The Fly on Blake Griffin's Ceiling

Over the weekend, I stumbled upon Kevin Arnovitz and Jordan Heimer's excellent Clippers Week Podcast. Episode 2, in which the hosts discussed the Clippers' long-term fortunes with David Thorpe, got me thinking more about the Clippers' current usage of Blake Griffin, his fit long-term with center DeAndre Jordan, and Griffin's ultimate ceiling as a player.

At the quarter pole of this truncated NBA season, it seems fair to start making some observations about Griffin's performance this year. As some have noted, including Arnovitz himself, Griffin has been viewed as somewhat of a disappointment.  The hope was that Griffin would improve this year as a young player with Chris Paul joining his team. But looking at the numbers, it appears that Griffin's offense has stagnated and even regressed in some crucial areas.  
Even last year, Griffin's 54.9% True Shooting Percentage (which incorporates three pointers and free throws into a player's field goal percentage) was only slightly above the league average--rather middling for a star big man of Griffin’s athleticism. Griffin’s real value-added was in his rebounding, high usage rate, and fantastic assist rate for a power player.  This year his TS% is down to 52.5%. In fairness, the league TS% decline this year has mirrored Griffin’s, but the hope was that he'd improve this year.  He hasn't.

Blake Griffin's free throw shooting may spell trouble for his development.
Pick and Rolls

Griffin's regression has come on what are his biggest bread and butter plays: Pick and roll finishes and post-ups. One would think that with pick and roll master Chris Paul at the controls, Griffin's numbers would be up, but that has not proved true so far. Last year, according to Synergy Sports, he used 13.7% of his possessions as a roll man, averaging 1.05 points per possession while shooting 51.2% and drawing shooting fouls 13.2% of the time. His turnover percentage on these plays was 6.2%. Overall, he scored on 51% of his possessions as a roll man.  

This year, Griffin is averaging .81 points per shot as the roll man, using 13.0% of his possessions that way.  He only shoots 45.5% on these plays this year, drawing shooting fouls 11.9% of the time, turning the ball over 9.5% of the time, and scoring on a mere 42.9% of his "roll man" plays.*

*One caveat is that Synergy does not track assists resulting from a given play type, nor does it track the eventual outcome of a Griffin “post-up” or “pick and roll” play unless he “finishes” the play with a shot, shooting foul, or turnover.  So it is possible that Griffin mitigates these numbers by making effective passes that lead either directly or indirectly to points for other Clippers.

Another big difference in Griffin’s numbers is the amount of jump shots he’s taking. Griffin has increased his shots from the dreaded 16-23 feet range to 4.7 per game from 3.1.  His 4.7 shots per game from that range leads a team with noted mid-range marksmen Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, and Mo Williams.  Even worse, he shoots 30% on these shots.*

*No frequent shooter's jumper makes you think “there’s no way this is going in” more than Blake’s, with the possible exception of Tyreke Evans.  

The decline in Griffin’s pick and roll efficiency and his increase in jump shots are quite related. Via Synergy, I watched every one of Griffin's pick and roll plays this year. It seems clear that the reason he's having to pick and pop more is because DeAndre Jordan is taking up space in the lane. Because Jordan has absolutely zero shooting range, he's unable to take his man away from the hoop, and the middle is too crowded for Griffin to receive a pass on the roll. As a result, the open play is the pick and pop. Blake is usually open when he takes these jumpers, but he just can't hit them right now.

So what’s the cure?  There is no panacea when you have two big guys who can't shoot, but this is the Clippers' reality for the foreseeable future after matching Jordan's 4 year, $43 million offer from Golden State. As a stopgap, the Clippers could try to spot Griffin's non-Jordan minutes with outside-shooting Brian Cook rather than the extremely limited Reggie Evans, although such a strategy leaves the Clippers vulnerable on the boards. When Jordan is in the game, the Clippers would be helped by having Griffin set more side pick and rolls from the opposite side of the floor from Jordan. Compared to the high pick and roll, the side pick and roll forces Jordan’s man to make a more definitive choice and move a greater distance to rotate over to stop Griffin’s roll.  Watching tape, Griffin had much more success rolling to the rim for dunks, layups, or fouls on side pick and rolls.  

Timofey Mozgov remembers this side pick and roll from last year.

The greater lateral distance between Griffin and Jordan could also open up Jordan for alley-oops or quick duck-ins, especially if Paul is the ball-handler. Plus, side pick and rolls put Jordan on the opposite side of the rim if either Griffin or the ballhandler takes the shot, prime offensive rebounding position since most missed shots come off to the opposite side from where they were taken.  This is especially so because the attention drawn by Griffin’s roll or a potential drive by the ball handler should distract Jordan’s man from boxing him out, and Jordan would have a decided size advantage on any weakside wing player rotating down to cover him.


