It's Now or Never for Blake Griffin to Validate Superstardom

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2014

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Blake Griffin's NBA status lacks certain qualities: likability and acceptance.

Pump the brakes on your hater-mobile. This isn't what you think it is—another Blake Griffin slam piece crammed with character-smearing references that ultimately questions whether or not the athletic forward is worth the hype he's generated.

Those arguments already exist, and they exist for a reason: The Los Angeles Clippers forward isn't universally accepted as a superstar.

Video game-esque stat lines and three All-Star appearances haven't been enough to squelch narratives that, to this day, posit Griffin is overrated and undeserving of the accolades and recognition given him.

Playing through his fourth (actual) season, those critiques aren't going anywhere, and it's no longer Griffin's job to answer the cries and catcalls—it's his job to leave them behind forever, which he can only do now.


Criticism Remains

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 10: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers is introduced before a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at STAPLES Center on January 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees t
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This far into his career, Griffin is still a frequently used, sometimes abused, punching bag. 

While he's improved in different areas of the game, many still only see a one-dimensional player who hasn't separated himself from other elite power forwards.

As Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal writes:

Although Griffin's growth stagnated earlier in his career, he's made remarkable strides this year. He's been more selective with his back to the basket, choosing instead to rack up assists out of the post, and he's become one of the most efficient players in the NBA in this situation.

The narrative won't shift from "Griffin has no post game" to "Griffin is an elite post-up player," though.

And that's because his dunking continues to overshadow everything he does. That includes the jump shooting. It includes the post-ups. It includes the increased impact he's making defensively under Doc Rivers' tutelage.

All of what Fromal says is true. Griffin has improved in just about every aspect of the game, especially the less glamorous end, where he's posting a career-best 101 defensive rating. His offense has not gone untouched, either. Synergy Sports (subscription required) indicates Griffin has varied his offensive sets considerably, becoming a more efficient post-up player.

But criticism remains, much of it justified, which led B/R's Ric Bucher to question whether the Clippers should bite the bullet and trade him:

There was a time when creating a better fit would've meant dealing Jordan, but that was before he emerged as a triple-double threat in points, rebounds and blocked shots. Griffin’s curse is that the value of his unique strengths among big men—[ball-handling] and passing—is minimized by Paul’s dominance of the ball. [Chris] Paul, sources say, sees Jordan as a younger version of his lanky center in New Orleans, Tyson Chandler, and wishes Griffin were more like his New Orleans power forward, David West.

Therein lies Griffin's central problem: Paul.

Almost four years later, Griffin is still railroaded for his flaws, depicted in many instances as a fraud who is more reliant on his athleticism than actual talent.

And why? Because for the better part of his career, he's had a...


...Safety Net

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 10: Blake Griffin #32 and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers converse during a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at STAPLES Center on January 10, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
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Since the lockout-truncated 2011-12 campaign, Griffin hasn't been The Man in Los Angeles. That privilege belongs to the league's best point guard, Paul, whose arrival rescued the Clippers from obscurity and ridicule and turned them into the formidable Western Conference power they are today.

Once he came in, the highly touted Griffin didn't just have a partner—he had a safety net, someone he could defer to.

Someone he could follow.

That's not a bad thing. Griffin was technically a sophomore when Paul arrived. The Clippers, expressing a sudden and, quite frankly, uncharacteristic desire to win now, needed someone other than Griffin.

Paul has worked wonders for the team, including Griffin, because he's The Man; the reason the Clippers are relevant again and quickly becoming the toast of Hollywood. 

It wasn't Griffin who came in and led the Clippers to a franchise-best 56 wins in 2012-13. Spearheading that campaign was Paul; Griffin was simply along for a ride.

Having never led a team on his own for a long period of time, Griffin cannot fully escape existing doubts. When he was the best player on the Clippers, he didn't have longevity or playoff berths to support his superstar status. Now that he's an established player, he doesn't have the personal identity to buttress his statistical reputation.

But Paul is gone—like actually gone—for the first time since he arrived with a shoulder injury:

In his absence, it becomes the next man up, the next star up. That star is Griffin, who has been both sheltered and dwarfed by Paul's presence for over two years, never once given the opportunity to bolster his own reputation by winning solo.


Now or Never

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 6: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers waits to be introduced before a game against the Orlando Magic at STAPLES Center on January 6, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
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Another opportunity like this isn't going to come along. Health permitting, the Clippers don't plan on having to battle through six weeks without Paul for the next half-decade, making this Griffin's one and only chance to show he's more than statistics and the product of fantastic point guard play.

So far, so good on that front.

Four games into life without Paul, the Clippers are 3-1, winning each of their last three contests by an average of 20.7 points. Leading the charge is Griffin, who is producing at god-like rates since Paul went down:

Griffin by the Numbers
Post-Paul Injury24.358.
Pre-Paul Injury22.

There's something to be said about that level of dominance. Plenty of things, actually. 

Griffin's rebounding and scoring prowess are well known, but in Paul's absence, he's helped facilitate and stepped up on defense.

More importantly, his numbers are accompanied by substance—wins.

Without Paul.

It's now or never for Griffin.
It's now or never for Griffin.Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports

Piloting the Clippers to three straight victories sans their best player is a good start, but it's only a start. None of those wins, however impressive, came against teams above .500. The one contest they waged against a winning outfit without Paul, against the San Antonio Spurs, they lost. Badly.

Bigger, more intimidating tilts are on the horizon. Bouts against the playoff-hopeful Dallas Mavericks, surging New York Knicks and physical Indiana Pacers follow each other in succession, before the Clippers play six mediocre-to-tank-tastic contingents.

It's during this stretch that Griffin can do his damage. That he can make the most compelling argument for universal validation yet.

Win against teams like the Pacers, Mavs and Knicks—without Paul—and he's added merit to his numbers and All-Star selections. Lose, and the world isn't over, nor is his quest. It will continue.

Paul's return isn't imminent, giving Griffin plenty of time to make the Clippers his own while devaluing the incivility that continues to dog him. Statements, however, are best made early and often, increasing the importance of forthcoming games above later ones.

"None of us can replace CP," Griffin said, per The Associated Press (via ESPN). "We need it from everybody."

Griffin needs this time, this Paul-less stretch for himself. For his reputation.

Battling on his own, for the first time in years, he has the chance to show everyone, both supporters and detractors, that his status as a genuine superstar and leader isn't up for debate. That he's more than he's often made out to be.

That he, Blake Griffin, is more than just along for Chris Paul's ride.



*Stats used courtesy Basketball-Reference and (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.


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