The Clippers are Doc Rivers. They are DeAndre Jordan. They are still Paul.
More importantly, they are Blake Griffin.
Amid the best season of his NBA career, Griffin has morphed into so much more than highlight reels and provocative stat lines. Elevating his status as a leader has transformed the Clippers.
Retaining Paul preserved their foundation. Hiring Rivers expedited a complete culture change. Jordan's ascension has deepened their frontcourt and increased late-game stability.
However, it's Griffin's transformation that has pushed these Clippers over the top, leaving them among the elite and within reach of an NBA championship.
Something Griffin has never failed to do is abuse box scores.
Even when he was routinely being coined one of the NBA's most overrated and one-dimensional talents, no stat line was safe. While he's steadily distanced himself from jarring accusations, the roots of his game haven't changed. He's still a numerical juggernaut.
Griffin is averaging a career-high 24.4 points to go along with 9.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 steals per game. There isn't another player in the NBA currently duplicating his per-game averages.
The last player to actually maintain per-game benchmarks of 24 points, nine rebounds, 3.5 assists and one steal was Kevin Garnett in 2003-04. Only five players overall have reached this milestone in the last 20 years.
If Griffin's numbers hold, he will join Garnett, Hakeem Olajuwon, Chris Webber, David Robinson and Karl Malone as the only six players since 1993-94 to produce such numbers. That's some pretty good company: three Hall of Famers (Robinson, Olajuwon and Malone) and one inevitable Hall of Famer (Garnett).
This is the kind of season Griffin is having—the kind of season that's put him in the company of all-time greats and paved the way for what's coming next.
What has truly been the biggest knock on Griffin?
A once-restricted offensive game? Nope.
His defense? Closer.
His legitimacy as a franchise cornerstone? Bingo, bango, bongo.
The playoffs weren't an option before Paul came to town. It was only then that the Clippers became relevant, opening Griffin up to even more criticism as the byproduct of top-flight point guard play.
Bringing in Rivers actually put him at further risk. There existed the distinct possibility that he would be overshadowed by two men, a player and coach, more powerful and valuable than himself.
But that hasn't happened.
Paul missed 18 consecutive games nursing a shoulder injury, setting the stage for disaster in the brutal Western Conference, where the Clippers stood to be swallowed whole.
Fortunately, they weren't. Fortunately, they went 12-6 in his absence. Fortunately, they had Griffin to not only keep them afloat, but near the top.
Being forced to plow on without the league's best point guard was actually a blessing in disguise for the Clippers. It allowed Griffin to establish an identity outside of Paul and even Rivers. During that time, he was no longer the beneficiary of circumstance. The circumstances were less than ideal. Actually, let's just call them what they were: crappy.
At least, that's what they should have been. When MVP candidates are relegated to the bench, treading water becomes difficult, nigh impossible.
Borne out of the unfortunate, though, was a second MVP candidate sporting the Clippers' red and white.
|Clippers Off. Rtg. in 18 Games Without Paul||Clippers Def. Rtg. in 18 Games Without Paul||Net Rtg.|
Through those 18 games without Paul, Griffin scored, rebounded and passed his way to prominence, distinctly razing any residual doubts about his superstardom. Without Paul, he shined and the Clippers dazzled.
|MPG||PTS||FG%||REBS||ASTS||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.|
|18 Games Without Paul||35.6||27.5||55.4||8.2||4.4||1.4||113.3||8.2|
To be sure, they weren't better without Paul. However, they were good—good enough to remain in the Western Conference's top-four conversation because of Griffin. He kept them relevant. Paul makes them great.
Because of that stint without Paul, Griffin's breakout season has come full circle.
There is satisfaction to be found there, near the top, where only the most dignified superstars reside—where Griffin himself now dwells.
Not many teams can say they have two superstars with as much talent as Paul and Griffin.
Paul's contributions and leadership are assumed. He's ubiquitous to the MVP conversation. And now, as ESPN.com's J.A. Adande writes, so is Griffin:
He showed that you can run the offense through him, or that he can initiate the offense himself by bringing the ball upcourt. He can get key buckets in the fourth quarter. Of late, his greatest quality has been his consistency. This was Griffin's 23rd consecutive game with at least 20 points, the second-longest streak in the NBA this season behind Durant's 36-and-counting.
Griffin is erasing the doubts I had about his ability to fulfill the true test of a superstar: to single-handedly lead his team to a playoff victory. That's a challenge to be met once the postseason begins. The Most Valuable Player is a reward for regular-season accomplishment. If Griffin gets his team to the top of the heap, that would be an accomplishment worth an award.
Somewhat obviously, Griffin isn't going to win MVP. James and Durant have already staked their territory. It's a two-man race. Nothing Griffin, Paul, Joakim Noah or anyone else does is going to prove otherwise.
But what team in the NBA can say it houses two potential MVP candidates? One? Two? Zero?
Even the most star-studded teams are heavily reliant on one player. Dwyane Wade couldn't necessarily carry the Miami Heat in James' extended absence. Russell Westbrook isn't guaranteed to lead the Oklahoma City Thunder into the playoffs without Durant.
Has Blake Griffin pushed the Clippers over the top?
Griffin's emergence as someone more than an empty-stat hoarder separates the Clippers from just about everyone. They're unique, reaping the benefits of fortunes-turning star power that extends beyond one player.
"He just works on his game and he's getting the payment," Rivers told Adande. "He's putting in a lot of deposits, and now he's getting some cash back."
So are the Clippers.
What they have now, more so than before, is something special. Something dominant and dangerous.
What they have is something worthy of a championship, anchored by Griffin, the star who now stands alongside Paul rather than behind him.