This season Blake Griffin has emerged as an equal counterweight to balance Chris Paul on this Clippers team. What’s curiouser is that this role ascension has transpired organically, without a hint of drama.
When Paul suffered a strained shoulder on January 3rd, Clipper Nation openly pondered: could Griffin step into the void? Blake answered with definitive affirmation, improving his production substantially while leading the team to 12 wins in the 18 games Paul missed. But a new worry materialized: How would the team function when Paul returned? Would Blake willingly step back? Would his production revert? Would there be and Kobe/Shaq style struggle for alpha dog status? Those were the prevailing anxieties; the thought that CP3 could loosen his control on a team felt completely out of character for anyone remotely familiar with the court-general’s history and demeanor. Yet, that is exactly what has happened.
One anecdote does not a trend make, but a few games ago versus Atlanta, Paul had in fact acceded to Griffin being at least the co-lead in this affair:
A seemingly innocuous play, but Chris Paul deferred to Blake Griffin to set up an offensive possession. Even if this was simply a piece of improvisational opportunism by Paul, it is emblematic of larger trend. Simply put, since Paul’s return, the Clippers are running more offense through Griffin (all stats through games of March 28, 2014):
While Paul was sidelined, Griffin unsurprisingly took on a larger share of the offensive load, upping his shot attempts, free throws and assists (as well as scoring) substantially. Interestingly, since Paul’s return, Blake’s overall load has dropped only slightly (the increase in field goals since Paul’s return are more or less offset by the drop in free throw attempts). In fact, despite the Clippers spending much of that time in a dual point guard by necessity lineups of Paul and Darren Collison, Blake’s assists have held steady.
This increased role in initiating the offense has come in many subtle forms. The most apparent (and least subtle) is Griffin’s increasing comfort with grabbing a defensive rebound and leading a fast break.
For instance, in this play, Blake snares a defensive rebound and despite being flanked by both Paul and Collison…
Griffin doesn’t hesitate to lead the break himself…
…before finding Matt Barnes for a wide open corner 3.
Even in semi-transition or half-court possessions, the Clippers are using Griffin’s passing skills from the top of the floor and at the elbows to great effect in early offense. For example, here Blake as the trailer in a secondary break:
…or here popping to the top of the key from a horns formation:
Moving beyond box score numbers and individual plays and combing through some SportVU tracking data — time of possession, passes and points created via assist — it is even more clear that Blake has taken on a much larger role in initiating and running the offense even with Paul back in the lineup.
Since Paul’s return, Griffin’s average time of possession of 2.5 minutes per game would be the highest of any interior player in the league, just ahead of Kevin Love. Paul’s assist chances have dropped by two per game, while Blake has added nearly three potential assists per game to his early season rate. And with this increased playmaking, Blake is creating just under 3.5 more points per game via assist since Paul’s return than during the early part of the season.
By measuring the percentage of Clipper possessions in which either player was credited with an assist chance, “hockey assist” or assist leading directly to one or more made free throws, we can see that, prior to injury, Paul was providing this key pass on 33.4 percent of Clippers possessions for which he was on the floor (the league leader to that point in a metric I have termed “Assist Usage”). At the time, Griffin was providing this pass on 9.8 percent of possessions, an above average rate for a big, but still behind frontcourt players who were the true central cog of their team’s offense such as Kevin Love, Joakim Noah and Al Horford, and even some secondary options like Nene or David West.
Since Paul’s return, his “Assist Usage” rate is down to 30.0 percent whereas Blake’s involvement has increased by nearly half, providing key passes on 14.2 percent of Clippers possessions. This rate would rank second among all NBA bigs over the full season, trailing only Charlotte’s Josh McRoberts.
The Clippers may have been forced into a dual-point guard lineup due to injuries, but Blake Griffin is sharing the burden of facilitating with Chris Paul now more than ever.