Blake Griffin’s ascension must force us to consider whether he can conquer Los Angeles as its top superstar.
Kobe Bryant currently sits atop that mountain with his five championships and countless heroic performances in pressure situations. He has repeatedly delivered on the biggest stage, which makes unseating him an incredibly tough task.
None of that will dissuade Griffin though. He ranks near the top players at his position, and the outlandish dunks certainly generate tons of excitement. Consequently, Griffin is one of the most entertaining players in the NBA. Also, he has taken over television with some of his commercials that came as a result of his success.
Griffin’s career initially appeared to be headed for the worst-case scenario when he broke his kneecap and missed the entire 2009-10 campaign mere months after being selected as the top pick in the 2009 draft. But Griffin returned the following season and took the league by storm.
He averaged double digits in points (22.5) and rebounds (12.1), but that was merely the tip of the iceberg. Griffin’s jaw-dropping athleticism incessantly amazed those who paid any semblance of attention to the Los Angeles Clippers.
Griffin was talented, and he also instilled fear into his opponents in a manner that brought back memories of Shawn Kemp. That made Griffin an attractive commodity in L.A., but he needed to do more in order to truly own the town.
The City of Angels loves big stars but it attaches itself to something with more gravitational pull: successful superstars.
Fair or not, Griffin’s candidacy will be measured by his ability to push a franchise synonymous with losing to heights it had never reached before while simultaneously slaying L.A.’s king. How has he fared on both fronts?
Clippers Challenge Status Quo
The Clippers stopped being doormats from the moment Griffin took the floor.
Consider this fun tidbit: The last time the Clippers posted a winning record while improving their win total in consecutive seasons stems back to the early 1970s.
Back then, the team known as the Buffalo Braves won 42 games in 1973-74. The ensuing season, the Braves improved to 49 wins, per Basketball-Reference.com.
The Clips would have to wait nearly 40 years to see this happen again with the arrival of Griffin. Los Angeles improved from 32-50 in 2010-11 to 40-26 (Chris Paul joined the franchise prior to the start of that season) during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season to 56-26 the following year. In addition, Hollinger’s Playoff Odds project the Clippers to finish this season with 59 wins, which would be a club record.
What's more, the franchise failed to win a division title in its first 42 seasons, but the Clippers claimed it last season and appear headed for a repeat.
The Clippers’ rise in the standings happens to coincide with Griffin’s arrival in Los Angeles.
Griffin's acrobatics certainly caught the attention of the masses, given the vicious nature with which he assaults the rim.
Still, it's Griffin’s skill that made him an intriguing building block.
Indeed, the Clippers acquired Paul via trade prior to the start of the 2011-12 campaign. They accomplished this by getting some added security, as Broderick Turner of the L.A. Times outlines:
The Clippers had been granted permission to talk Paul, and he informed them that he would pick up his option of $17.7 million for the 2012-13 season and might be interested in signing a contract extension after the trade, both people said.
Paul agreed to join the Clippers and sign on for the following season, presumably because of Griffin.
Last summer, Paul re-signed with Los Angeles and offered some insights on his teammate to Ramona Shelburne of ESPN Los Angeles:
Blake is one of those guys, where his age has nothing to do with anything. People may say he's a young guy, but he's been special in this league, he's been an All-Star. His voice carries a lot of weight and I think our team will definitely go as Blake goes.
Paul, who signed a five-year deal last offseason, is banking his entire prime on Griffin. In truth, it’s easy to see why.
Griffin has improved in every single season. He is dominating matchups in the low-post area and finding teammates with pinpoint passes.
Also, Griffin is quite likely the best ball-handling big man in the league, and his proficiency on mid-range jumpers continues to improve, per NBA.com.
The confidence in his all-around game prompted Griffin to challenge himself, as he told Shelburne: "But in my mind, this is the year I need to step into that role and really help him [Paul] shoulder that load. I'll be right there with him at the end of games, being the guy that he can always count on."
Griffin responded to the self-inflicted pressure by keeping the ship afloat when Paul was sidelined starting in mid-January because of a separated shoulder.
Interestingly enough, many simply observed Griffin’s dunks and thought he had nothing else to offer. Grantland’s Zach Lowe put those in that camp on blast: “As the Clippers continue to win without Paul, it becomes increasingly clear the ‘HE CAN ONLY DUNK!’ crowd simply does not watch Los Angeles Clippers basketball.”
