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Blake Griffin, Flopper? Narrative Doesn't Match Reality

The media narrative of "Blake Griffin as flopper" has taken on a life of its own. The narrative is no longer particularly interested in the reality of what is happening in the game.

Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Let's do the disclosure thing first. I am a long time fan of the Los Angeles Clippers, and I blog about the Clippers at Clips Nation. My twitter handle is @ClipperSteve. I am biased. I have a dog in this fight.

On the other hand, I do not, as was recently suggested on twitter, wear Blake Griffin pajamas and flop into bed every night. For some readers, my perceived bias will render anything I write here completely invalid, but believe me when I say that I am choosing my words very carefully and making as completely objective an argument as possible. If you can't get past the ClipperSteve thing, stop reading.

Next: I understand where the perception of Blake Griffin as flopper comes from. I get it, I do. He whines to refs, he embellishes contact, he sells fouls, and then he puts you on his poster. People find the combination of freakish athletic specimen and dubious whiner untoward, unseemly. I get that. In fact, I would bet that I wrote on the subject long before pretty much anyone else. In January 2011, three months into Griffin's NBA career, I wrote this:

... it's a problem. To me, there's a continuum from some acceptable level of exaggeration (for lack of a better term) to total play acting where you are trying to convince the referee that contact occurred that did not in fact occur. And Blake's behavior gets pretty close to the line at times. But as long as refs continue to reward the play acting and players gain an advantage, it's only going to get worse.

Having said that, I feel pretty strongly that the narrative of Blake Griffin as flopper has become more or less independent of the reality on the basketball court at this point.

In his piece on Kobe Bryant on Wednesday, Tom Ziller opened with the following observation:

If you can get a theory into the conventional sporting wisdom, there is no stopping it. Convince enough fans that LeBron James is a choker, and no number of game-winners will flip the script. Assert that Dirk Nowitzki is soft, and only a title reverses the narrative. The conventional sporting wisdom is like a hard-to-navigate barge that sets a course and has trouble diverting.

At this point, "Blake Griffin is a flopper" has entered the conventional sporting wisdom. Watching what happens on the court is no longer necessary. The narrative is all that anyone needs. If a whistle is blown and Griffin is the benefactor, it was a flop. Who needs to watch the play? Who cares if he was fouled? The barge is on its course.

During Game 4 of the riveting first round series between the Clippers and the Grizzlies, I was in the upper press box at STAPLES Center, approximately 3.2 miles from the court. Midway through the third quarter, Twitter suddenly blew up regarding Griffin flopping. I was watching the game, but very far from the action, and only privy to the replays shown on the jumbotron, and obviously they aren't going to show replays that cast Griffin in an unflattering light during a Clippers game. I hadn't seen anything that seemed like a flop, but that wasn't particularly surprising from my vantage point. So I wondered what he had done and made a note to check it out on the DVR when I got home.

The next morning, I fired up the DVR to relive an exciting overtime game. But there was a little dread also, worrying about what Griffin must have done to deserve all the vehemence sent his direction the night before. So I watched. And what I saw was Griffin being fouled, and whistles being blown. I watched and re-watched every foul that Griffin drew, and there was not a single flop among them.

Now, you probably think that's a bold statement or patently false, but I stand by it. But perhaps we need to define our terms here as well. I am not saying that Griffin did not accentuate contact, that he did not try to sell calls. He did. As do all 400 or so other players in the NBA. I am saying that every foul that Griffin drew in that game, every whistle that benefited him, was in fact a foul. And I'm not talking about the "you could call a foul on every play if you wanted to" sort of foul. I'm saying a legitimate, the ref absolutely had to call that, foul.

Now, let's also establish that I'm not talking about whether or not the officials got everything right. Griffin's offensive rebound-follow-and-one in overtime should have been a loose ball foul when he pushed Marc Gasol out of the way. Refs miss calls, and they missed that one, but it has no bearing on the flopping discussion. The foul they called on Zach Randolph on that play was pretty cheap as well, not much of a foul, just a touch really, but Griffin did not sell that contact in the least, so again, not relevant to the flopping discussion.

So imagine my confusion. Twitter had gone nuts, USA Today, ESPN, Yahoo! and countless other major media sources were filled with "Griffin is a flopper" pieces, PTI was talking about it, it was everywhere -- all based on a game where Griffin didn't flop once. I was through the looking glass.

Of course the reason everyone was talking about it was because Chris Webber talked about it during the TNT broadcast of the game:

You know what? Webber makes some good points. Griffin doesn't want to get a reputation for flopping. Of course, it seems like maybe that ship has sailed. Given that Webber went on his rant on a play where Griffin was hit squarely in the face seems like he already has that reputation, and CWebb's little editorial didn't help. Notice that on the TNT broadcast, the replay is shown from the baseline camera, behind Griffin. You literally can't see whether there is any contact at all, which didn't keep everyone from drawing their own conclusions, since the narrative filled in the missing video very nicely. Now watch the Prime Ticket broadcast of the same play (the second replay angle, 23-second mark):

That's a foul, CWebb. A pretty solid one. Did Griffin need to grab his head? Did he need to fall down? I don't know, and neither do you. I've never taken a forearm to the chops from a 7'1 Spaniard while I was several feet in the air. I imagine it doesn't tickle, though I can't say for sure. Regardless, it was a foul. Notice for instance that Gasol doesn't argue the call for even a second; he just starts heading to the bench knowing he's done for awhile.