Griffin’s post-ups have also been markedly less effective this year.  Compared to last year, he uses an almost identical 29% of his non-assist possessions on post-ups, but now averages over 0.1 points less per possession.  Of particular note is the fact that he is turning the ball over 20.2% of the time in these situations.  This accounts for almost the entire decline in his points per possession, as his 45% FG percentage and 12.8% foul drawing percentage are almost identical to last year. 

I watched all of Griffin’s post-up turnovers this season on Synergy, and a couple of patterns emerged.  Many of Griffin’s turnovers occurred when he was trying to be overly physical to create space, whether though offensive fouls or simply getting out of control in an effort to knock his man backwards.  It’s clear that he’s not comfortable just going straight up and over the defender for a hook shot or turnaround jumper, even when he gets deep post position.  Instead, he shoots the Tyler Hansbrough lean-in half hook.  When he can’t succeed in getting his shoulder into the defender the results can be ugly, such as an emphatic on-ball rejection on Friday night by the Wolves' Darko Milicic.  I might suggest that Griffin learn to extend more on his jump hook, but it may be that his much-discussed short arms would still prevent him from getting such a shot off easily. He could also stand to develop more of a left hand in post-up situations, because he often finds himself having to shoot back across his body with his right hand when he turns baseline from the left block.

The other pattern, as you may have guessed by now, was a lack of space inside stemming from Jordan’s presence.  As a result, Griffin often drove into help or had the ball stolen in traffic.

Blake Griffin has struggled at the line since his days at Oklahoma

What Are Griffin's Chances of Developing a Jumper?

It may be that Griffin's physical profile will not allow him to evolve into an elite post-up scorer.  However, other big men such as Amare Stoudemire have built extremely efficient offensive games through mid-post isolations and pick and roll or pick and pop finishing.  This type of game plays to Griffin’s athletic strengths because it would allow him to do his finishing on the move where he can use his superior jumping ability.  When posting up, getting leaned on significantly diminishes that advantage.

Unfortunately, Griffin’s jump shot is currently a significant limitation for his isolation and pick and pop games.  While the conventional expectation seems to be that his jump shot will develop into an effective weapon as he advances in his career, I am not so sure.  The red flag is Griffin’s free throw percentage.  He shot in the 50s at Oklahoma. While he looked to be improving with a 64.7% rate last year, this year he has regressed to an execrable 51.4%.  The poor FT percentage causes its own efficiency problems, but the greater issue is what it may portend for his J.  Without the threat of a jumpshot, Griffin’s pick and pop and isolation* games will be severely limited. Recall that it was not until Stoudemire’s development of an effective mid-range jumper in the 2004-05 season (along with the arrival of Steve Nash, of course) that his offensive game reached stratospheric heights.

*I would have taken a closer look at Griffin’s “isolation” numbers on Synergy, but in the limited time I’ve had with the product I’ve found that for a lot of plays tagged "isolation" I didn’t agree with the designation.  For example, I found a number of plays in which shots originating from a drive and kick were designated isolations for the recipient of the pass.  Again though, I’ve had very little time to explore Synergy so far.  And it should be noted that I agreed with almost all of the designations of post-ups or pick and roll finishes that I watched.

Scouts have long used free throw percentage to project college players’ ability to develop a jump shot in the pros, or to evaluate whether a player’s small sample size 3 point percentage can be trusted.  It occurred to me that I could not recall a single player NBA player who shot as poorly as Griffin on free throws yet also had an effective jumper.  To test my theory, I did a search for all players since the advent of the three point line in 1979-80 who shot less than 65% from the line for their careers and played at least 300 career games.*

*I think I’ll spare the readers posting an entire table this time. Here’s a link. Trust me, after seeing enough Greg Dreilings, Fabricio Obertos, and Jawann Oldhams, your eyes start to bleed.

The results are not good.* Of the 118 players on this list, the only players with subjectively decent jump shots were Chris Webber, Bruce Bowen, Spencer Hawes and the late-career iteration of Antonio McDyess. (Feel free to quibble with my definition of "decent jump shot.") I discount the last three somewhat because they each averaged less than 2 FTA/game; not enough to really develop a rhythm at the line or necessitate practicing free throws to fix a problem that didn't come up in a game very often. As for Webber, he was right at the top of this list at 64.9% career from the line. By the time he really was using his jump shot effectively in Sacramento, he was mostly shooting in the 70s. On the other hand, Webber's development offers some hope for Griffin, as he shot below 60% in college and his first six years in the league before climbing above 70%. But it should be noted that, based on historical comparisons, Webber provides the best case scenario for Griffin's jumper.

*If one lowers the qualifying bar below 60% from the line, they get even uglier.

