In retrospect, 2013-2014 was the year. It was the last season Blake Griffin didn’t miss large swaths of with injury, and it marked the final stage of his evolution from an unrefined close-range specialist into a multi-talented star. He finished third in the MVP voting and his Clippers lost a close six-game series against the Thunder in the Western Conference Semifinals. He was 24, and this was supposed to be the beginning of his prime. Instead it stands out, along with his excellent 2015 playoff performance, as a relatively brief flash of potential fulfilled among an otherwise slightly disappointing career. An apotheosis reached but unsustained.
This isn’t Blake’s fault. His body hasn’t kept up with his ambition. These days, he’s looking frighteningly cooked at just 29. He’s played only 221 games over the past four seasons, and last year his field goal percentage fell of a cliff. (43.8 percent vs. a career average of 50.8 percent.) The Clippers obviously saw something they didn’t like, because they hurriedly offloaded him to the Pistons this past January, seven months after signing him to a five-year megadeal worth $173 million.
It’s possible 2017-18 represented a sharp, anomalous dip in form for Blake, but what’s clear from watching him is that he’s on the decline physically. He was once an MVP candidate because he was too strong for quick forwards and too quick for strong ones. As he developed a respectable jumper, he became able to handle nearly any defender in the league by playing wherever he felt comfortable—the block, the elbow, even the three-point line—that his opponent did not. But he doesn’t like to drive to the basket anymore because his first step isn’t what it used to be and he can’t stand up to getting whacked across the chest and arms a half-dozen times per night. His post-up game—never unstoppable, but functional in a pinch—has all but disappeared, a symptom of both the perimeter-ward direction of the modern NBA and an aging player unwilling to suffer the punishment of grinding back-down play.
Blake has become a jump-shooting point forward, which is fine in a vacuum. He has decent touch and his playmaking instincts were underutilized playing alongside Chris Paul for so many years. That this approach is resulting in a pretty steep statistical drop is concerning, but the most jarring thing is that Blake Griffin isn’t himself anymore. Of course he is, tautologically, but he is no longer a player of unparalleled power. When he was younger, everything about his game was fast and heavy. The altitude of his dunks was impressive, but the real visceral thrill of them was how gravity seemed to reach Jupiterian levels as soon as he reached the apex of his jump. Kevin Harlan’s catchphrase—“up high, and down hard!”—found its perfect application on Griffin slams. This violent suddenness permeated his play. His drives were confrontationally swift and direct. On the fast break, he sought the rim like he was made out of magnets.
Every star, no matter how varied their skill set might be, has a specific dimension or characteristic that defines them. Magic’s joyful, freewheeling passing genius was his thing. Iverson possessed a nasty, wasp-like relentlessness. LeBron, especially at this later stage of his career, has a masterful understanding of the game’s every element. Blake was a trebuchet full of barbells; he was a cast iron space shuttle. He ran through whoever didn’t run away from him.
Over the years, he added a bunch of other stuff—improved his ball-handling, extended his range, rendered his court vision widescreen and kept an eye out for open teammates as he lanced through defenses—to that essential quality because you can’t dominate the NBA with a single strength, but that was all work ethic and problem-solving. Blake was doing impressions, somewhat weakly evoking LeBron’s passing, Durant’s shooting, Carmelo’s mid-range maneuvering. This isn’t an insult. Everyone’s work is, in some significant way, an emulation of our peers’ and forebearers’ work. If we don’t borrow or steal, we don’t grow.
But there is, at the heart of all remarkable work, a uniqueness, a sense that nobody else could produce quite the same thing. Blake Griffin is losing that, becoming on the dark side of his prime a less distinctive character. Lots of players, as their athleticism erodes, slip statistically and tumble down the imaginary rankings boards in our heads, but for Blake it also has an existential aspect. Athleticism wasn’t just a means toward greatness for him; his peculiar greatness was contained within its gargantuan boundaries.
So what do we make of a player like that? The short answer is we think less of him and think of him less, which is easy to do in this case because Blake is stuck on a moribund Pistons squad that’s likely to struggle. But we don’t want to cast athletes, especially ones who haven’t even yet cracked their 30s, aside like an old toy. We don’t want to, but that’s typically the way things go. The player fades into irrelevance, and we check in on them less frequently, hoping unhelpfully for a renaissance—that what’s gone will in an unforeseen way make room for some pleasantly surprising development. It’s happened before. Vince Carter and Jason Kidd come to mind. But the odds are against it, and anyway, something, if not everything, has already ended. It’s an argument for appreciating what’s here in the moment, grasping the frailty even of what seems like it’s going to persist for a while longer. Blake Griffin is different now, terminally. What’s left is more what he’s made of himself than what used to make him special.