The Los Angeles Clippers have been one of the most active teams this NBA offseason, adding head coach Doc Rivers, shooter J.J. Redick, and several other role players capable of helping the team to the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. At a basic level, though, their contender status depends on the health and abilities of stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, their two most talented players. In the case of Griffin, there's an expectation that he will become a more dependable scoring option in the post, the kind of player who demands a double team and opens up the rest of the offense.
That expectation doesn't come just from random observers, but Griffin's All-Star teammate, as well. In a recent interview with Ramona Shelburne of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Paul said the Clippers will go as far as Griffin takes them:
"Blake is one of those guys, where his age has nothing to do with anything," Paul said in a wide-ranging phone interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com this week. "People may say he's a young guy, but he's been special in this league, he's been an All-Star. His voice carries a lot of weight and I think our team will definitely go as Blake goes.
"He's our guy, and he's good enough to do so."
Griffin made his third straight All-Star team this season, but his season averages in scoring (18.0) and rebounding (8.3) fell off slightly from his career averages (20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds) as he played nearly three fewer minutes per game during the regular season, at 32.5, in an attempt to stay healthier for the playoffs.
Griffin's assists rose to 3.7 per game in 2012-13 from 3.2 in 2011-12, while his steals rose from 0.8 to 1.2 per game over the same period.
Paul's comments don't come across as petulant demands, but they're also perhaps a little misplaced. As explained by both the stats listed above and some accurate observations from Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk, Griffin's offensive game has progressed at an impressive rate for a 24-year-old entering his fourth full season. He has added post moves, improved various non-scoring abilities, and generally validated the fame that his dunks brought him in his rookie season. The Clippers' offense is pretty great — if anything, they should be more concerned with their defensive improvement.
But a player's comments on his teammates are never motivated purely by the conclusions of cool analysis, and we'd do well to attempt to understand Paul's perspective. Elsewhere in Shelburne's article, he explains how his relationship with Griffin as changed and how he views the upcoming season:
"It's been a great summer for us [i.e. Paul and Griffin]. I think we've both had an opportunity to grow," Paul said. "As you get older you realize it's all about winning and I think we both realize we really need each other in order to do that." [...]
"I'll never forget. My first year in the playoffs," Paul said of 2008 with New Orleans. "Our team had a dinner where everyone on our team -- wives, girlfriends, too -- everyone had to say something. One of my teammates stood up (it might have been Mike James) and said, 'Savor this moment, take full advantage of this opportunity because you're in the league for a certain amount of years and you don't get this opportunity to be in the playoffs every year.'
"I was up for the MVP award that year. They hadn't announced it yet, but I had a really good shot at getting it. And I was sitting there, I'll never forget, I was thinking to myself, 'Man, whatever. I might win MVP this year. I'm going to have a chance to win every year.' That was my third year in the league. Now I'm going into Year 9 and I still haven't got close to the championship. It really does go fast and you don't have those opportunities because of injuries and things like that every year."
Paul is relatively young at 28 years old, but he has fought through several injuries in his eight NBA seasons, played more than a few lottery teams with the Hornets, and has a developed sense of how difficult it can be to stay relevant. His reference to 2008 is telling, because it points to the rarity of challenging for a title and the importance of taking advantage of that opportunity. His expectations for Griffin are a bit unreasonable in part because his own timeline for success needs to be accelerated (at least by his view). These are the comments of a man desperate to win, and so he expects quite a bit out of those who can help him reach that goal.
It's an approach characteristic of Kobe Bryant, if not quite as demanding. Like many players, Paul wants to win badly, but he also wants his teammates to bootstrap themselves to his level rather than improving at their own rates. It's an approach that's worked many times — Bryant has been nothing if not a winner. Yet it's also easy to see how this approach wouldn't work for some personalities, or how playing with Paul could be less than ideal despite his prodigious talent. Different players lead with different styles, and this particular one asks a lot of role players. Thankfully for the Clippers, Paul is an amazing enough player that it's probably worth it.
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