Blake Griffin or Joakim Noah: Who Deserves the NBA MVP Bronze Medal?

Fred KatzFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2014

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Blake Griffin and Joakim Noah's names haven't been present in the NBA's MVP race, but as the season comes to a close, they're finding themselves on the periphery of the discussion.

At this point, the MVP is a two-man sprint between Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That's become clear, but someone needs to finish behind them on the MVP ballot, and it has come down to Griffin and Noah.

Paul George inserted himself into the conversation early, but he has shot just under 40 percent from the field over his past 43 games. Kevin Love is putting up double-double after double-double, but his team is lingering around .500 with a seat outside of the Western Conference playoffs.

LaMarcus Aldridge hasn't maintained any sort of efficiency. Dirk Nowitzki and James Harden's defense exits them from the conversation altogether. And sorry, Anthony Davis, you're so close, but let's call you the Brooklyn Dodgers of the NBA. We'll wait 'til next year.

So we know the MVP will go to either James or Durant. But who comes in third?

At this point, Griffin leads Noah, and unfortunately for the Bulls center, there may not be much more he can do to become the deserving No. 3 MVP candidate by the end of the year.

 

The Background

This Clippers offense has been a strange phenomenon all season. It was expected to be elite coming into the year, just not in the way it's actually performed.

The Clippers were supposed to have shooters all over the court: Jamal Crawford, J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Willie Green, Chris Paul, Matt Barnes, Reggie Bullock. So many three-point shooters. Or at least, seemingly so many three-point shooters.

Expectations, though, haven't matched up with reality. In fact, the Clippers don't shoot the three ball well, and it's strange considering how we evaluated their personnel coming into the season.

L.A. is making just 35.4 percent of its three-point attempts, 19th in the NBA. Yet, the offense still ranks second in points per 100 possessions.

Jan 24, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) is defended by Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports
Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

That's pretty high considering the Clippers have been without Redick for 43 games and Paul for 19. Dudley has completely dropped from the rotation, while Barnes got hurt and struggled until the All-Star break.

But everything is working. The wheels are still turning every night. And in the end, there's one reason for that, one preseason variable for which we didn't account: Blake Griffin.

Noah, meanwhile, has been tremendous in his own right, especially of late. Since the new year, he's averaged 13.6 points, 12.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists. He's acted as the facilitator for an offense that desperately needs a distributor without Derrick Rose.

He's been the Bulls' everything.

The Chicago offense, though, hasn't been top-tier. Sure, it's run through Noah. Actually, at this point, Noah anchors the Bulls' scheme on both sides of the ball, but the problem is that he's not holding up the team at elite enough levels.

Chicago ranks second-to-last in points per 100 possessions this season. Even with Noah's hot streak since Jan. 1, the Bulls still rank in the bottom five in offensive efficiency. For Noah, the MVP argument would have to come on the defensive side of the ball.

 

Defense

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 24: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls guards Roy Hibbert #55 of the Indiana Pacers on March 24, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using t
Gary Dineen/Getty Images

No one here is trying to argue that Griffin can outdo Noah on the defensive side of the ball, even with his improved play this season. The race for Defensive Player of the Year is going to come down to two men: Noah and Roy Hibbert

Hibbert had the early-season storylines, but of late, he's started to feel Noah's breath on the back of his neck. Noah is something beyond just a defensive anchor, which is basically the role Hibbert plays for the Pacers. Chicago's center is arguably the most versatile defender in the NBA not named LeBron James.

Mar 28, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Portland Trail Blazers forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) shoots over Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah (13) during the first quarter at the United Center. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

How often does Noah find himself guarding bigger wings on the perimeter? How quick is he in recovering after showing hard on a pick-and-roll? His footwork is as tremendous as you'll see in the league.

It's hard for someone to develop any sort of signature style as a defender. The casual fan isn't always looking for the intricacies of a dominant defensive player. That's part of why it's so interesting that tapping your toe in and out of the paint, hanging around the rim and mastering "verticality" has become a Hibbert trademark.

Noah, though, has his own marks of defensive brilliance.

No one in the leaguesave for maybe Marc Gasol—can blow up the pick-and-roll quite like he can. There isn't anyone who deters shots like he does. And there are few centers who can switch onto LeBron and actually guard him effectively.

