Blake Griffin's Improvement Will End NBA's Best Power Forward Debate

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 10, 2014

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Blake Griffin is thinning the pool of candidates in the NBA's best power forward debate one silky smooth jump shot at a time.

Last season, the 25-year-old nearly closed the conversation by flashing improvements in his back-to-the-basket offense, distributing and free-throw shooting. At the very least, he bullied his way near the front of that discussion.

This year, he needed all of one preseason outing to show how close that argument is to its death bed. In 26 minutes of action, he tallied 24 points, 12 rebounds, three assists and two steals.

And those weren't even the numbers that mesmerized NBA junkies. Rather, the figure that had the entire basketball world drooling was six—as in six consecutive jumpers made (including a corner three) to start his night.

The walking highlight reel did his best impression of an instructional DVD's shooting coach, and boy, was it convincing.

Griffin, sounding as cool as if he was doing another GQ interview, chalked up his shooting success to his offseason work and the added trust to pull the trigger it created.

"It's just the confidence, really," Griffin said, per Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times. "When I'm open, I'm going to shoot it because you just feel like it's going in."

It's more than just confidence, of course. SB Nation's Mike Prada provided a breakdown of the subtle changes in Griffin's shooting form, including setting his feet before receiving the pass and speeding up—but not rushing—his delivery.

Obviously, major mechanical adjustments don't happen overnight, or even over a single summer. Contrary to misguided popular belief, Griffin's shooting display was not a sign of him fast-tracking the process.

He has been working on his shooting form for a while now, and the stat sheets support that fact. As a rookie in 2010-11, he converted just 32.0 percent of his attempts from between 10 feet of the basket and the three-point line. Last season, he drilled a career-best 38.4 percent of those looks.

To help put those conversion rates into perspective, four-time MVP LeBron James was a 38.5 percent mid-range shooter last season. Detroit Pistons space-sapping big man Greg Monroe hit 31.9 percent of his shots from the same distance.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

What makes Griffin's rising comfort level as a trigger man so terrifying for the rest of the league is that this won't replace the weapons in his offensive arsenal, but rather it will serve to complement them.

"He's still just as explosive, he can still put the ball on the floor and finish over anyone," wrote NBC Sports' Kurt Helin. "It's just that now if you lay back to take away the drive he'll make you pay with the jumper."

Further quelling the fear that Griffin may become a little too jump-shot happy is the fact that the Los Angeles Clippers have no intention of limiting any of his offensive strengths. They still plan to lean heavily on his work in the low post, his explosiveness out of the pick-and-roll and his court vision.

This just adds a new layer to what was already the league's most efficient offense last season.

"It gives us a great dimension," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, per Bolch. "If he can do both of those things, post and take jump shots like he's doing, just the spacing alone that he creates is good for us."

It is not, however, good for the players hoping to compete with Griffin for the claim of being the game's top power forward.

Then again, neither was his 2013-14 campaign. His numbers were so good last season—personal bests in points (24.1), assists (3.9), true shooting percentage (58.3) and player efficiency rating (23.9)—there may have been a worry that his production had reached its peak.

Scarier still is that even if it had, it still made a compelling case for him being the top player at his position.

By-the-Numbers Look at the NBA's Best PFs From 2013-14
LaMarcus Aldridge23.211.12.645.821.87.5
Anthony Davis20.810.01.651.926.510.4
Blake Griffin24.19.53.952.823.912.2
Kevin Love26.112.54.445.726.914.3
Dirk Nowitzki21.76.22.749.723.610.9

To simplify the above table, Griffin ranks among the top two of those players in four of the six categories listed. And his weakest area (rebounding, where he ranks fourth) looks worse than it actually was, considering he was sharing the floor with DeAndre Jordan, who led the entire league with 13.6 boards a night.

LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the popular picks in this debate, had the lowest average ranking of the five players listed (3.8). He belongs in the conversation, but at 29 years old, he could struggle to do any better than that.

Behind Aldridge sits Dirk Nowitzki (3.7), who remains an impact player despite feeling the tightening grip of Father Time. After turning 36 in June, however, the sweet-shooting forward is desperately clinging to his spot among the elites and is not in a real position to climb any higher.

Anthony Davis, dubbed the NBA's "next in line" by reigning MVP Kevin Durant over the summer, per NBA.com's Jim Eichenhofer, checks in third with an average ranking of 3.5. Davis' meteoric rise is coming soon like Durant proclaimed, but the 21-year-old finds himself just on the outside looking in.

That leaves only Griffin and Kevin Love still standing, who just so happened to occupy the top two spots in Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal's power forward rankings from last season. While Love held a slightly higher statistical ranking here (1.7), Fromal still gave Griffin the nod.

"Griffin showcased some incredible improvement on both ends of the ball, allowing him to complete the transition from dunking machine to all-around superstar," Fromal wrote. "His post moves and jumper gave new elements to his offensive game, and he was no longer a liability on the other end of the court."

The NBA MVP voters apparently agreed with that assessment. They gave Griffin the most votes of anyone not named James or Durant. For the record, Aldridge finished 10th, Love checked in one spot behind him and Nowitzki was slotted at No. 14. Davis did not receive any votes for the award.

And remember, all of this pertains to last season's performance—before Love sacrificed his numbers in order to join James, Kyrie Irving and the championship hopeful Cleveland Cavaliers.

INDEPENDENCE, OH - SEPTEMBER 26:  Kevin Love #0, Kyrie Irving #2 and LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers poses for a photo during media day on September 26, 2014 at the Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence, Ohio.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly a
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In other words, Griffin gunning from distance like a pop-a-shot pro did not push him to the front of this race. His competition has been gasping for air behind him for a while now.

What his constantly expanding game does, however, is widen the gap between him and his peers. It raises the ceiling of an already established superstar and boggles the mind when thinking about the type of player he could become.

"With a developed mid-range jump shot and the way he is currently playing," HoopsHype's David Nurse wrote of Griffin in March, "comparing him to Karl Malone is not a stretch at all."

The holes in Griffin's game are getting harder to find by the second. He is an elite passing big man, a superb scorer, arguably the league's best above-the-rim finisher and quite possibly now a threat from anywhere on the floor.

If his shooting holds up—and remember, it was already on the rise last season—the case of the NBA's best power forward should be closed. At least until Davis is ready to re-open it.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.