Blake Griffin always had it somewhat easy, and that often breeds cynical criticism. He's been perhaps the most deadly pick-and-roll threat in the NBA by his athleticism alone, and his impact as such only became cemented when Chris Paul rode into town.
But like the Los Angeles Clippers as a whole, the 2013-14 season wasn't about dunking, nor about standing pat. Doc Rivers took over for Vinny Del Negro hoping defensive improvements and individual betterment would lead to more postseason success. Griffin had always taken the blame -- unfair blame at that -- for that lack of postseason success.
Someone had to be the Clippers' scapegoat, and more often than not, the blame is placed on a player who does so much with natural instincts. It doesn't help when the team's best player is a point guard who makes the game look easier for his teammates by taking all the complexities away.
A few years earlier, Amar'e Stoudemire found himself in a similar position while playing with two-time MVP Steve Nash. But Stoudemire's coaches never pushed for much more, and his knees went out after one strong season without Nash in New York.
Griffin has become more than a dunk artist, more than a scorer who gets his points at the end of Paul's passes and more than a rebounder who succeeds because he can jump over everyone. His 24.2 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game don't allude to the obvious, but most important, piece of context to this season: Griffin's best work has come without Paul.
The Clippers' All-Star point guard went down with a shoulder injury at the beginning of January and missed 18 games, and Los Angeles rolled to a 12-6 record without him. During that span, Griffin averaged 27.5 points, third-best behind Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, to go with 8.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. He recorded five or more assists eight times and scored 25 or more in 13. He shot 55.4 percent without Paul and got to the foul stripe more than 10 times per game.
Most importantly, his assist percentage, or percentage of teammates' field goals Griffin assisted on, was 22.8 percent. That's a number reasonable for guards, but elite for a big man, even over such a brief period of time. For the year, the first 100 rotation players in terms of top assist percentages are perimeter players -- the biggest is LeBron James -- but Griffin finds himself in the top grouping of big men that includes DeMarcus Cousins, Kevin Love and the Gasol brothers. Their assist percentages range from 17-19 percent on the season.
Griffin has put himself in that conversation because he's been trusted by Rivers to make plays in the open court and at the elbows. The Clippers' success has shown because of it.
Griffin's starting spot in the All-Star Game can be backed up by more than fan voting that places a premium on highlight-reel dunks. The 24-year-old has improved the range on his jump shot and employed it more often this season compared to last. Getting defenders to bite on pump-fakes and forcing them to cover him beyond the paint has likely helped his ability to get to the foul stripe. And by the way, his free throw shooting has never been better.
There's room for Griffin to grow defensively and in rebounding. The rebounding numbers haven't slipped much -- probably because of a combination of systematic changes and the production coming from center DeAndre Jordan, who is playing more than 35 minutes per game, a career high by eight minutes.
But no longer should Griffin be viewed as a benefactor of his talented teammates. He could do this type of damage with most teams, and he could make most teams much, much better.
Remember, Griffin is still young. He's talked many times about becoming a great, and from the words of well-respected competitors like Paul and Rivers, it seems the forward's work ethic makes it more than talk. The major steps forward in his offensive repertoire are the results, still evolving ones, it seems.
That should make this All-Star appearance, Griffin's fourth, only the beginning.