The pursuit of versatility is hurting specialization in the NBA

With NBA training camp looming, reports are beginning to surface detailing the plethora of skills players have added to their arsenal over the summer. One such report indicates that Blake Griffin has worked diligently to expand his range to the three-point line.

On paper, Griffin’s desire to punish opponents from the three-point line makes perfect sense. Shooting is the weakest part of Griffin’s game, and becoming a threat from deep would only spread out the defense and increase spacing for Griffin and his teammates.

Specialization going out of favor in the NBA is a huge reason why Griffin is even putting in work from the three-point line. Versatility has taken specialization’s place as the en vogue buzzword. Teams are looking for guys who can utilize many different skills and play several different positions well. The dominant train of thought is the more versatile a player can become the better, without exception. But working on as many skills as possible is not always what’s best for a player’s development.

What’s rarely factored into the versatility equation is the opportunity cost. For each hour Griffin spends in the gym working on his three-point shot, that’s an hour he’s not spending tightening up other, more relevant areas of his game like his midrange jumper or free throw shooting.

Within the constructs of the offense, Griffin rarely surfaces on the three-point line aside from when he’s setting a high ball screen. He spends the bulk of his time either in the paint or facing up his man on the elbow. He’s an excellent passer, and he can most effectively pick apart a defense with his vision from the aforementioned areas.

If Griffin is able to expand his range, how many threes do the Clippers really want Griffin taking per game within the flow of the offense? Even in pick-and-roll situations, where Griffin is most likely to be presented with an open three, if he pops to the perimeter, it would be more beneficial to the offense if Griffin were to roll hard to the rim. Griffin steaming toward the middle of the floor, forcing the defense to react and rotate quickly, poses a much more dangerous threat to the defense than does Griffin floating into space on the perimeter allowing the defense to hunker down.

The Clippers run a spread offense, taking advantage of their best players’ strengths. High pick-and-rolls are heavily relied on to force the defense into tough decisions. Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and Griffin are generally accompanied by two wing shooters who are capable of knocking down spot-up jumpers at a high rate. Once Paul, Jordan, or Griffin get headed downhill toward the paint in the pick-and-roll, it’s up to them to read the defense and take it for themselves or kick the ball out to the perimeter if the defense rotates hard to take away a shot at the rim. It would make no sense for the Clippers to alter the offense in a huge way just to get Griffin more perimeter touches given the strengths of the team’s personnel.

Instead of practicing threes, it makes sense for Griffin to attempt to improve in facets of the game where he is good but not yet great. For instance, what if Griffin was able to shoot closer to 50 percent from each elbow rather than 41 percent from the left elbow and 44 percent from the right elbow?

That is more likely to bend the defense to the Clippers’ advantage than Griffin being able to make one or two threes a game. Griffin focusing on his midrange game could finally force his man to play up into his chest on the catch, because his shot must be respected consistently. That would then allow Griffin to use his explosiveness to blow by defenders with ease. There would be no great way to stop Griffin when he faced up with the ball in his hands.

Additionally, what if Griffin was able to make 77 percent of his free throws instead of 73 percent? As a guy who gets to the charity stripe a lot over the course of a game, due to his style of play, a four percent increase in free throw percentage could make a significant difference in the outcome of a couple games a season. His three-point shooting isn’t likely to change the outcome of a game in the Clippers favor, barring something wild happening.

Coaches, teams, and players get so caught up in attempting to improve in every area out of a dogged pursuit of absolute perfection, without stopping to ponder how the time they’re allocating to specific skills will affect their team’s play on the court. Griffin honing his skills to become great in key areas would without a doubt have a bigger impact on the Clippers’ overall level of play than would him attempting to merely be good in every area. The road to specialization is now the road less traveled, but it can still be the right road to take.