Griffin valuable but improved, too

DALLAS -- Doc Rivers is no stranger to going to bat for his players.

The Los Angeles Clippers coach called up his fellow coaches before they submitted their All-Star ballots earlier this season and made the case for DeAndre Jordan to be on the team.

Jordan didn't make it, but that won't stop Rivers from banging the drum for several of his players to be considered for awards as the season winds down.

"I do like our guys receiving stuff that they deserve," Rivers said. "I always speak out for that. I'm not going to go on a publicity tour or go on Leno or Jimmy Fallon, but I think you guys know."

Rivers might not go on the talk-show circuit, but he has been pushing for Jordan to be considered for the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award since training camp, has mentioned Jamal Crawford as a sixth man of the year candidate at various times this season and is never shy to say Blake Griffin deserves MVP consideration.

The Clippers, however, might need to refocus their campaign strategy. Like a political strategist looking at incoming polling data, they would be smart to pull out of precincts that are guaranteed to net them nothing.

Instead it might be time to make the case for Griffin winning the Most Improved Player of the Year award.

Obviously it's not as prestigious an award as MVP, but Griffin will be the first to admit he is probably a distant third behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant in that race.

Simply the fact that Griffin is currently the odds-on favorite to finish third in the MVP race should tell you how much he has improved. Griffin wasn't one of the 16 players to show up on MVP ballots last season and wasn't one of the 15 players to appear on MVP ballots the season before.

He wasn't even on the radar of MVP voters before, and now he's legitimately part of the conversation. While that might not be good enough to win the MVP, it should be good enough to validate him as the league's most improved player.

"He's having a monster year, statistically, and his team is winning at a high level," Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlise said. "Those are usually the two ingredients for being in that conversation. It's legit. It's legit. I don't think he'll win it, but I think him being in the conversation is legit."

The problem is the most improved player award has become a little bit like the coach of the year award. It doesn't necessarily go to the most improved player or the best coach but the player who wasn't thought much of having a breakout season or a coach who does the most with the least talent.

It could easily be argued that making the jump from, for example, the 18th best player to the third best is much harder to do than coming into the season without high expectations and responding with a career year on a non-contending team.

While Danny Granger, who was named the most improved player in 2009, says he thinks Griffin has improved across the board this season and established himself as one of the league's best players, he doesn't think the award should go to a player who has been an All-Star four straight seasons and has made the All-NBA second team the past two seasons.

"I think it's a stretch. He's been a consistently great player since he came into the league," Granger said. "He's one of the marquee players. You can't give him that award. He's made dramatic improvements this season, but he's always been such a talented player and he's just added different facets to his game now, which makes it even harder to guard him. He used to be just a dunker. Now he has added post moves and a jump shot. He's improved tremendously, but he was one of the best power forward in the league before. Now he's just the best."

On Thursday, the Clippers came back from an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat the Mavericks, 109-103. Griffin scored six points in the fourth quarter and scored the go-ahead basket with a driving finger roll layup with 39 seconds left. Griffin finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, snapping his franchise-record streak of 30 straight games of scoring 20 or more points, but it hardly mattered after the game.

Rivers was still glowing after the game about Griffin's defense on Dirk Nowitzki, who went 7-of-15 from the field and 1-of-4 from beyond the arc. Not only did Griffin defend, he ran a fast break and connected with Jordan on a lob dunk. And when it was time for the Clippers to get the go-ahead basket, Rivers called on Griffin.

"With Blake, we talk about all the other stuff, his offense and his passing. But Blake the last two games, especially his defense, has been off the charts," Rivers said. "We didn't help down the stretch and he guarded, to me, one of the best offensive players in the history of the game, and stayed with him and fought him. Dirk made some shots, but overall Blake was absolutely wonderful."

Of course, anything apart from Griffin's dunks and commercials will get lost in the mix when talking about his improved play this season. There usually isn't much room on the highlight reels for defensive stops, midrange jumpers or outlet passes in "Lob City."

"We're too busy showing his dunks," Rivers said. "If they show the game tonight, they'll show the dunks. They won't show his defense or his passing. Well, they will [show one pass] because he passed one to D.J., but that was for a dunk. He can do everything for you to help you win a basketball game, and tonight was a great example of that."

The biggest improvement Griffin has made offensively is in his midrange game. From 16-24 feet on the left side, Griffin is shooting 51.1 percent this season compared to 37 percent last season. From 16-24 feet in the center, he is shooting 43.5 percent this season compared to 30.9 percent last season.

"When he's making that, it's impossible to guard him," Carlisle said. "Because he can get that shot virtually any time. You just have to hope he's missing because the strength and the other stuff make him really hard to deal with."

Griffin is also shooting more than 70 percent from the free throw line, compared to 66 percent last season. He is averaging a career high 24.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

"For the past two years or so, all I've heard is everything I can't do," Griffin said. "I take pride in those things that people say I can't do. There's a long list and it's going to continue to be like that, but I just use that as motivation and try to get better. I think sometimes people get a little carried away."

The last time the Clippers were in Dallas, Paul was lost for 18 games because of a separated right shoulder he suffered, and Griffin was forced to take over the team. It was a turning point in the season and in Griffin's career. It showed he could not only lead the team but was a legitimate MVP candidate in the process. Then again, none of that came as any surprise to the Clippers.

"Look at Blake's numbers, they went up, but it wasn't like they jumped 20 points or something," Rivers said. "He was already having an All-Star year before Chris got injured. He just upped it. I think more than anything people from the outside realized how good he was. All of the guys in our locker room knew how good he was."