Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Good is Blake Griffin?

Yup. He just jumped over a car.
He won the slam dunk contest by jumping over a car (see left), and he continues to fill up the highlight reel late into the season.  He is a double-double machine, and is already the consensus choice for 2010-2011 Rookie of the Year.  Though he has faded from the news as the playoff push ramps up, Blake Griffin is still an animal.  Griffin is averaging a double-double (22.4 points and 12.1 rebounds per game) while also shooting 50% from the floor.  Saturday night, he erupted for 26 points and 16 rebounds in a close home victory over the playoff-bound Thunder.  Because of his performances like this all year long, the blogosphere has been fawning over Griffin for some time.  He's been called the greatest rookie since Shaq and the best rookie power forward of all time.  Some have also put his season among the top rookie seasons in NBA history.  Could Blake Griffin really be that good?  Does he live up to the hype?  Hit the jump to find out.

Let's figure this out by looking at the most comprehensive basketball statistic there is, John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER).  PER is a complex statistic designed to express a player's entire offensive and defensive contribution in a single number.  The median player in each season has a PER of 15.0, but Blake Griffin's PER through 77 games this year is 21.8.  How does that compare to other rookies this season?  Well, Greg Monroe is second, with a PER of 17.6, and John Wall, the top pick in the 2010 NBA Draft, is just above the league average: 15.3.  Wall, Monroe, and Griffin are among only seven rookies with a PER of 15 or greater, and Landry Fields, a two-time Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, has a PER of only 13.6.  Griffin clearly towers over his rookie competition this season with a PER more than four points higher than his nearest competition.  He stacks up pretty favorably compared to the rest of the league as well, slotting in at 15th overall in PER.  Griffin's 21.8 puts him just above fellow big-men Tim Duncan and Andrew Bynum.  He's even ahead of the likes of Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash.  If he's the 15th best player in the NBA through one season, just imagine how dominant he'll be in coming years.

To give some idea of where Griffin's career could be heading--as well as to get some perspective on how good his season truly is--let's try a strategy I'm particularly fond of: comparing his PER this season to other elite rookie season PERs in the last several years.  The PER leader for each of the past three seasons was Lebron James, but he only posted a rookie PER of 18.3 in 2003-2004.  Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony
Hakeem "The Dream" could throw down too
also posted PERs well below Griffin's in their rookie seasons, both coming in around 17.5.  His rookie season even stacks up well compared to some of the all-time greats, like Patrick Ewing's 17.4 and Larry Bird's 20.5 in their rookie seasons.  The best comparison to Griffin might be a surprise to some: Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon.  Drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets, Olajuwon (see right) turned 22 during his rookie season, just like Griffin, and posted a comparable 21.1 PER.  Like Griffin, Olajuwon posted averages better than 20 points and 11 rebounds per game while playing over 35 minutes per game.  Actually, Griffin's numbers are slightly better than The Dream's in all three categories, accounting for his slightly higher PER.  But this is still a worthwhile comparison--similar PER, similar statistics, same age, and same position.  After his rookie season, Olajuwon's PER jumped to 24.2, and it remained above 23 for 11 consecutive years.  At age 30, his PER peaked at 27.3, when Hakeem posted 26.1 points and 13 rebounds per game.

This pattern of growth is certainly possible for Blake Griffin, who is only 22 and already posting top-15 numbers.  Olajuwon posted his improved statistics as he matured as a player and as the Rockets surrounded him with a better supporting cast, like Clyde Drexler and Otis Thorpe.  The Clippers have been making moves to allow themselves to put some solid players around their budding superstar as well.  At the trade deadline, the Clippers shipped aging point guard Baron Davis to the Cavaliers for some cheaper players, done primarily to create cap space to use in subsequent offseasons.  Players such as Jason Richardson, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph, and Jamal Crawford are due to be free agents this summer (assuming a new Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents a lockout), and the Clippers have put themselves in a good position to take a run at them.  Surrounding Griffin with other players at or close to all-star caliber will free him from constant double-teams and allow him to produce at an even higher level.  Will he become as prolific as Hakeem The Dream?  It's impossible to tell for sure, but the potential is definitely there.

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