A particularly salient name on the list is Darius Miles. While Griffin is far better now than Miles ever was, Miles was a bad free throw shooter who was deemed the next great thing once he developed a jump shot. This never actually occurred.

My study assumes, of course, that Griffin does not significantly improve his free throw percentage. That is certainly a possibility; Karl Malone famously improved from under 50% as a rookie into a competent free throw shooter.* But Griffin's regression so far this year does not augur well for such an improvement. With these comps, it appears quite possible that the lack of a jump shot may limit Griffin's ceiling.

*Aside from the last minute of tied games on Sunday in the NBA Finals, of course.  At least that's what Scottie Pippen tells me.  

On defense, Griffin’s limitations have been well-documented, but his strength and quick feet should enable him to develop into a passable player on that end.  He would be well-served to develop a strip move a la Dirk Nowitzki or a late-career Karl Malone for one-on-one matchups, and worshipping at the Altar of the Holy Charge could improve his help defense.*  And as Thorpe noted, the Clippers’ procurement of an effective backup would help by allowing Griffin to feel more comfortable taking chances defensively.

*Sources tell me a standard prayer involves saying no less than four Nick Collisons and seven Steve Wojciechowskis nightly before bed.

While Blake Griffin is certainly a great player, a closer look at his game reveals that his evolution into a Top 10 player in the NBA is anything but assured.


  1. Thanks. Where do I sign up for your speed-reading class? I posted this like 2 minutes ago.

  2. What are the odds Jordan can stand at the top of the key and make uncontested 3-pointers?

    1. Almost zero. The results of the free throw study are even more severe for Jordan, who shoots in the 40s from the line. If you watch him play it's obvious that he should never shoot from outside 5 feet.

  3. I love when a 7 footer makes 3s from the top of the key, especially if they bank them in... I am talking Manewt Bull and Robert Parish here, back in the day where being 7 feet and capable of running up and down the floor was half the battle to making the league. the poor smuck guarding them - also 7 feet and slow- feels so lost and out of place trying to guard someone that far from the basket, must be like going to school with no clothes on for them... no chance of a rebound, what do I do with my arms?? I know, I'll waive them about and then stand here waiting patiently till the point guard dribbles by me then I can get set for my off the ball screen in our half court set, ahhh something I understand.

  4. Even if Jordan shoots like 1000 a day every day?

    1. That's a tough question. Historically, players with Jordan and Griffin's low free throw percentage will not develop effective jumpers. The odds are almost zero with Jordan, as he's in the ultra-low below 50% range that only 20 or so regulars have occupied since the advent of the 3-point line.

      *Why* this is the case is difficult to say. It could be that players of this ilk simply don't work on their free throws enough. But if anecdotal reports are to be believed, players like Griffin, Dwight Howard, Shaq, and before them Wilt Chamberlain all worked on their free throws quite a bit. So it may be that there is something fundamental about some players who can't hit free throws, either mental or physical, that prevents them from improving. Wilt supposedly would shoot 80% in practice but in the 50% range during games.

      On the other hand, those reports could be total BS and those players either don't work enough on their free throws or spend their time working on other "big man" type skills at the behest of their coaches.

      What we do know is that guys who shoot that poorly from the line have great difficulty improving or developing effective jumpers, for whatever reason.

  5. I read somewhere that Shaq's free throw problems were largely a result of his huge hands. Something akin to a normal sized person trying to shoot a nerf ball.

    1. I've heard that excuse used often as well, but I think it's BS. Dr. J and Michael Jordan had huge hands and were able to shoot just fine, although Shaq's may be an order of magnitude bigger. But I doubt they dwarf Dirk's or Yao Ming's by that much.

      A more plausible explanation to me was that Shaq broke his wrist when he was young and wasn't able to bend his wrist all the way back, which looked to be the case in watching him. Being unable to bend one's wrist back would make shooting pretty hard.

      Nevertheless, Shaq contended that he "made them in practice."

  6. I would think if you shoot less than 50% on your free throws in the league, you might want to consider trying shooting "granny style". That sounds stupid, but could you get any worse? I wonder what the ceiling is for shooting granny. The assumption is that shooting the way everyone shoots is the only best way to shoot, but maybe shooting in a different way would be superior for big men who shoot at or under 50%???

  7. Look at this, Rick Berry shot granny free throws

    1. Yeah, he was an amazing free throw shooter too. Wilt at one point attempted that, but didn't really shoot any better. Nobody since has tried it, essentially because they'd look like too much of a wuss. It would have been perfect for Shaq with his wrist problems, but refused to try it.

  8. Shaq shooting granny style would have been so comical it's amazing. Chalk that up on the list of if-onlys.

    Nice write-up.

  9. Hi Nate, my first chance to read your new blog and I am quite impressed with the depth of your research, insightful analysis, and clever use of footnotes. This may incent me to start checking my Facebook page more than twice a month!


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