Outside of perhaps LeBron James, no one had a more fascinating or paradoxical 2012 season than you.
You were indisputably excellent. You started your first All-Star Game, and essentially matched your impressive rookie numbers (21 points, 11 rebounds per game) on fewer shots with a better PER. Despite a lingering reputation for fragility, and a jarring style more suited to Rollerball, you played every game of the brutally compressed season.
And yet, was anyone more maligned? Your skills, effort, attitude and approach were all called into question. On-court accomplishments notwithstanding, your name was frequently featured (and often highly ranked) on season-end lists of the league’s “Most Disappointing” or “Most Overrated” players. Fans in opposing areas cheered loudly for your biggest dunks and louder for your hardest drawn fouls. You became a villain.
This must have been confusing. Here are three books that I think might make things a little simpler again going forward: respectively, an explination, a suggestion, and a plea.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day – Judith Viorst
It’s clear from jump street that Alexander is having a tough day. He falls asleep with gum in his mouth and wakes up with gum in his hair. At breakfast, brother Anthony finds a toy car in his cereal – Alexander just finds cereal. At school, his teacher prefers Paul’s drawing of the sailboat to his drawing of an invisible castle. At the shoe store, Alexander is forced to buy white shoes without stripes. He threatens to move Australia, but no one takes him seriously because, well, Alexander is a 5 year-old child. Sometimes bad days just happen.
Here’s the weird irony that no one talks about – no one contributed more to your difficulties this season than Chris Paul. As a rookie, you had the league’s easiest mandate: be spectacular. You dunked on people and we adored you for it. You brought life and hope to a moribund franchise. You played hard every night. Milph touted your work ethic. You became to youtube what Tila Tequila was to MySpace.
Then the Chris Paul trade happened. His arrival came with expectations and a ticking clock. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to be a thrilling sideshow on a perennial loser. Now, you had to be the second best player on a championship contender. Not only that, you had to play well enough before Free Agency 2013 to persuade Paul to sign in Los Angeles long-term. Seemingly overnight, no one was talking about how great you were, they were talking about all the ways your game didn’t suit CP3’s as well as David West’s.
Last year, many fans were too wrapped up in your Kia-leaping to notice some pretty obvious flaws in your game (shaky mid-range shot, free-throw shooting, sporadic defensive effort). This year, the incessant talk about those same shortcomings obscured both an excellent season and real signs of progress.
Objectively, your sophomore season was (incrementally) better than your rookie. No matter what the critics said, you did begin to showcase a more complex post game. Your midrange shot became smoother and more confident, particularly after the All-Star Game when you shot better than 40% from 16-ft and beyond. Your passing out of the double-team became a real weapon. There was progress – it was just subsumed in larger stories and unrealistic expectations.
Not just that, but Chris Paul turned out to be a media-charming cyborg, who answers every question by talking about either a. how competitive he is, or, b. how he accepts all responsibility for the loss in question or c. his son. You just can’t beat that! Somehow in his glow, you began to look ordinary. Alexander might have enjoyed his all-white shoes if his brother didn’t get to buy the ones with the blue stripes.
White Boy Shuffle – Paul Beatty
I know. Paul Beatty’s debut novel – and straight 90’s masterpiece – has already been an infamously rejected gift, back when the Zen Master tried to force it on Kobe Bryant. But the catch is that Kobe rejected the book – which follows budding black poet and baller Gunnar Kaufman’s quixotic journey from Santa Monica skater to East Los Angeles baller/cult-leader – because he believed that Phil was making a comment on his [Kobe’s] authenticity, perhaps on his “blackness.”
But that’s not really the point of the book, or, I suspect, the point Phil Jackson had in mind. Mostly, the book is concerned with Gunnar’s attempts to reconcile his athletic prowess and an ironic, poetic, and curious mind.
This sounds weird to say, but I think you struggled this season with persona. On one hand, you’re clearly likeable and want to be liked. You’re an engaging and funny pitchman.You interned at Will Ferrel’s Funny or Die. You were quick and creative enough to coin “Lob City” extemporaneously. On the other hand, you’re kind of a bastard’s bastard on the court. You mean-mug, flop, whine, stare-down, cheap-foul, and act generally unlikable. And, perhaps weirdest of all, we don’t get either guy in interviews or post-games, settling instead for your patented lobotomized monotone.
