Los Angeles Clippers star forward Blake Griffin announced his presence in the NBA very early in his career. While most top picks earn attention via their draft status, Griffin effectively demanded it via his loud, highlight-ready dunks. Over time, though, that aerial prowess led to criticism that Griffin was a very good player who nevertheless relied on his athleticism to become one of the league's truly great players. The logic said that he would need to expand his game to win a title.
The Clippers have yet to reach the Western Conference Finals, let alone capture a championship, but Griffin has clearly expanded his game beyond the sport's highest-percentage shot. After totaling 214 (in 82 games), 192 (in 66), 202 (in 80), and 176 (in 80) made slams in his first four seasons, Griffin is currently at just 65 dunks through his first 48 games of 2014-15. At the same time, he has turned his jumper into a weapon, taking 37.7 percent of his shots from 16 feet to the 3-point line and hitting on 40.8 percent of those attempts, a very good mark for a power forward. If anything, it's arguable that Griffin has become too enamored with these shots — his true shooting percentage is at 55.0 percent, roughly equivalent to his rookie mark.
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Yet Griffin says he has not expanded his game in response to critics or as a reaction to conventional basketball wisdom. Instead, he's doing it because he needs to conserve his energy. The Players' Tribune senior editor explains as much in a new article for the website:
Honestly, they had a point. My first few years in the league, I was relying on my athleticism to get me by, because that’s what got me to the NBA. The problem with that is, you end up getting really, really tired by February. My rookie year I tried to get out of bed on a road trip near the end of the season and I was like, Am I physically able to walk right now? I went out on the floor that night and ran up and down just trying to look like a real NBA human. [...]
I’ve put up more than 250,000 jump shots with my shooting coach Bob Thate over the past three years in order to re-wire my brain. That breaks down to roughly 300 shots per day just on my mid-range form alone. Bob has a saying: “How do you build a mansion? Brick by brick by brick.” It’s kind of like how Apple releases versions of the iPhone. Each year we’ve worked and worked to be able to roll out a new feature of my shot.
The bulk of the article details Griffin's specific approach to remaking his jumper, but the most interesting point is easily that the physical toll of relying on his athleticism motivated him more than the idea that he had to knock down different kinds of shots to become a winner. Running and jumping towards the rim often exposes a player to physical harm, and it's common for guards (Dwyane Wade is an obvious example) to change their games as they age to extend their careers. Griffin is different in that he has always been known as one of the big guys who controls the interior (albeit on offense more than defense), but the general principle is the same.
This information presents the development of Griffin's jumper in a new light. He did not add that mid-range shot in order to minimize the importance of dunking, but to ensure that he will still be able to impact the game with his athleticism at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. That decision means that Griffin won't be quite the highlight fixture we have known, but he could end up being more of a force in the postseason than in the past.
It's likely that Griffin hasn't yet figured out the ideal balance between shooting and dunking, and we shouldn't declare his efforts a failure if the Clippers don't get past the second round this spring, either. As Griffin says, the process takes time. For that matter, he and Thate may not even know what the final product looks like. His improvement requires adapting to circumstances, not abiding by a preconceived notion of what works.
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