Blake Griffin Must Raise His Game on Defense to Blossom

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18:  Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Rookie Team attempts to block the shot of DeJuan Blair #45 of the San Antonio Spurs and the Sophomore Team in the first half of the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge and Youth Jam at Staples Center on February 18, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

After only two years in the NBA, Blake Griffin has emerged as one of the most divisive players in the league.

Griffin's supporters point to his career per game averages of 21.7 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists as unquestionable proof that soon he'll be considered one of the league's up-and-coming superstars.

Others make the argument as simple as this: Dunks on dunks on dunks.

Griffin's detractors, however, often argue that his defensive limitations hold him back from becoming a true NBA superstar.

To this point in his career, they have a completely valid point.

First, the positives: In the 2011-12 season, per 48 minutes, Griffin put up a 23.0 player efficiency rating (PER) as a power forward and a 25.8 PER as a center, according to He held opposing centers to a PER of 16.2 when playing at the 5 and only allowed opposing power forwards to put up a 48-minute PER of 13.7 against him.

Griffin finished the 2011-12 season with a net 48-minute PER above nine at both the 4 and the 5, suggesting that he's on the route to superstardom.

That's not to say it's all sunshine and lollipops for Griffin's play on both ends of the court, though.

While he still has room to improve offensively—mid-range jumpers!—Griffin needs to boost his play defensively to elevate himself to true superstar status.

In the 2011-12 season, Griffin was personally involved in 615 defensive plays, according to mySynergySports. On those 615 plays, he allowed 0.91 points per possession (PPP), which ranked 341st in the league.

That's not good news if you subscribe to the "defense wins championships" mantra.

Since I'm not Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, I can't definitively say how many defensive breakdowns were Griffin's fault alone. Poor defensive rotations by his teammates assuredly left Griffin in a tough spot defensively for some of those 615 plays.

A few trends did emerge based on Griffin's defense in 2011-12, however. 

More than any type of defensive play in 2011-12, Griffin was most often involved in post-up defense. He allowed 0.87 PPP on 201 post-ups, which ranked 174th overall in the league.

That's nothing special, and it only gets worse from there.

Griffin's largest defensive weakness in 2011-12, based on the mySynergySports numbers, happens to be plays in which he had to defend a spot-up shooter. Of the 174 instances Griffin found himself in that position, he allowed opponents to average 1.13 PPP and 45.6 percent shooting.

That 1.13 PPP mark ranked 344th in the league.

Again, it's impossible to pin an exact number of opponents' made spot-up baskets solely on Griffin. By watching some of the tape from 2011-12, it appears that the Clippers' defensive rotations weren't always stout, which sometimes left Griffin scrambling to cover an open shooter on the wing.

While he's quick enough to close out defensively, sending Griffin to the perimeter to defend shooters isn't a winning strategy for very long.

If he and the Clippers hope to make serious noise in the playoffs in 2012-13, they'll need to get their defensive rotations in order to avoid putting Griffin in tough spots whenever possible.

Griffin could also stand to improve his shot-blocking numbers, as his fantasy basketball owners will openly lament—guess who regretfully picked him in the second round last season? Through his two NBA seasons, he has averaged fewer than one block per game, which is virtually inexcusable for a young, hyper-athletic 6'10" player.

Sure, he often has teammate DeAndre Jordan manning the middle and playing the role of rim protector—largely because Jordan is an unmitigated disaster offensively—but Pau Gasol of the Los Angeles Lakers still managed to produce over one blocked shot per game playing next to Andrew Bynum.

The point is, it's not unprecedented for two frontcourt teammates to each intimidate opponents defensively when they drive their way into the paint.

Griffin hasn't consistently reached that point yet.

This isn't to say that Griffin is one of the worst defenders in the league, by any means. He averaged nearly 11 rebounds per game in 2011-12, including almost eight defensive boards per game, and increased his blocks per game from his rookie season (0.5) to his sophomore season (0.7).

According to mySynergySports, Griffin was also one of the better defenders against the roll man in pick-and-roll situations last year, only giving up 0.79 PPP in 56 plays. In that particular defensive situation, Griffin's PPP ranked 27th overall.

Once the Clippers get their defensive rotations in order, Griffin's defensive numbers should see an immediate boost, regardless of whether or not he personally improves on defense. Putting Griffin in fewer situations where he's left to close-out on a perimeter shooter should only help the Clippers' overall defensive tenacity.

With a full training camp under their belts, it's not unreasonable to expect such an improvement from both Griffin and the rest of his Clippers teammates in 2012-13.

If that comes to fruition, it could spell serious trouble for the rest of the Western Conference elites.

(And yes, I did just make it through an entire article about Griffin's defense without making a single joke about flopping. Where's my Nobel Peace Prize?)


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