BLAKE GRIFFIN AS HULK
There’s no question that Blake Griffin is the Hulk of this Clippers team. And why wouldn’t he be? The Hulk flips cars; Griffin jumps over them. They both have the strength and power needed to take over and dominate any game, and both strike fear into the hearts of opposing defenders. This comparison seems like a natural one. But while the similarities between the Hulk and Griffin are evident in terms of their physical prowess, the duality between these two franchise players goes much deeper than just the superficial stereotypes. The underlying trait that makes both the Hulk and Griffin great heroes is their willingness to confront and embrace their greatest perceived weakness, and in doing so, turn them into strengths. Their innate desire to become more than just menacing Hulks has proven beneficial for both themselves and their teams. Here’s why:
The Hulk has everything you look for in a dominant big man: size, strength, and a ferocious playing style. He was the raw talent on the Avengers squad—that player who would either make or break the team. The only thing that prevented the Hulk from truly reaching greatness was Bruce Banner’s reluctance to embrace his anger and talents. Since the accident that turned Banner into the Not-So-Jolly Green Giant, his sole mission had been to eradicate himself of the “infection.” He spent years wandering the world searching for a cure, doing his best to live off the grid and avoid military detection. His initial recruitment into the Avengers was based solely on his intellect and unparalleled knowledge of gamma radiation. And, while most people did their best to avoid upsetting the social pariah scientist aboard the Helicarrier, one person saw more in Banner’s alter ego than just a massive Hulk.
Tony Stark was one of Banner’s biggest fans, admiring both his work in antielectron collisions as well as his ability to turn into an enormous green rage-monster. Stark tried to convince Banner that when the time came, the Avengers would ultimately need the Hulk to step up and perform. Banner was quick to dismiss Stark’s assertion, telling him, “I don’t get a suit of armor. I’m exposed. Like a nerve. It’s a nightmare.” Stark tried to convince Banner that the Hulk saved his life for a purpose, one that Banner wouldn’t discover for himself until the final battle in New York.
Now, to this day, the debate over how Banner was able to finally control the Hulk at the end is still a heated point of contention for some, but for me, the answer was simple. Right before “hulking out, Captain America says to Banner, “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry. Banner’s response was a defining moment for him. With a wry smile, Banner confidently replied, “That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.” Seeing Banner embrace his anger meant he finally viewed his weakness as a strength. All those years of suppressing his rage and living as an emotionless vessel had only hampered his ability to succeed as the Hulk. Now, his anger had been given purpose and direction. He wasn’t just a raw talent any more; he was a legitimate superstar. He led by example, smashing Chitauri left and right. The fact that Banner went to New York to fight alongside the Avengers when he could have easily walked away and continued his life as an outcast, proved that he was not only a hero and a team player, but that he wanted to be one. Sure, he was big and powerful, yet he wanted to be more.
A SHOOTING NIGHTMARE
Like the Hulk, Griffin has also begun to prove he is more than just a raw talent with enormous physical gifts. Yes, he was a superstar in high school and college and the first overall pick in 2009, but just as Banner used to refer to the Hulk as a nightmare, Griffin has had a nightmare of his own over the years: his shooting. Although he has established himself as a human highlight reel—throwing down dunks with such authority you’d think that the rim told him that jean shorts are in fact still cool—Griffin’s ability to consistently hit outside shots and free throws has been his Achilles’ heel. While he shot better than 64.0% from the line his rookie year, Griffin saw a dramatic drop last season as he shot only 52.1% from the charity stripe. Griffin could easily use the big-men-can’t-shoot-free-throws excuse as a crutch and go through his NBA career as a perpetual SportsCenter Top 10 candidate with his dunks. But he is one of those players whose strength and athleticism often mask the burning desire for improvement. Instead of running from his shortcomings, he’s taken strides to make his jump shot part of his repertoire.
To help Griffin with his shooting this year, the Clippers hired shooting coach Bob Thate to work with him. So far, the results have been clear. Griffin is currently shooting over 62% from the free throw line, better than his career average of 59.8%. He recently said that he even looks forward to going to the free throw line now that he’s gained confidence. But it’s not just his free throw shooting that’s improved. Griffin has seen marked improvement in his once questionable outside jump shot—and the numbers prove it.
In Griffin’s rookie season, his shooting percentage away from the basket was nothing to brag about. According to Hoopdata.com, on shots 3 to 9 feet from the basket, Griffin shot a decent 42.5%. But, on shots 10 to 15 feet from the basket he only shot 32.5%, and from 16 to 23 feet away he was just 33%. By comparison, Tim Duncan—arguably the best power forward to ever play the game—shot 50%, 42%, and 41% from those same ranges his rookie season. Griffin’s numbers only saw a slight increase last year in the 3 to 9 foot range as well as the 16 to 23 foot range. Surprisingly, his shooting percentage actually fell from 32.5% to 27.7% in shots taken 10 to 15 feet from the basket.
However, this year Griffin is already putting up career bests in all three categories, which is a testament to not only to Thate but also to the disciplined work ethic of the Clippers’ franchise Hulk. In the shots Griffin’s taken 3 to 9 feet and 10 to 15 feet from the basket, he is shooting 50%, and from 16 to 23 feet away his shooting percentage is up to 39%, well above the 33% average from his rookie season. Griffin has embraced his weakness and turned it into a reliable part of his arsenal. As the season progresses and he gains more confidence in his jumper, teams will now have to account for his presence both in the paint and outside.
For both Bruce Banner and Blake Griffin, a fundamental flaw in their game hindered their evolution into great players. Banner was a raw talent when he first joined the Avengers; a man who possessed an incredible array of physical gifts, but who was reluctant to embrace his anger. Banner saw his anger and rage as a weakness and something to be embarrassed about. But as we saw at the end of The Avengers, once Banner was able to confront his anger and accept it, he turned himself into a bon a fide All-Star for his team. And, just as Banner learned to turn his anger from a perceived weakness into a strength, Griffin has managed to do the same with his shooting. His willingness to spend countless hours perfecting his jump shot and free throw shooting are proof that he wants to be more than just a dominant big man: he wants to be a dominant, all-around basketball player. Furthermore, as the Clippers continue to fight to stay atop the Western Conference, you can be sure this group of Avengers will look to their Hulk to help them achieve their ultimate goal: raising a championship banner in Staples Center.
Coming Soon: A series comparing the Clippers' bench to the X-Men, beginning with Jamal Crawford as Iceman.
Colin J. Liotta is the co-founder of the website The Sports Hero along with his wife, Bushra, and acts as the Editor-in-Chief. The website combines sports and comics into one place for fans of both genres. See more of Colin's work at www.thesportshero.com