As a borderline obsessive follower of the purple and gold, I idolize Kobe Bryant. Idolize him with an unconditional pride. Unfortunately, pride for the Mamba was essentially the only relevant faith I had instilled in the cruel 2014 Los Angeles Lakers’ season.
Laker nation loathingly watched the Clippers take over the L.A throne while the Lakers found themselves in total limbo. Not permanently take over the throne. But right now they are sitting on it quite comfortably.
Changing of the guard
Before I continue, I want to make something clear: no one in today’s NBA, let alone most players ever, match Kobe’s legendary status, and the Lakers are still the elite franchise in the league. But, as legendary as the man is, his injury has reminded all of us that he is in fact, a man. A human being. While I hate the reality, I’m not afraid to admit it. Los Angeles is seeking the new heir to the throne, the prophet to the realm, the holy messiah…
Here steps in the Clippers’ power forward. Blake Griffin.
At twenty-four years old, four years into his career, he seems to have finally awakened to a league-wide realization of his phenomenal artistry on the court. Before last season, Griffin used to have a repertoire as solely a high-flying, acrobatic dunk maestro, and while his highlights rocked Sports Center every night at eleven o’clock sharp, he was apparently deprived of fundamental talents.
A new Griffin
“He can’t play defense!” they said.
“Can’t shoot!” they said.
“Not a good teammate!” they said.
“OOVER-RAATED!” they yelled, beers *clanging* as they would watch him miss two clutch free throws.
And they were right. Were. But kudos to you, Blake. You found a way to prove all of them wrong - your large foundation of devoted doubters.
The incredible awakening we are witnessing is not even as blatantly reflected in his numbers as it is within his newfound leadership, which has been exhibited by his determined drive and stern demeanor.
Before the 2013-2014 season began, Blake Griffin spoke of leadership:
“I think the guys that play the bulk of our minutes need to be the leaders...It’s a thing I have to step into every year and take a step forward.”
It’s this reformed self-awareness, on the court and off, that sparked his recent shift into a firm leadership role, possibly even above fellow teammate and superstar Chris Paul. In turn, this command directly inflated his numbers across the board in 2013-2014, and he has evidently progressed from the one-dimensional acrobat he was in years’ past.
Last year, he accumulated the highest usage percentage of his young career at over 28%, which is a result of increased isolation offense and less reliance on Chris Paul’s tremendous passing ability. But that in itself is what makes him scary; undoubtedly, his title as the best and most aerodynamic dunker in the game remains intact.
Stats don't lie
Even more impressively, Griffin raised eyebrows last season when he displayed a vastly improved jumper. From 10-16 feet away from the basket, he raised the bar tremendously, posting a respectable 39.2% from that mark, as opposed to 35.6% the season before. Even more impressively, Griffin shot 40.1% from 16 feet out to the 3-point line, which is yet another substantial increase from his 34.3% from that range the year before.
The mere fact that he is shooting up threes at all is an incredible signifier towards the strides he has made in acquiring a jam-packed arsenal.
Blake Griffin is no longer a liability from range. He must be guarded everywhere on the court at all times. His combination of strength, instant quickness, supreme athleticism, and natural ball-handling skills all paired with a fundamentally-developed jump shot and significant improvement at the free throw line (70% this season), has turned him into the most unstoppable player in the league not named Lebron James or Kevin Durant.
He is the complete package, the real deal, and a matchup nightmare, especially given that these attributes come from the power forward position. He can play high, he can play low. He can drift out, he can bully inside. Griffin now has access to all the tools to dominate every single game, and he proved it.
Impact in LA
The last two years, Los Angeles has witnessed a major metamorphosis in terms of sports culture, which is a direct result of Blake Griffin’s transition into superstardom. The City of Angels no longer strictly abides to the Lakers’ unquestioned superiority over their across-the-hall rivals.
The Clippers run the show in L.A and they will surely be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come regardless of what the Lakers do in free agency or via the draft. Frankly, it’s inevitable; the Clippers are a changed franchise, especially with Steve Ballmer installed as owner. What an upgrade.
Please note: Last season, for the first time in many, many years, the Clippers ranked higher than the Lakers in attendance, settling in at the seventh spot while the Lakers are ranked one behind at number eight (via ESPN). That definitely caught my attention, and it should catch yours too.
The Clippers success is derived from their highlight-reel style of play, which makes watching them a value investment; the fast-paced offense, the windmill dunks, the flashy off-the-backboard jams, and the crazy pull-up-in-transition-3’s are all contributors to this new brand of basketball in Los Angeles that emulates the Magic Johnson-led Lakers squad in the 1980’s.
As someone who bleeds purple and gold, I have no shame in admitting the adrenaline I feel from watching this roster run opponents out of the building, which may have a little something to do with their attendance advantage over the Lakers this past season.
Blake Griffin is the league’s newest superstar, and the new face of the Clippers’ franchise. Not to mention a perennial MVP candidate, as he finished third last season, and will likely continue to contend for the honor yearly.
But, there is simply more to his story. The impact he has made following his recent success has inspired sports tradition not only in the Los Angeles area, but the nation in whole. The majority of the basketball world has yet to see the broadening cultural implications that he is beginning to set in stone, and I am here to tell you they are legitimate.
I have no doubt that Blake Griffin will validate himself as a top three player in basketball by the end of next season, at the latest. Clippers' fans, rejoice. Your future is set, and this year may be the year for all of you.