But that's Noah. He's led the Bulls to the No. 2 defense in the league. He's the ultimate communicator. The ultimate rebounder. 

Let's not completely brush off Griffin's improved defense. He's a reason the Clippers D has become more disciplined under Doc Rivers' tutelage.

He's has gotten better throughout the year and actually had one of his best-ever on-ball performances guarding Dirk Nowitzki on Thursday night, contesting so many shots and even blocking one of those patented, one-legged fadeaways. 

But Griffin's not Noah as a defender.

It's hard for a power forward who plays next to DeAndre Jordan to outperform someone who is the focal point of his defense. That's what Noah is for the Bulls, and it's part of why he's been one of the two best defensive players in the NBA this season.

Advantage: Noah

 

Scoring

NEW ORLEANS, LA - MARCH 26: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers goes up for the dunk against the New Orleans Pelicans during an NBA game on March 26, 2014 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknow
Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

Unfortunately for Noah, this one's not particularly close. Griffin has become one of the top-notch scorers in the league this season. 

Griffin currently sits sixth in the NBA in points per game at 24.3. And he's massively expanded his game over the course of the season. It all starts with shooting. His shot looks much better, and everything else trickles down from there.

Why is Griffin going to the free-throw line a career-high 8.4 times per 36 minutes? Because he's confident he'll make his attempts from the charity stripe. And he's doing that at a 70 percent clip.

Why is he so confident facing up defenders for the first time ever, aside from the fact that he specifically focused on improving that aspect of his game over the summer? Because he knows he can counter with a 16-foot jumper.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 17: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls watches from the bench as his teammates take on the Oklahoma City Thunder at the United Center on March 17, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Thunder defeated the Bulls 97-85. NOTE TO USER: User ex
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The jump shot is hardly the most essential part of Griffin's game, but it's allowed him to change to a more effective style. He is now making 2.2 mid-range shots per game, and he's sinking them at a 38.3 percent clip. The volume and accuracy is almost identical to that of Al Jefferson, one of the more skilled bigs in the NBA. 

And he's still as efficient as ever. His true shooting is a career-high 58.3 percent. Meanwhile, he leads the league in field-goal attempts in the restricted area and is shooting better than 70 percent from there.

Noah can put the ball in the hoop. He can hit his jumpers when he's open, but he isn't a volume scorer like Griffin is. 

Heck, Griffin just scored 20-plus points in 30 consecutive games. No, that number isn't everything, but over the course of that streak, he posted a 58.5 true shooting percentage. He's been unleashing an incredible volume of shots but still scoring as efficiently as ever.

That's part of how the Clippers have maintained their offensive dominance for stretches without Paul and Redick.

Griffin has been on fire. And the 27.5 points, 4.4 assists and 60.5 true shooting that he posted in a 12-6 stretch without Paul earlier this year only show how dominant he can be when the Clippers run their offense through him.

Blake Griffin Month-By-Month Scoring
MonthGamesPPGTS%
October221.060.1%
November1521.657.1%
December1621.956.5%
January1625.761.0%
February1130.059.3%
March1324.256.9%
Basketball-Reference

The Flyin' Lion isn't just about dunks anymore. Griffin has always had a decent post game, though it's looked worse than the results showed. Now, he's started to master the Tim Duncan bank shot. 

He'll face you up. He'll back you down. He has a stepback and doesn't hesitate nearly as much when he finds himself in catch-and-shoot situations inside the three-point line.

He's scored more than 20 points 42 times compared to Noah's 11. He's had over 30 13 times, while Noah hasn't even reached that total this year. As scorers, these guys aren't really comparable, but that's not Noah's game.

Noah is the most important offensive player on the Bulls at this point. There's no question about that, but as a scorer, Griffin has entered a category in the elite of the elite. 

There's Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and then who? He's on that second tier.

Advantage: Griffin

 

Offensive Intangibles 

Dec 18, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) looks to pass under pressure from New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday (11) and power forward Ryan Anderson (33) during the fourth quarter at Staples Cente
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

It's funny that Griffin may hold the advantage in this category because Noah has become one of the best passing centers the NBA has seen in quite some time.

