Blake Griffin, as ranked by ESPN’s expert NBA panel, is the 10th best player in the NBA. Or, to be more detailed, the panel ranked every NBA player from 1-10 and Blake happened to shake out with the 10th best score.
Needless to say, this high rating was not agreed upon by all. There are Blake doubters out there, gang (at least to the point that they don’t buy him as one of the 10 best players in the NBA). You can guess the arguments — poor defense, limited offense, the fact that he’s on the Clippers and they weren’t a particularly good team last season.
As a matter of fact, you see all of those arguments in the discussion of Blake’s ranking here (with John Krolik as the main naysayer). And they aren’t untruths (except for maybe an exaggeration of Blake’s poor defense). Blake doesn’t have the offensive repertoire of Amar’e or Pau, he doesn’t rebound like Kevin Love, and he doesn’t guard like Garnett. But he does a lot of good things on the court (as you may have heard), and none other than Kevin Arnovitz talks about why they add up to make Blake’s high ranking among the ESPN experts completely deserved.
Let’s take a look at some key points from Kevin’s piece:
He dazzled opponents with his theatrics, made the Clippers compulsory late-night viewing and routinely and immediately trended on Twitter when he delivered a slam. Only a select group of NBA stars can move the needle on an ordinary January night in the NBA, and Griffin’s thunderous dunks ushered him into that club as fast as any rookie in NBA history.
Undeniable. When it comes to star power, Blake passes the test. That can’t just be discounted when thinking about a player. There’s a romantic element to sport, and in part it’s brought on by the guys who have the ability to take “Just Another Mid-Season Game” and turn it into something that can help us leave the bounds of our usual perception on sport and let a wave of emotion be brought on for reasons hard to explain or understand. You probably get it during a huge, cathartic sports moment, like when an old veteran finally gets his ring the year he was going to retire. Or I do, at least. Every single season the end of each playoff series makes me emotional. Not to the point of tears, per se, but a very strange mix of emotion is created. And that’s because I see it as the end of one team’s journey (and at the end of the Finals, 2 teams’ journeys). But to get back to the point, I can also get a similar feeling to that playoff catharsis during a big performance in the middle of the season. Or even one play that seems to capture a single man’s massive effort to achieve a goal. It’s beautiful stuff, and I can’t tell you more about it than your own personal experiences can. The point is that Blake Griffin is one of the guys that can produce those certain beautiful moments at any time on the basketball court. It’s wonderful.
But you can’t quantify emotions. And these NBA rankings weren’t about a guy being dazzling, or creating a moment of beauty through basketball. It was about a player’s current ability. And Blake likely benefited in the NBA rankings (as it has been argued) from both his thrilling style as well as the fact that he has the “and he’s getting better” angle…in addition to his totally quantifiable and nigh-undeniable results on the court.
Looking at our most reliable statistical data, Griffin ranks 15th in player efficiency rating (PER) at 21.93 — ahead of Melo, but behind both Pau and Amare.
In value added, the estimated number of points a player adds to a team’s season total above a replacement player (essentially a 12th man), Griffin ranked 11th, as he did in estimated wins added, the estimated number of wins a player adds to a team’s season total above that 12th man. In both those categories, Griffin ranked ahead of Stoudemire and Anthony.
These might seem like obscure stats, but they’re among our best approximations of a player’s value. And they take durability into account. Griffin played 82 games last season, an impressive feat considering the kind of injury he sustained the previous season.
If you want some less abstract statistics, Griffin performs well across the board. Among power forwards who started more than 50 games, Griffin’s rebounding rate of 18.6 ranked fourth in that category, while his assist rate of 14.1 ranked sixth.
Critics will argue that Griffin’s counterparts bring a more complete suite of tools to the court, but that’s not the exercise here. We’re engaged in the old skills versus production debate. Griffin might not be any better than Gasol, Stoudemire or Anthony at their best, by overall measure, Griffin’s contributions are enormous — no matter how he’s generating his shots.
So we know that Griffin’s numbers generally back-up this arbitrary ranking I’ve been discussing. But I say “generally” instead of “totally” for one key reason — Pau Gasol.
When I first started considering Blake’s ranking, I waffled from something like, “Yeah, he’s right there with other excellent offensive players who have considerable defensive flaws,” to, “I think if we were going off current skill (which we are), I’d rather have Pau, Amar’e, and Melo over Blake.” But I now realize that it likely wouldn’t be smart to take Melo and Amar’e over Blake. His defense is more solid and he rebounds very well (something Amar’e obviously doesn’t do). But Pau remains. He’s simply more efficient than Blake looking at the measures we like to use (several that Kevin mentioned in his post, as well). Pau is superior in true shooting percentage, PER, and Value Added. Blake is a better rebounder, but he doesn’t overpower Pau in that category in such a way to overtake him in advanced metrics. If you want to talk about defense, Pau is better than Blake there as well. Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Points Per Possession, whatever you like. It’s also pretty obvious when watching that games that Pau plays better defense. Blake doesn’t have a great nose for the rotations yet (be it weakside or pick-and-roll play), while Pau was in a very strong defensive system and also has far more experience than Blake playing team defense in the NBA. Individually (isolation, post-ups), Blake was excellent. It’s in the more team-oriented areas of defense that he struggled/will likely continue to struggle.
Now, this isn’t to say that I think advanced metrics are perfect for judging players when comparing them. Pau wasn’t asked to do as much as Blake for the Lakers. The Lakers didn’t have to deal with an injury to their other talented offensive option. The Lakers didn’t have to deal with giving lots of minutes to inexperienced players. The Lakers had the benefit of a Hall of Fame coach. But those are facts of life in the NBA. Looking at the numbers from last season, at face value, Blake likely didn’t deserve to be ranked in the top-10 among all NBA players. But he did deserve to be pretty close, so we aren’t looking at a ridiculous overrating.
But really, this arbitrary ranking stuff from the off-season isn’t a big deal either way. It was based on relatively vague guidelines with a relatively vague “scoring” system. It works to create conversations about players and about the performances they gave us over the course of last season. It doesn’t particularly work if you’re looking for in-depth, mostly-objective analysis about the best players in the NBA. But I think we all need a distraction from the fact that there isn’t any guarantee of NBA basketball this season, so here we are.
1. For basketball fans, Blake Griffin can produce rare beauty. It’s such a good thing for everyone.
2. Blake Griffin likely is not, objectively speaking and according to our best understanding of player value, the 10th best player in the NBA. But it isn’t totally crazy to have him rated among the best, despite his weakenesses.
3. We all need little distractions to keep our minds away from the sadness in our lives. This was one of those little distractions, and little more than that.