Monday, April 11, 2011

Blake Griffin- There's Only One First Time

There can only be one first time.

For the entire 2010-11 regular season, Blake Griffin has been a fixture in both my live television viewing schedule, as well as on my DVR. Of the 81 meaningful games he’s played thus far in his career, I’ve tuned in for roughly 70, almost every time with a childlike enthusiasm that I’d have sworn had been jaded out of me.

The last NBA newcomer to have this profound an effect on me was young Kobe, who in the late 1990s- before he began collecting jewelry and cementing his place in the NBA’s pantheon- achieved a similar must-see status, though few people outside of Southern California has the pleasure of following his exploits on a nightly basis. Given the singularity of his talent, the electricity with which he deployed it, and the fact that I’d certainly be quite a bit older the next time I saw his athletic peer, I wondered if I’d ever watch another player from such a youthful perspective, with such visceral excitement.

In the intervening years, thanks to the likes of (among others) LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Kevin Durant, the NBA has seen an influx of young superstars rivaling that of any decade in league history. While rookie year Chris Paul was very close for me personally, I don’t remember any of these transcendent talents capturing the collective imagination of the NBA fan base the way that Blake Griffin did in 2010-11.

From arguably the
greatest 90-second opening to a career, on October 27 against Portland, to his public baptism of Timofey Mozgov (True story: I’ve been to Vegas 50+ times in my life, and have never seen so many people in a sports book so jacked up for something in which they had no financial interest) three weeks later, to a highlight-laden 30-12.5 and 61.5% FG in December victories over the then-15-2 Spurs (at home) and the Bulls (in Chicago), to a combative 24-14 in a home win over the Heat, to 47 (on just 24 shots) and 14 rebounds against the Pacers on MLK Day, Blake strung together as spectacular a three-month stretch as you’re ever going to see. He established himself as not only the most electrifying player in the league, but in a world equipped with a seemingly endless catalog of entertainment options, he turned the Clippers- the lowly, comically inept, racist slumlord-owned, possibly cursed Clippers- into appointment viewing, made Ralph Lawler a household name across NBA Nation and nearly melted in the internet in the process.

It felt fleeting even as it was happening. During that 10-12-week stretch, it wasn’t enough to simply marvel at his jaw-dropping highlights and fantastic stat lines the morning after- there seemed to be intrinsic value in witnessing the shock waves in real time. For hardcore NBA fans with both League Pass and Twitter, as much as any television event of the past year, the first ~55 games of the Blake Griffin era epitomized the communal experience. From Thanksgiving through Valentine’s Day, Griffin owned more of Twitter than Kleiner Perkins and Union Square Ventures combined.

In a sense, Blake walked into the perfect storm for universal adulation. A personable young guy that lost the entirety of what would have been his rookie season to a broken kneecap, and entered the season with lowered expectations. Then, once he hit the league, he did so like a force of nature, a hybrid of LeBron James and Dwight Howard, only one that we could enjoy with a certain innocence, free from post-Decision backlash or an unshakable, increasingly mind-numbing MVP debate. Thanks to a blatant disregard for his physical well-being, Griffin immediately established himself as one of the NBA's most physically dominant players, and ran circles around both this season's rookie class and the sophomore class with whom he was drafted. Finally, since all of this took place on a team that never made the smallest pretense of contending for a postseason berth, his success posed no real threat to the aspirations of anyone else's favorite team. Our initial demands of him were extremely low, and he was giving us more than we'd ever dream of asking for
That he had no contemporary rival (statistically he's rookie-year Shaq, stylistically he's early-90s Shawn Kemp or mid-80s Charles Barkley), no track record against which to be judged and seemingly no physical limitations made him the ideal protagonist. However, one can only be this great and be allowed to run every race unopposed for a limited time.

Despite putting together one of the best rookie campaigns in recent memory (22.4 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, with a PER of 21.8 and TS% of 54.7%) and taking the concept of “basketball porn” to heights never before seen by so broad an audience, it was clear that the Blake Bandwagon simply could not sustain the momentum that it had built up. At some point "must-see BG" would encounter a rival that, if not strong enough to defeat him outright, would reveal his mortality and bring him back to Earth as just another NBA A-lister. On February 20, 2011, on his home floor, for the first time in his NBA career, he encountered that foe- himself. More appropriately, he encountered the incredible standard he'd set for himself. For the first time ever, our expectations outstripped the reality that Blake Griffin was able to supply. Whatever you thought of his performance that night, looking back, there is nothing he could have done that would have measured up to the performance that millions of us had already played out in our minds for several weeks.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, without question, that the opening act of Griffin's NBA career peaked at Staple Center on All-Star Saturday, at the precise moment before he 
took flight for the first time in the Sprite Slam Dunk. Would he do a 720? Dunk on a 12-foot rim? "Make change" off the top of the backboard? That was the moment when absolutely anything- bound only by the laws of physics- could have happened. And for that moment- arguably the best of the season for pure excitement and anticipation- and the weeks and months leading up to it, I'd like to thank him.

