He's the NBA's only certified superhero, and he does wear a cape, but the next assignment for Blake Griffin isn't saving a mid-sized sedan. It's saving the wayward ship that is the Clippers, now that they're missing their captain.
Over the next three to six weeks -- the rough rehab estimate for Chris Paul and his separated shoulder -- we'll see if Griffin can keep the Clips from fading in the very competitive West, while becoming a more well-rounded player in the process. It's not exactly as herculean as soaring over a car for a dunk, but if Griffin is ever to become famous for something more than that, now is the time.
"Everyone has to step up," insisted Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach, and that is true enough. Still, the responsibility of providing leadership and guidance in the clutch must fall on someone, and who better than the most decorated player on the roster, other than Paul?
It's up to Griffin to be what LaMarcus Aldridge is to the Blazers, what Kevin Durant is to the Thunder (now that Russell Westbrook is out), and to an extent, what Dirk Nowitzki still is to the Mavericks. Those three are centerpieces. They're lead singers who bring a presence and who command the other team's attention, for obvious reasons. The difference is, they've always held that role, while Griffin must borrow it for about a month from Paul.
This will be relatively new territory for Griffin, quite different than the role he plays in the car commercials. He's one of the best sidekicks in the league, but a sidekick nonetheless. He's had Paul as a teammate every season except his rookie year, when he played alongside a portly Baron Davis and ball-hogging Eric Gordon -- and still managed 22.5 points. Since then, Griffin has settled into a comfy secondary job, where he could collect lobs from Paul and not be called upon to be a savior in the final minute of a tight game. The job pays well; Griffin got a max contract out of it, and it's largely stress-free.
But now? The ball will be going to Griffin when the game gets tense, and he'll have to create his own shots. He's going to the All-Star Game next month regardless because he's standing out this season even in a conference with fellow power forwards Aldridge and Kevin Love. The question is, will be soaring or stumbling to New Orleans, based on the next several weeks?
There's another question that must be addressed: Will he be a Clipper or a Knick next month?
Rivers turned uncharacteristically annoyed the other day when a Griffin-for-Carmelo Anthony rumor was floated, calling the trade proposal "so stupid" and refusing to comment directly on it. On the surface, the subject of the swap, whether it was discussed or not between the Clippers and Knicks, made for a spicy topic mainly because of Melo. He can become an unrestricted free agent this summer if he chooses, the Knicks are currently a mess, and Melo may or may not want to spend the prime of his career working for an organization that can't seem to do anything right.
By trading Melo for Griffin, the Knicks would at least get an All-Star who is tied up contractually for the next four years, and also someone with a measure of box office appeal; Griffin is among the top-10 commercially-bankable stars in the NBA. There's one huge difference, though: Melo is clearly a lead singer (although you could question whether he can carry a tune) while Griffin is one of the best sidekicks around.
It's all moot, anyway, because the Clippers would never make this deal without assurances from Melo that he'd sign long-term, and that's even if they wanted Melo for Griffin which, based on Rivers' reaction, they do not. Which brings us to the next point: What's so special about Griffin, anyway?
Well, there's the obvious: He's a physical freak of nature. He brings amazing athletic skills and body control for a 6-10, 250-pound power forward. He runs the floor, is active on both ends and is deadly on the pick and roll with Paul. He's also fairly consistent. He's averaging 22 points and 10 rebounds, which is pretty much what you get night in and out, a double-double guy who brings the bonus of thrill because his dunks not only put fans in the seats, but brings them out of those seats, too.
Yet: Griffin isn't a take-charge guy. He carries out duties rather than assigning them. Mostly, he remains a work in progress offensively. He's a below-average free throw shooter (having improved to 70 percent this season) and his mid-range jumper comes and goes because his mechanics are faulty and the ball doesn't travel in a neat arc. This makes him dangerous to his own team in crunch time. The Clippers really can't go to him often because that's when the mental demons are beating inside his head. If he gets fouled, suddenly he's at the line in a pressure situation. And if he finds himself with the ball and standing 20 feet from the rim, he lacks the confidence in his jumper to let it fly in that situation. He's more likely to treat the ball like a hot potato and heave it to a teammate while setting a pick, or force his way toward the rim and risk an offensive foul.
When Rivers was hired last summer, he stressed how important it was for Griffin to make the jump shot a weapon, similar to the way Karl Malone did midway through his career.
"He wants me to be prepared to shoot, to catch and shoot and not be afraid if I miss shots," said Griffin. "Just be ready and able to score from multiple spots on the floor, instead of just a few."
Griffin has been Rivers' No. 1 pet project because Paul is already an established star and everyone else on the Clippers is a role player. Rivers believes Griffin, with proper dedication (which Rivers praises) and practice, can be more than the glorified athlete that many in the game classify him as such.
"He can really be as good as he wants," said Rivers. "He has the ability and the drive, and now it's just about him putting it all together. He's a guy who's an All-Star and yet can be twice as good, and I think he'll get there."
Griffin dropped 40 on Utah, went for 32 against Love and 27 against Durant and OKC so far this season. But those were with Paul on the floor, and a sharp point guard can make all the difference.
Now Griffin gets Darren Collison as his point guard for a month, and if a blowout loss to the Spurs in the Clippers' first game without Paul was an indication, Griffin must step to the forefront and prevent these type of results from happening.
"We kind of found out who we are going to have to be without CP," said Rivers. "It's a tough way to find out. That's probably a good lesson for us. Without CP, you're not going to dance around without the ball and make things magically happen."
The good news for Griffin and the Clippers is the schedule. It's filled with treats from the East. Ten of the next 12 games are against the inferior conference, and while most are on the road, it gives the Clippers a chance to restructure and reinvent themselves without the stress of seeing OKC or the Spurs again.
But you can never take your top-five spot in the West for granted, especially when a leader like Paul is on the shelf until possibly mid-February.
"CP has that ability that no one else does," said Rivers.
And so the time is right for Griffin to step out of his comfort zone and up to the plate. If the Clippers are going to survive this storm, he needs to be a hero instead of just playing one in a series of car commercials.