Harden finished second in the MVP voting, and deservedly so – the only question was whether he should have finished higher. Paul is always in the discussion for MVP, but never at the top of it, always making teammates look better than he cares about looking himself – but he’s the consensus best point guard in the game. Blake Griffin has been a phenom since the first time he put on sneakers, and he is putting it all together right now in a way that is truly frightening for anyone who might have to try to find a way to stop him. So who is the best player?
First, I am going to address the big man question. There is a perfectly reasonable line of thinking that basically says “you can’t teach height.” A few years ago, it would have been ludicrous to imagine that Dwight Howard wasn’t mentioned in that first paragraph. Dominant big men have always been valuable, but in these playoffs, the fatal flaw in the games of these two has been exposed like never before. Apparently hitting free throws matters. But aside from that, these two have each been dominant at times – in fact, despite all the accolades of the other three guys in this conversation, this series has been a bit of a throwback in the way these two have battled down low. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a matchup of centers quite like this one.
Both very fluid athletes, Howard and Jordan both make a significant part of their impact on the defensive side of the ball, and when they start scoring, there is no limit to their potential. They may very well have the most upside out of the entire group from a DFS perspective for that reason. It’s just that the 30 point games are few and far between for Howard at this point, and Jordan only really flashed that potential while Griffin was out earlier in the year. For the series, Dwight is averaging 18-14 with 2.5 blocks and a steal, compared to 13-13 with two blocks and two steals for Jordan. It’s not enough to be considered greater than the other big guns in the series, but it’s damn good.
The obvious conversation to have when comparing talent on these teams is Harden vs. Paul, because these are “their teams,” for all the right reasons. These two players lead their guys to victory and shoulder the responsibility for defeat, and both of them have made strides to improve what used to be a glaring deficiency – namely, defense. And they both have made those improvements in the old school way, using their brains to get it done, playing perfect help and recover defense, knowing what to do on every pick and roll and constantly seeming to wander almost aimlessly into passing lanes with their hands up. That’s what happens when you know an opponent’s sets cold.
Harden is flashier, and Paul is battling through some injuries, so you would probably be surprised to learn how similar their numbers for the series are (on a PPG basis, so no account of Paul missing some time). Paul: 20-10-4, with a steal; Harden: 25-8-5, with a steal. But this isn’t a lifetime achievement award, it’s the playoffs, and you can probably give the edge to Harden for being the best based on how they are playing right now. A couple of assists more for Paul is balanced off and then some with the extra board and five extra points from Harden, and Harden, like Paul is taking every big shot when his team needs it, so there is no degree of difficulty adjustment.
But if that edge over Paul exists with Harden in the Houston backcourt, it isn’t a big one (kind of like any edge Howard has over Jordan). And Houston is missing their defensive ace at PG (Beverly) who might help neutralize Paul even a little bit more, and they are relying on finding a hot hand from the Ariza/Smith platter every night. So far, so good, but in a big game seven, the real X-factor is Blake Griffin, not the rest of the cast of characters filling out this series.
With Paul and Harden in the front court and Jordan and Howard on the blocks, Griffin at his best is unlike anything either team has elsewhere on their rosters. And in fact, he is unlike anything any team has, anywhere, when it comes right down to it. His best game of the regular season was probably the 40-12-5 with three blocks and a steal against Golden State at the end of March. His 27-13 average for this series includes 30-16 and 34-15 efforts in games two and five. Going back one more series, he posted a 30-14-7 against the experienced San Antonio front court in game five of the first round. The thing is, however, in every one of those instances, with Blake going off in a big way, the Clippers lost the game. Every one of them .
So yes, when he is performing at the very peak of his abilities, Griffin might well be the best player on every court he steps onto, but he needs an epic, series-clinching performance in a big game to solidify that rep. We can revisit the conversation after Sunday – I know I am looking forward to it.