Really, you can take your pick of who deserves the best-passing-big-in-the-NBA title. It's likely one of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Kevin Love, Noah or Griffin.

Someone on that line is the best distributor of any big man in the league. It's just hard to delineate which one it actually is on a night-to-night basis.

Noah is averaging those 6.3 assists per game since unleashing this hot streak after New Years. He's dishing out 7.4 dimes a night in the month of March. His average is up to 5.1 on the season. 

To give Noah's assist numbers some context, we have to go all the way back to the 2003-04 season. That's when Vlade Divac dished out 5.3 assists per game, the last time a center averaged more than 5.0 dimes in a single season. And before Divac, it hadn't been done since Sam Lacey in 1979-80.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 19: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls congradulates a teammate against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center on March 19, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

We don't see centers put up those sorts of passing numbers, but we also don't see centers in such a good position to do so, either.

The Bulls are in one of those weird situations in which they have so few playmakers that they have to run their entire offense through their center. Noah may be the best center in the league at pulling off that feat, but he's still just that. A center.

So the Bulls give him the ball at the top of the key and let him facilitate. It works best for the way Chicago wants to run its offense, but it still leaves the team with an attack well below league average. And that's not Noah's fault, but it also makes it hard to argue he deserves to hear his name called directly after James and Durant's on the MVP ballot.

Griffin, meanwhile, is a more versatile passer, and that comes from one of the most diverse skill sets in the NBA.

How many bigs can get a defensive rebound and go coast-to-coast, while constantly making good decisions on the break? We see someone like DeMarcus Cousins do that every once in a while, and it always makes some highlight.

Dec 4, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) passes the ball around Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26) in the first half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

But Griffin's doing it every night. Multiple times. And we're not batting an eye. Because at this point, it's just the norm. Griffin may have the best handle of any big man in the league, and that skill allows him to make passes Noah can't.

The Bulls put Noah in the high post and let him set up shooters. They'll let him find cutters. And he's as good at that as anyone in the league.

But Noah hasn't mastered a drive-and-kick quite like Griffin has. He doesn't pass out of the dribble as well as Griffin because he doesn't have the handle to pull it off consistently. And now, because he's such a threat to take defenders off the bounce, Griffin can open up passing lanes in a way other NBA bigs can't.

And let's not forget the way he ran the offense without Paul, consistently playing the role of facilitator. All of that puts Griffin just barely over the top.

Advantage: Griffin

 

So Who's Better?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 22: Blake Griffin #32 of the Los Angeles Clippers during a game against the Detroit Pistons at STAPLES Center on March 22, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

It's becoming harder and harder to call Griffin skill-less. He's so far beyond what he was as a rookie, when he was Mozgoving the NBA one center at a time.

All he does is dunk!

(And shoot and rebound and pass and facilitate and dribble and defend.)

But all he does is dunk!

There just isn't much truth to that anymore. 

In reality, Noah's skill set isn't all that different from Griffin's, but it's the way they use those abilities that separate them. Griffin is just such a superior athlete that he's able to pull off moves Noah can't. But that's fine, because pretty much no one else can, either.

Noah took his game to another level as the calendar switched to 2014, and he's deserved praise for carrying the Bulls to a 28-13 record since Jan. 1. But we can't simply ignore the first two months of the season.

Just like we have to discount Paul George's MVP candidacy because of his second half, shouldn't Noah's first half work against him? You know, those first 30 games when the Bulls were 12-18 and Noah wasn't playing at the level he is now? 

Noah is tremendously valuable, a great player in the midst of the best season of his career—a clear first-team All-NBA candidate. But there are just some things Griffin does that Noah can't.

Those plays in transition with or without the ball; Noah can't produce them. The volume and efficiency at the rim; Noah doesn't have the power, speed or leaping ability to create so many opportunities for himself.

The types of shots Griffin gets are such high-percentage looks that they help him become one of the most efficient players in the NBA. Add in everything elsethe passing, athleticism, rebounding, improved defenseand Noah's Defensive Player of the Year case doesn't close the gap enough to overtake the Clippers forward.

Blake Griffin has been the third-best player in the NBA during this season, and here's the scary part: He's only going to get better.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of March 28 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.