Feeling a little "emperor's new clothes-y" after watching the broadcast, wondering why everyone was so upset with Griffin, I initiated a conversation with Matt Moore of Hardwood Paroxysm, the ubiquitous NBA scribe, avid tweeter (@HPbasketball) and Grizzlies fan. I know Matt, I respect him, and I knew he considered Griffin a flopper.

We spent several hours exchanging emails and chatting that day, and I had basically one action item: show me where Griffin flopped in Game 4. And not in a defiant, "prove it" sort of way. I truly wanted him to show me. I wanted him to educate me, to show me what I was missing, to help me see what my Clipper blinders apparently wouldn't let me see on my own.

He explained why people disliked Griffin, he justified Griffin's reputation, he said a lot of things I agreed with. But he couldn't point to a single play in Game 4 that had him upset. Eventually I badgered him enough that he re-watched every foul Griffin drew in the game, all dozen or so, after which he tweeted this:

So it turns out I wasn't crazy. He really was fouled. No one had anything to complain about other than perhaps "I don't really like the looks of that Blake fellow, something about the eyes." Griffin had not benefited unduly from a single call in that game.

My goal here is not to defend the honor of Blake Griffin. He doesn't need me to do that. My goal is to point out that the media narrative of Griffin the flopper has taken on a life of its own, separate and apart from anything as mundane as what Griffin actually does.

For instance, here's a quote from USA Today's Game On blog Tuesday (emphasis added):

Griffin drew a loose ball foul on Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, who went to the bench with his fourth foul at 6:37 of the third quarter with his team trailing 57-51.

Griffin, who was barely touched and not in the face, fell over as if he had been struck in the head with blunt force by Gasol.

Interesting stuff. Only Griffin was more than barely touched and it was squarely in the face. Of the competing descriptions, "barely touched and not in the face" and "struck in the head with blunt force by Gasol," the first is a lie, while the second is mild hyperbole (remove the word blunt and it's pretty accurate). But that wouldn't serve the narrative du jour at all, so the reality is ignored.

Or how about Jarrett Jack's tweet during the game?

If all the fouls that were called were really fouls, then what exactly were the refs falling for?

There's clearly no way to objectively measure the degree to which a player embellishes contact. On the aforementioned continuum, Baron Davis faking a Mehmet Okur punch or Reggie Evans falling down when Greivis Vasquez pokes him is clearly far to the unacceptable end of the spectrum. I have watched every YouTube video returned by the search "blake griffin flop," and there is nothing even remotely approaching that level.

You can, however, count flagrant fouls. In the two seasons Blake Griffin has played in the league, he has been on the receiving end of 15 flagrant fouls -- more than twice as many as any other player (LeBron James has taken 7). Griffin is a hard foul magnet -- he posterizes people, he's a prolific scorer around the rim, and he's a terrible free throw shooter, so it's really just good strategy to foul him. Those flagrant fouls are far less subjective than other fouls -- the replays are reviewed by the officials during the game, and reviewed again by the league office.

And for every flagrant, there are a dozen or more clean hard fouls, like Rudy Gay wrapping up Griffin in Game 3. So we know objectively that Griffin is getting fouled, and fouled hard. So isn't it reasonable that some of the time that you think he's acting like he was hit hard, he really was hit hard?

Griffin embellishes contact. He definitely does. Clippers fans no doubt noticed it long before anyone else. A month or two into his rookie season, after being hammered repeatedly without getting the benefit of the whistle, he developed his now familiar head snap -- and guess what? It worked. The whistle started blowing. This is a learned behavior in Blake Griffin, one that has been rewarded over time. But in my opinion and for what it's worth, Griffin is not an inventor of contact, only an embellisher of contact. For me, that's an important distinction.

Does any of this matter? Probably not. The media narrative is what it is, and it doesn't much matter to Griffin, who shrugs this sort of talk off. Then again, maybe it matters a little.

It seems to me this sort of thing, the media's insistence on making someone wear the black hat in their melodrama, is contributing to a general ugliness happening right now. When did it become acceptable to boo an injured player, as fans did to Griffin in Memphis Wednesday night during Game 5? Or to give a standing ovation to a player ejected for a delivering a cheap shot?

By vilifying Griffin and turning him into some sort of WWE caricature, the media narrative has essentially told opposing arenas that they are free to hate him as much as they like. Am I the only one who finds irony in Webber chastising the Memphis fans for their boos, when his misplaced rant two nights earlier was a justification for those boos in the first place?

When you're watching Game 6 of Clippers-Grizzlies tonight, try to watch what's actually happening. Don't get caught up in the narrative, watch it for yourself. It's a great series, involving many great players. There doesn't have to be a bad guy.