets the ball after making an off-ball cut, grabs an offensive rebound or gets the ball in transition. That means Griffin generates approximately 3.5 baskets per game without the Clippers' having to feed him the ball in the post, set him up in isolation or involve him in the pick-and-roll -- and that doesn't even include the value of the free throws Griffin draws in those situations.
To show you just how much "free" offense Griffin has generated this season, here are the equivalent numbers for some of the other top forwards and centers in the league:
- Dwight Howard: 92-of-123
- Amare Stoudemire: 87-of-167
- Pau Gasol: 129-of-191
- Kevin Love: 131-of-252
- LeBron James: 104-of-172 (79 of the 104 made baskets have come in transition)
As you can see, only Love generates anywhere near as much "free" offense as Griffin, and it has taken him 40 more attempts than Griffin to even get close.
Even if you take the off-the-ball-cut baskets out of Griffin's "free" offense numbers -- because every set offense does involve some cutting -- he has scored 97 times alone this season on offensive rebounds or transition opportunities. That's nearly five points per game that Griffin gives the Clippers without their needing to face any sort of set defense.
Griffin's ability to move without the ball, crash the offensive glass and score in transition are all special. Unless something unexpected happens, the Clippers will be enjoying the benefit of free points courtesy of Griffin's athleticism and hustle for many years to come.
Now for the really exciting part: All the other parts of Griffin's game are only going to get better.
Griffin loves to face his man up on the low blocks and use his speed to blow by him. He's developing a series of spin moves and counters on the blocks. He's gaining confidence in his 10- to 15-foot jumper. He's already a phenomenal passer for a forward. If Griffin works as hard off the court as he does on it, it won't be long before he is nearly as dangerous in half-court situations as he is on the boards or in transition. (Even his free throw shooting has been improving -- he has shot 70 percent from the line in January.)
Griffin is already having one of the best rookie campaigns ever because of his big-time athleticism and his enthusiasm for using that athleticism to do the little things that produce extra points and help his team win. As he improves his ballhandling, shooting and defense, he'll be all but unstoppable. Then again, recent opponents would be the first ones to tell you that Griffin isn't particularly stoppable right now.