Phoenix Suns center Marcin Gortat looks to score as Clippers forward Blake… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
The question posed to Blake Griffin was direct.
How does he rate himself as a defender?
"I don't think I'm as bad of a defender as some people try to peg me as," Griffin said.
"But I know I have a lot of work to do," Griffin acknowledged. "The effort is there. I think our coaching staff knows the effort is there. I've got a lot of room to improve, like I've said."
The Clippers' All-Star power forward paused.
"But at the same time, I don't think I'm as bad as people say," Griffin said. "People try to say I play zero defense, which I personally think is not true. For me, a lot times I'm the hardest critic on myself."
No, not zero defense.
But the consensus among NBA scouts and assistant coaches who have scouted Griffin is that he is an OK defender whom they see having the potential to be very good because he is so athletic.
They believe Griffin hasn't made it a priority.
This was a Western Conference scout's report on Griffin:
Opponents shoot a high percentage against him. He likes to follow the flight of the basketball and struggles with boxing out. He looks to block shots. He uses his athleticism to overcome weakness as a defender. But because he's such a great athlete, you would think he could be a very good defender if he wanted to.
"Sometimes there are mental lapses," Griffin said. "We've talked about how there are so many people in your ear telling you so many different things when we're going through defense that sometimes I just need to trust my instincts and just play hard to make up for any mistakes."
This was a report from an Eastern Conference scout:
When Griffin "shows" on defense on the high pick and roll, he stands on the outside and watches the action unfold instead of getting back. He likes to "leak out" on the fastbreak.
"We need him to show on the pick and rolls so he can get back quicker so he can help our wings out," Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said. "Transition defense, boxing out, just taking more ownership in that, which he is more than capable of doing. It'll just get us to the next level as a team as he improves in that area."
This was a Western Conference assistant coach on his team's game plan against Griffin:
Put Griffin in pick and rolls and attack him early in the game. He's not going to foul much. He should be a really good defender because he's quick, explosive and can run when he wants to. So why doesn't he do it all the time?
"I know when I mess up," Griffin said. "I watch the film. I know my areas for improvement and that is a big area for improvement, on defense."
An assistant coach for an East Coast team offered this assessment:
Obviously with all the raw, athletic ability that he has, the potential is there to be maybe even a great defender. Look at LeBron James, another great athlete. Early on, he wasn't a great defender, but over the past two or three years, that has changed and he takes defense a little bit more seriously. When Blake's mentality changes and he decides to play defense, then he is going to be a problem. He has to decide he's going to shut people down.
"I'm still learning a lot, to be honest," Griffin said. "We were having a discussion [recently] about the development of players over the past three or four years. Russell Westbrook, his first two years and then in his third year he kind of exploded. And Derrick Rose had the huge season his third year."
Del Negro has brought Griffin's defensive deficiencies to his attention during their frequent one-on-one film sessions.
It's just that when marginal power forwards like Indiana's Tyler Hansbrough (17 points on seven-for-10 shooting), New Orleans' Jason Smith (17 points on seven-for-10 shooting, eight rebounds) and Portland's J.J. Hickson (29 points on 13-for-19 shooting, 13 rebounds) have big games against Griffin, it's a sign of too little focus on defense.
"Blake obviously has a big responsibility," Del Negro said. "But for us to get to the next level, he's got to use his athleticism and his physical ability to control the defensive end for us because he has so much versatility. But he knows that. So he's got to balance it out a little bit better."
This week, Griffin will face two of the NBA's better power forwards — Memphis' Zach Randolph on Monday night and Minnesota's Kevin Love on Thursday — during a three-game trip.
It'll be another test for Griffin, who Del Negro said has been under the spotlight even more because of his highlight dunks, his being an All-Star and the rise of the Clippers.
Del Negro does caution that Griffin is only two seasons into his NBA career, with a high learning curve to improve as a defender.
"It takes some time. And for me, that's been the hardest part, trying to understand that, because you want everything now," Griffin said. "You work on everything and you try to achieve it now. But it's a learning process for me."