NBA Sunday: Can Blake Griffin Get Better?
Has Blake Griffin Gotten Any Better?
Last season, Kevin Love’s third out of college, the Minnesota Timerwolves power forward won the league’s Most Improved Player award, and there are some who have questioned, rather seriously, if he shouldn’t get a fair number of votes for that award this season, as well.
That won’t happen, of course, but the rapid improvement of what has to be considered the best all-around power forward in the league looks strange compared to the very different development of a kid in Blake Griffin who came into the league guns blazing. It’s hard for Griffin to show the same kind of growth we’ve seen in Love when he was already so good in the first place.
Still, despite the fact that there’s no questioning Griffin as the single most exciting player in the NBA, the question of whether or not he’s actually improving is a fair one. His numbers, for one thing, have dropped this season; in 2010-2011 he averaged 22.5 ppg and 12.1 rpg, and this season he’s at 20.9 ppg and 10.9 rpg. His free-throw percentage has dropped 11 percentage points to 53%, his defense still leaves a lot to be desired, and he still hasn’t been able to add a spot-up jumper to his game.
These are obviously concerns since those were three of Griffin’s most glaring weaknesses last season, but on the other hand, his PER is up from 21.9 to 22.9, and he’s certainly been more consistent this year than he was a year ago. His field goal percentage has improved, and his Points Per Possession in transition and off the pick and roll are some of the best in the NBA. He’s added muscle, gotten a little less reckless, and of course proven on an everyday basis that he’s the most freakish athlete we’ve seen in this league since Vince Carter.
So why are so many people calling Love the best power forward in the league right now instead of Blake? Why is Love lauded for his improvement while Griffin is the object of so much speculation and criticism?
It’s two things really—Love has a wider range of skills and is being asked to lead a team, while Griffin came into the league so NBA-ready in the first place that it’s just impossible to make those Love-like leaps from year to year.
When it comes down to it, are there many players more physically intimidating in this league than Blake Griffin? If Griffin were asked to have the ball in his hands as much as Minnesota gives Love the rock, would the conversation be any different?
We have to remember that this is only the second full season for Griffin, and it’s been a weird, contracted season at that. Chris Paul has helped Blake’s game in some ways, and one has to wonder what a full training camp and regular season would do for both of them. Griffin’s got time to grow, but is he already too good to get markedly better?
He may have never heard of a baby step, at least not on the court, but that might be the way we see him develop as a pro over the years—one little step at a time. If he does ever add that spot-up jumper and figure out how to knock down a free throw, we won’t be talking about Kevin Love as the best power forward in the league for long. It won’t matter who’s grown more at that point. It’ll matter where they both end up.
Indiana Adds Missing Piece in Leandro Barbosa
The Indiana Pacers were, to put it bluntly, absolutely ecstatic to add former Toronto Raptors guard Leandro Barbosa to their team at the trade deadline this year. The Pacers have been a very talented, very young team for two full seasons now, meaning what they really needed to add for a serious championship run this year was a veteran who had been there before.
That’s where Barbosa has made his mark with this team only a month after heading to Indiana. For Barbosa, who spent so many years running alongside Steve Nash and essentially breezing straight to the postseason every spring, it’s just nice to look forward to involvement in the playoffs again.
“I haven’t been in this situation for a year and a half, so I’m very excited to be here. It’s a great team, and I have the belief that we can go really far in the playoffs.” Barbosa told HOOPSWORLD. “I don’t know about them, but on my end I know this team can do a lot.”
Early in his Pacers tenure, Barbosa has helped lead a second unit that runs opponents off the court. He’s a perfect fit for a team that’s going to play that way since, for a long time now, Barbosa has been known as a guy who plays exactly that way.
“My first day that I came here, Coach (Vogel) said, ‘Just run—don’t worry about the offense or the defense, just do the best you can on both ends, and we’ll take care of the rest.’” Barbosa said, laughing. “I just said, ‘Thanks!’”
There are a lot of reasons for him to feel thankful, especially after 18 months playing for a rebuilding Raptors team. As notoriously good a guy as Barbosa is, he’d never say anything bad about his experience there, but he did admit it wasn’t always easy in Toronto.
