Few teams had a busier offseason than the Los Angeles Clippers. Coming off a disappointing first-round loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, they moved heaven and earth to convince Chris Paul to re-sign. Vinny Del Negro is gone, replaced by Doc Rivers, one of the most respected coaches in the NBA. They upgraded their supporting cast as well, adding Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison. The Clippers are no longer lovable underdogs; expectations are sky-high.
However, even with Paul back in the fold, it’s unclear how much ground the Clippers have gained on the top teams in the West. The Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs will come into next season as the teams to beat, while the Houston Rockets (Dwight Howard) and Golden State Warriors (Andre Iguodala) both made huge additions. The Grizzlies aren’t going anywhere either. For the Clippers to take the next step, it’s going to come down to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Griffin, still only 24 years old, is a dazzling physical specimen. You don’t see 6’10 250 players with his type of explosiveness and coordination very often. After missing his rookie season with a knee injury, Griffin wasted little time making a name for himself in the NBA. He made the All-Star team in each of his first three seasons, with career averages of 21 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists on 53% shooting. His career PER is an eye-popping 22.5
Nevertheless, for all his production, many know Griffin best for what he can’t do. When he came into the league, there were questions about his post game, his jumper and his defense. While he’s improved in all three categories, he will never fit the mold of a conventional PF. He only has a 6’11 wingspan, giving him a smaller reach than many of his peers. He will always have a tough time creating shooting angles on the block or altering shots on defense.
What makes Griffin special is the ball-handling and passing ability for a player with his size and athleticism. Without those skills, he would be Thomas Robinson. Constantly wrestling with bigger guys on the low block takes away the strengths of his game. He needs to be operating in space, where he can make plays as well as anyone in the NBA. Even when defenders play off him, they can’t stay in front of him. And when teams send help, Griffin can find the open man.
At heart, Griffin is a point forward, more Charles Barkley than Karl Malone. His assist-to-turnover ratio has improved every season in the NBA. Last year, per-36 minutes, he handed out 4.1 assists on 2.6 turnovers. That’s better than a lot of shooting guards. His playmaking ability is underrated because he doesn’t have the ball in his hands that often. When Paul got hurt last season, Griffin averaged 4.7 assists per game in his absence, including games of 32-11-5 and 24-8-10.
In order to maximize his skills, the Clippers need to use Griffin more like LeBron or Kevin Durant. Those two become indefensible when playing as small-ball 4’s with a spread floor. Floor spacing is the name of the game in the modern NBA. But while it’s easy to find perimeter shooters, it’s hard to find a big man who can protect the paint and score 18+ feet from the basket. That’s why Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka are so important to what Miami and Oklahoma City do, respectively.
Jordan, in contrast, doesn’t have to be defended outside of the paint. Unless he’s stationed at the front of the rim, his man can help on Griffin with relative impunity. The problem goes double when Paul has the ball. With Griffin and Jordan on the floor, Paul has to deal with two big men camping out in the paint. While Del Negro’s offense was criticized for its lack of off-ball movement, the lane was often so crowded there was nowhere for anyone to go.
The biggest hole on the Clippers' roster is a big man who can play defense and stretch the floor. Last season, none of their interior players -- Griffin, Jordan, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf -- could consistently make an outside shot. They signed Byron Mullens from the Charlotte Bobcats, but he probably isn’t the answer either. While he took a lot of jumpers last year, he shot only 38 percent from the floor and played fairly abysmal defense.
Rivers is a better coach than Del Negro, but the underlying lineup problem is still there. Take out Jordan and go small with Griffin as the center and there won’t be enough rim protection. Play Jordan and Griffin late in games and there won’t be enough floor spacing on offense. In a halfcourt game, they’ll have to depend on Paul making plays 1-on-3 to close out games. As great as Paul is, that isn’t a winning strategy. There’s only so far a 6’0 185 guard can carry a team in the playoffs.
Griffin is not an elite shooter or defensive player. If he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, it’s hard for him to impact the game. As a result, the Clippers need to flip the dynamic on offense. Rather than Paul setting up Griffin, they need Griffin setting up Paul. It’s much easier for Paul to play off Griffin than vice versa. The Clippers' offense would be more explosive if possessions ended with Paul spotting up for a three-point shot instead of Griffin spotting up for a long two.
If you played four jump-shooters around Griffin, there would be no way to guard him when he got the ball 18 feet from the basket. In that scenario, he could be right there with LeBron and Durant in the MVP race. He’s a 6’10 250 forward with elite athleticism and a high-level of skill. If the right pieces are in place around him, he could be the third best player in the NBA. In order for the Clippers to win a title, Griffin will have to be their best player and Jordan will have to be moved.