Indeed, Griffin went on a tear during Paul's absence. Los Angeles won 12 of 17 contests without its starting point guard thanks in large part to Griffin’s heavy lifting.
He averaged 28 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists on 55.8 percent field-goal shooting per NBA.com. Griffin’s play provides evidence that he is the biggest NBA superstar in L.A. this season, with other notable stars flaming out a little (more on this later).
It’s worth noting that we are not looking for a one-year occurrence. Instead, it’s a matter of finding out whether Griffin can permanently morph into the face of basketball in Hollywood. The jury appears to still be out on this one.
Griffin’s regular-season success is certainly compelling, but acclaim is reserved for those who march through the postseason. The Clippers advanced to the second round in the 2012 playoffs, where the San Antonio Spurs shellacked them in four games.
The following year, Griffin struggled against the Memphis Grizzlies (13.2 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting) in the playoffs. Granted, he was limited in the final two contests to 32 minutes of total playing time due to an ankle injury.
That does not excuse the fact Griffin only averaged 6.3 rebounds in the games leading up to the ankle issue, per Basketball-Reference.
Griffin has climbed the stardom ladder and brought along the Clippers with him, but one cannot ignore some of his playoff shortcomings and their effects on Los Angeles’ fate.
Perhaps it’s greed, but we need a bit more from Griffin. He will have to play at a high level in the playoffs and lead the Clips to the Western Conference Finals (the franchise has never reached that round).
Taking Out Kobe Bryant
The quest to overtake Los Angeles unquestionably goes through Kobe Bryant.
Since Shaquille O’Neal left the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2004, Bryant has been the NBA king of L.A. He became the face of the Purple and Gold and dominated the opposition to the point where very few have a shot to replace him as L.A.’s biggest superstar.
Since O’Neal’s departure, Bryant has averaged 28.5 points, per Basketball-Reference. His consistent regular-season production is certainly impressive, but Bryant took it a step further in the playoffs.
Over that same time period, he produced 29.2 points in 101 postseason contests on his way to three appearances in the NBA Finals (he was victorious in two of them).
Bryant is the most successful active NBA superstar playing in Los Angeles, which makes him the biggest name in L.A basketball. The sustained success might have been a strong reason to believe Bryant would remain the city’s biggest superstar until his eventual retirement.
However, Bryant’s lost season (he only appeared in six games) coupled with a looming rebuild for the Lakers are enough to give a slight opening to Griffin.
The future Hall of Fame 2-guard will be 36 years old by the time next season starts, and there’s a chance Bryant will still be hobbled due to the Achilles tear suffered last season and the knee he fractured in mid-December.
These factors will give Griffin the ideal set of circumstances to move past Bryant as the unquestionable top basketball athlete in the city. However, Griffin has work to do before he can surpass Bryant.
Griffin will have to put in the work necessary to improve his game and take the Clippers further than they have ever been in the playoffs. The road is a difficult one, but that’s the path ahead when one is attempting to surpass the standard set by Bryant.
Griffin appears to understand the dynamics at play, which is why he uses Bryant as a case study of sorts, per Robert Morales of the Long Beach Press-Telegram (h/t Los Angeles Daily News):
Work ethic has always been a big part of what I do. I’m a firm believer, the more work you put in, the more you get out. You know, I love hearing stories about the Kobe’s and the LeBron’s and back in the day, Michael Jordan, how they work and how sometimes they’re a little different about it. That’s what makes them unique.
Griffin’s refusal to rest on his laurels suggests that he will become “the man” of Los Angeles. It’s merely a matter of time. The Clippers have their franchise player, and he seems poised to become the new king of L.A.
Some might want to include Chris Paul into the discussion, but the fact that he has missed 37 games since joining the Clippers removes some of his luster. Both the Clippers and the city of L.A. have been able to rely on Griffin in a way that they have not been able to with Paul because of his various health concerns.
Keep in mind, Paul will be 29 years old by the time next season starts, which means he is currently in his prime. He only has a few great seasons left.
An argument could be made that Bryant can no longer be counted on as well, thanks to a body that appears to be betraying him.
Griffin will still be 25 years of age by next training camp, and he is already the most dominant player in Los Angeles by virtue of his skill and durability. All he’s missing is the breakout postseason combined with the Clippers' successful playoff run.
That time is coming, and it will likely be next season.