“You’ve got to understand that this is a business,” he said. “When you end up in that situation, you’ve just got to go; there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s your job, so you’ve got to be professional and do what you’ve got to do to hold that job. That’s what I did.”
When the news came that he’d been moved to the Pacers, though, things got much rosier in a hurry.
“I was surprised,” he said about the trade, which is now already about a month old. “I didn’t know that was going to happen, but it happened. Bryan Colangelo called me up while we were practicing and told me the situation, that it could happen, and I liked the situation, that I could be in the playoffs.”
Of course, it could be a short tenure with the Pacers since Barbosa is an unrestricted free agent this summer. As much as Pacers brass loves him—and you should see Indiana GM David Morway’s glowing face when he talks about the guy—there is a chance that won’t be with the team beyond this season. Barbosa isn’t thinking that far ahead just yet, though.
“I love my teammates, but it’s too early for me to say that (I’ll be back in Indiana next year),” he said. “These are good guys, they’re really fun, and that’s something I’m looking for. It’s a good place to be, but I’m not thinking about that right now. Right now my focus is to win games and the playoff situation. After that, after the season is done, we’ll think about where I’m going to be.”
He’s been exactly what the team has needed so far, and his presence has been a big reason the Pacers have pushed themselves to the third seed in the Eastern Conference. He’d be an excellent fit with this squad for the long-term, but for now we just need to enjoy a good fit while it’s fitting. The more Indiana wins in the playoffs, the harder it will be for him to leave, and that’s the scenario all sides are hoping for.
Avery Bradley Entering the Ranks of Premier Perimeter Defenders
Only a handful of players have been able to make their mark on the NBA simply by playing perimeter defense well. Bruce Bowen was one of the best ever at this, but in today’s NBA game the best example may be Memphis’s Tony Allen, who earned a three-year, $10 million deal almost exclusively because he’s the best shut-down perimeter defender in the league right now.
Boston’s second-year guard Avery Bradley isn’t quite there yet, but he sure is starting to look the kind of player that could be mentioned in the same breath as some of the other top perimeter defenders in the league. This is something he’s well aware of and actively trying to make happen.
“That’s something I take pride in, when I get into the game I want to shut down my opponent and make everything hard on them,” Bradley told HOOPSWORLD. “It’s my job to know their tendencies, what they do well, so I can make everything hard on them.”
Average NBA fans don’t necessarily realize how much preparation goes into being a top-flight defender, and in fact that are even some who say that there is no defense in the NBA. Of course, this particular faction of fans would be absolutely wrong, as Bradley himself will tell you.
“Some people watch the game and they don’t notice the little things on defense, but that’s why I like what I do so well,” he said. “I don’t play for the fans; I play for my teammates, and I know they notice the little things that I do.”
Yes, defense is a source of pride for Bradley, but he knows that it’s also about job security. Players have made plenty millions of dollars over the years for their defensive abilities, and this young man knows that might be his own best shot at keeping a job long-term in the NBA.
“This year I’ve gotten to prove myself more. It’s just making the most of an opportunity,” he said. “That’s the main thing for young guys in the league like me. It’s whatever you can do to help your team win. I knew I had to find a niche, and I knew defense gets me on the court. That’s why I take so much pride in it.”
He’s certainly found that niche with a good but aging Celtics team. Injuries and fatigue have given him the opportunity he’s currently making so much of, but it’s those veteran teammates that have really helped the most at this point in his career.
“I came a long way, but I think that has to do my teammates—how much they helped me out to become a better player,” he said. “I see how hard they work, so I want to show them that I’m going to leave everything on the floor until I’m tired and Doc has to pull me out. That’s why you see me picking people up full-court.”
There’s a good chance we’ll continue to see him pick people up full-court, too. If he keeps up this arc of improvement, he could very well find himself on the list of premier perimeter defenders in this league, and that’s obviously something he’s working towards. Not a lot of casual fans know his name yet, but neither Bowen nor Allen are household names themselves. Defense isn’t about individual fame, however; it’s about adding towards team glory, and that’s something Bradley hopes he can help his Celtics achieve.