Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why Blake Griffin's Injury Ruins the 2012-2013 Clippers...and Beyond

This week, Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. The All-NBA Second Team forward was hurt during a workout for the US Olympic team, which he had made ironically because two forwards in front of him, LaMarcus Aldridge and Chris Bosh, are recovering from in-season injuries. Coach and current front office executive Vinny del Negro stated after the surgery that the Clippers were "very confident that he'll be back for training camp and get back to 100%. So, as bad as that news is, it's probably the best news that we could have gotten, which is great." As news from Vinny is so many times, that statement couldn't be any less illuminated. The injury to Griffin is relatively small, but the minimalist nature of the surgery couldn't be more different than that potentially irreparable effect that it could have on the Clippers' 2012-2013 season, and every season going forward.

The immediate concerns are the most apparent; Griffin has now had three injuries to the same knee within a three-year window. He fractured his left knee cap on a non-contact injury during the 2009 preseason, sprained it during the playoffs in May, and finally this past week in a team practice. I can't say definitively that any of these injuries are related to each other, but regardless of if they are or are not, the Clippers have to be concerned that their first bonafide star attraction in franchise history has consistently gotten hurt in the same body part multiple times in a non-contact situations. As Simmons stated recently on a podcast, only the Clippers could ink a man to a $95 million dollar deal one day, and then have him suffer an injury requiring surgery the next day. 