Here’s my (and The White Boy Shuffle’s) suggestion: Embrace your not-so-inner heel. I think Beckley Mason was the first to use the wrestling metaphor, but it caught on and quickly became almost a Conventional Wisdom talking point. Blake Griffin’s a WWE-style heel! Look at his head snap back! Watch him plead with the referee while Mo Williams sneaks up with his folding chair!
You know what? Heels are part of the plan. Take the heels away from 80s wrestling and all you’re left with is a bunch of sweaty guys grappling in red, white, and blue Speedos. Moreover, heels are born, not made. The Iron Sheik and the Undertaker are probably awesome dudes, but one was Iranian during the Cold War, and the other was a 7-foot giant with hollowed-out eyes. I’m sure Vince McMahon didn’t lose much sleep figuring out where they fit into wrestling’s soap-opera.
You’re a villain. You humiliate guys. You put them on posters. On your best dunks you lead with your crotch and your forearm. You block dead-ball shots to keep your opponents from seeing the ball go through the net. You insist on holding and squeezing the ball before the opening-tip, in an obviously propriety, almost bullying, gesture. You can’t keep the jams and hold the ‘tude. Your game is elemental and can’t be reduced, parsed, rearranged, or reassembled in a more palatable form. So why try?
There’s one real caveat to this. There’s a fine line between a great heel like Kevin Garnett and a yappy annoyance. Kevin Garnett’s pride is the source of his heelitude. And that pride shows itself on both ends of the court – blocking a shot gives him as much pleasure as making one. If you’re gonna be bad, BE BAD. Get in people’s faces. Let them know you have no use for their team or their game. But you have to do it on defense too.
Harry Potter/Chronicles of Pyradin/Every Coming of Age Fantasy Epic Ever
Last year, this was your team. You led fiery mid-game huddles with your teammates. You were the definitive locker room quote. After beating the Heat, you told us that teams couldn’t “come into our house and punk us.” Not anymore. That was stirring stuff. It meant something to us as fans.
This year, you deferred to Chris Paul in those areas. You seemed more distant this year sometimes sullen. And, while this is hard to measure, it seemed to take its toll on team chemistry. When you took hard foul after hard foul, no one leapt to your defense. Given a chance to get your back in the press, your teammates were tepid at best. When asked about knocking someone to the floor on your behalf, Reggie Evans said “Blake’s a big boy. He should know how to defend himself out there.” That’s hardly the Ubuntu magic.
Let’s get truthy – I’m a Blake Griffin fan. My email password and ATM code both end in ‘32.’ I’ll always remember sitting in the same section with Clipper fan and erstwhile national-campaign commercial specialist Chris Wylde last October during your first NBA game. When Supervillain Andre Miller knocked you to the floor, Wylde leapt to his feet and screamed “Don’t you touch our baby!”
We all felt that way then. You were a blank slate for Clipper fans to dream on. But those days have passed – perhaps with regrettable speed, but definitely for good.
If you’ve ever read Harry Potter, or the Lord of the Rings, or The High King, or The Black Cauldron or (I could go on) ANY COMING OF AGE ADVENTURE BOOK EVER then you’re familiar with this point in the story. In the beginning there’s just a pretty normal kid with some unusual talents. He showcases those talents and impresses everyone. But then there’s a reveal – those talents aren’t just an end unto themselves it turns out. No, they have to put to use, usually to save the world or win an NBA championship.
Inevitably, Harry/Belgarion/Frodo don’t initially love the idea. This isn’t fair! I just want to be a normal kid! WHY ME? And, just as inevitably, their Dumbledore tells them: Because. Because it is you. Because life isn’t fair, it just is. So get used to the idea and man up.
It’s your time, Blake. This team’s opportunities to improve through free agency and the draft are limited. The core for the next few seasons is essentially set. There is no single thing that would improve this team as much as a commitment from you to lead it. That means playing defense on every play. It means an end to your incessant ref whining, particularly when it stops you from getting back into the play. It means a renewed effort to create relationships with teammates, media, and fans.
Yes, this is asking a lot. Yes, other big men in the league don’t have to deal with such scrutiny. Why you? Because life isn’t fair. Because not everyone has your talent or your opportunities. Because it’s time to grow up.