Make no mistake, he’s continued to put up outstanding numbers- averaging 21.5 points, 11 rebounds, 4.2 assists and shooting 48.7% since All-Star Weekend- will likely be the a unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year and remains a fixture on every NBA must-watch list, but it's somehow felt different. Maybe he underwhelmed the nation in the dunk contest. Maybe it was the breakup of everyone's favorite Menage-a-lob, thanks to the trade of Baron Davis and the return of Chris Kaman, which displaced Blake's buddy, DeAndre Jordan from the starting five. Maybe we shifted our focus away from frivolous, high-flying fun, and toward a) a crazy trade deadline and b) what's expected to be an epic postseason. Whatever we attribute it to, it was at that moment that the fever began to break.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that Griffin peaked as an NBA player 60% of the way through his first season, at age 22. The opposite is actually true- this is the least polished Blake Griffin we'll ever see, and the 2010-11 Clippers are more than likely the losing-est team of which he'll be a part for years to come. He'll become a better free throw shooter. He'll become a savvier defender, both on the ball and from the weak side. He'll continue to polish his post game. He'll add range to his already-impressive jumper, probably all the way to (gulp!) 3-point range. I'm of the belief, and I'm sure I'm not alone, that in the not-too-distant future he'll establish himself as a perennial MVP candidate, launch an assault on a 30-15 season and displace Dwight Howard as the NBA's preeminent big man.

Nor am I contending that, for some reason, the aerial display will grind to a halt in his sophomore season, or that he'll shy away from castrating his opponents through vicious attacks on the rim. However, for all of the improvements he'll make to his game and victories he'll rack up in the coming years, we'll never again have those moments with Blake Griffin. I've seen "The Usual Suspects" more than a dozen times, and while the film continues to rank among my all-time favorites, I will never again see Kevin Spacey lose his limp for the first time

In a fantastic piece published this weekend on, Royce Young (perhaps best known for his great work on Daily Thunder) touches on the fact that Griffin has in fact been an exceptional player this season. However, he contends that through his unreal work above the rim, Blake's managed to "almost overshadowed himself," and that the now that we've gotten Blake's dunkapalooza out of our collective system, we can "begin to appreciate how fantastic a basketball player he is, instead of seeing him only as a dunking machine."

I could not agree more wholeheartedly with Young's thoughts as they pertain to the future. Looking back, however, I'm nothing short of ecstatic that Blake was our dunk machine for while, and that so many stopped to take notice


Anonymous said...

Great article. I liked how you framed the narrative of Griffin's season.

Arjun Chandrasekhar said...

blake and i started our southern california adventures together and honestly, following him has been like a religious experience. First he galvanized all of clipper nation; then all of socal's non-laker fans; then all of socal's hoops fans; then the rest of the country fell in line. Lebron is the only rookie i can remember who made me think "i cannot miss a single second of his games because at any given instant there is a humongous chance of seeing the most spectacular play over the season". when you integrate that probability curve over a full game, then over the season...when you get the idea, blake produced a shitload of highlights. I saw yao, gasol, howard, lebron, wade, melo,cp3, durant, rose, evans, and every other breathtaking rookie season since 2002; blake blows all of them away, and by a far margin. Its not about numbers - its about one guy creating more thrills and having a bigger resonance with fans than any player of the past ten years. he will make the clippers relevant; he will win MVP's and championships; he will become one of the ten best players of his generation, like karl malone with better hops, or shawn kemp with his head screwed on right. you said it perfectly: i've seen oceans eleven at least a million times in my life, but there is NOTHING that compares to the first experience of seeing clooney run into julia roberts's arms while brad pitt and crew stare at the fountain show while commemorating the hoist of the bellagio. blake griffin will do so much more than he's done this year, but few basketball events will ever top the memories of blake griffin's rookie season. (ok now its time to stop - my mancrush is going overboard. point is blake is fucking awesome)

tc said...

Blake is something special. That said, Kemp was pretty impressive through the mid-'90s-at least through '96 and Barkley was a beast well into the '90s. Griffin is something special though, no doubt. Laker fan here but nothing against the Clips, and I wish David Stern would use some of his strong-arming jones to get rid of that human toe fungus of an owner. I'd love to see the Clips flourish in the Stapler (just as long as they lost to the Lakers :)

dave m said...

Emile - absolute spot-on post. The context of Blake's rising star is in of itself, remarkable - he's done it as a Clipper. And, he's done it with a level of power and commitment that's rarely seen.

Arjun - nice comments!