 However, the long-term importance of this injury actually has to do with Blake's short-term plans. As devastating as the prospects of a bum knee on the Clippers' homegrown superstar would be, it's the lost time this summer that could potentially banish Donald Sterling's team from the brief gasp of relevant air that they've been able to breathe the past eight months.
As a seasoned Clippers doubter, I have my reservations about Griffin's prospects as a future superstar in the league, but as a lover of the sport, I have to temper all of that with an air of positivity. In only 148 games, Griffin has thrown down a ridiculous 21/11/3 stat line on 52% shooting. The key number in that sentence was 148, meaning that Blake has missed zero games the past two years, including starting all 11 this postseason. He's the most spectacular athlete in the league outside of LeBron James, with a dazzling combination of power, speed, quickness and hand-eye coordination that's simply dizzying to watch. His dignity-robbing dunks are as much a trademark as they are a terrifying eventuality to the opposing team (and their fans), but he didn't make the All-NBA Second Team this season just because he's a spectacular showman. Griffin is a tenacious ball player, willing to scrap on the floor for loose balls, fight for offensive rebounds (finishing 5th and 7th in the league the past two seasons) and of course, stay on the floor at all times (5th and 4th in minutes). The detractions on Blake are numerous, but no one can argue that he is one of the most exciting and athletic players in the entire world with an endless ceiling.
That being said, the holes in Blake's game are very easy to point out. First and foremost, despite all of his power and athleticism, Griffin is a subpar defender. For a man of his size and speed who constantly indulges in highly physical offensive play, the Blake Show doesn't seem to exert the same type of ferocity on the defensive end. But it's not just that he's a poor defender in certain areas. Griffin simply gets torched in every type of conceivable defensive scheme; pick and rolls, isolation plays, post positioning, transition buckets and help rotations. It's simply bewildering to see Blake dominate while bulldozing to the rim or getting right back up after another brutal foul, and yet, act as a sieve on the other end of the floor. I'm not sure if it's a lack of will to defend, or a lack of knowledge on how to do so, but Griffin is beaten defensively night after night. Physically, I have noticed that his lateral movement isn't great (perhaps a side effect of the knee surgery he had a few years ago). However, it's difficult to think that a man who plays with such reckless abandon for his body and shows such effort in rebounding doesn't care about defending. I really don't have an explanation.
The second and most maligned flaw of Griffin's is of course his unrefined offensive game. Outside of his tremendous acumen for transition basketball, the Clippers' forward has no real reliable weapon while attacking the basket. From time to time, I've seen him show off a spin move from the post, as well as a running jump hook. His jumper isn't the second coming of the Joakim Noah circus shot, but it's far from perfect. Accoring to, Griffin shot 38% on field goals 3 feet or more away from the basket and only 32% from 10 feet and out. For comparison's sake, Pau Gasol shot nearly 40% from that very same distance last year, despite nearly every basketball writer calling his season a dissappointment.
Perhaps his most embarrassing blemish as a NBA professional is Blake's unbelievably poor free throw shooting. From his first season, when he shot a piddling 64%, Griffin actually regressed in his second year, throwing down a 52% clip at the line. Even for a basketball novice, Blake's free throw weakness seems easy to allay: for a shooting motion that's supposed to come up fluidly from the legs, Griffin, like Dwight Howard, simply stops his motion when he gets up to his arms, and shoots with his elbows and wrists. Basketball 101. Going forward, it could really hamper Blake's aggressiveness towards the rim if he knows how awful his performance at the line is.
Even with all these detriments so easily detected by a simple observer, Blake's athletic magnificence and seemingly insatiable appetite for rebounding (combined with a weak overall year from opposing forwards) gifted Griffin with a All-NBA Second Team nod. After the Clippers' season ending sweep to the Spurs, he acknowledged that he needed to get better over the offseason.
I couldn't agree more. The Clippers biggest weakness last year was that other than point God Chris Paul, no one on the squad could create a shot for himself, especially with Chauncey Billups on the shelf. Highly paid role players like DeAndre Jordan and Caron Butler are still key parts of the team's offense, but cannot effective leverage themselves offensively without the help of Paul hand delivering an easy shot. Obviously, as the playoffs progressed, the Clips needed one more playmaker, and unfortunately, the second-year man in Griffin was unable to give them that.
In my mind, the fortunes of the Clippers' 2012-2013 season hinged on Griffin not only improving his game, but doing so by leaps and bounds. He needed to develop at least two dependable post moves in the paint, and work on a much more reliable jump shot. The Clips were not a great fast break team last year despite the presence of Paul and Griffin, and really languished in half-court sets. With no cap room and few assets to trade for another shot-making forward, the best chance for the red, white and blue to advance their playoff goals was for Blake to take the next step in his evolution as a basketball player. However, this injury throws all of those goals out the window.
This surgery puts Griffin out for the entire summer, and for even longer if they feel that even the slightest precaution is necessary. This would preclude Blake from the type of strenuous training and drills that he'd have to put in even after duty to Team USA in the Olympics. He simply needed to live in the gym all summer long, and right now, there's zero percent chance that happens. In my eyes, the key to the Clippers season, which already hinged on the dicey property of relying on a third year player to grow into a player he's not close to being, was just incinerated.
Unfortunately, that's not where the ramifications of the injury end. As soon as the Chris Paul deal went down in December, the clock on the Clippers was ticking. They had approximately 18 months to convince CP3 to stay in LA alongside Griffin, otherwise he could walk away to another team for less money, but perhaps with a more stable organization. Blake's injury is another domino that isn't helping the Clips moving into next season. Though Paul could be cognizant that a knee injury is the prime culprit behind Griffin's second straight season without much development, it certainly won't embolden him as much as a dominant campaign from a shot-creating rim rocker by his side. Surely an improved Griffin would ensure CP3 that the Clippers could pose as a contender for the duration of a max-deal. However, without this summer for Blake to strengthen his faulty game, the Clips lose a little more persuasive juice to keep Paul in LA. As great as the ceiling is for Griffin, seeing truly is believing. 

Much like Chauncey Billups going down midseason with a torn achilles tendon, this injury couldn't have come at a worse time for the Clippers. Not many people are making a big deal of this, but make no mistake; the impact here is devastating for the red, white and blue. Griffin needed to become a much more complete basketball player, not just for himself, but to keep his team together. 

The Clippers Curse strikes again.

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