Blake Griffin has been in some unnamed other phase of his career for a while now. There was a point, somewhere around the middle of the just-past decade, when it became clear that he was his generation’s Vince Carter: gobsmacking what-the-hell-is-this-dude-up-to feats in his early 20s, then a protracted period of decline. This isn’t the same thing as falling off a cliff. Carter averaged at least 20 points per game until he hit age 33, but as soon as his knees started to deteriorate, he belonged to a different phylum of player. He was no longer a sensation.
The same has been true of Blake, who arrived in the NBA as an evolutionary lovechild of Charles Barkley and Larry Johnson and then shrunk into the role of a very nice forward who could score pretty efficiently and handle the ball but also, crucially, struggled to keep himself on the court. In the context of his first few years in Los Angeles, the back half of his Clipper tenure was a disappointment made doubly sad by the fact that his primary shortcomings weren’t his fault. You can’t control the readiness with which joints cooperate, or how high you jump.
Blake actually had quite a year with the Pistons last season, if not coming to terms with his physical limitations then learning to operate within thinner margins. He got to display the robust problem-solving aspect of his game that’s always been there but was understandably relegated to the background when he was powering past and dunking over opponents. He carried a definitionally mediocre Detroit team into the playoffs, straining heroically through the winter and spring months, and then once they got there, he was almost too broken down to play.
His left knee gave up on him at the end of an impressive but grueling season. On April 7th, before a tilt against the Hornets in which Blake shot 5-for-18 and was noticeably feeling less than himself, Dwane Casey said the Pistons’ star was going to push on despite his injury. According to Detroit’s medical staff, he couldn’t do further damage to the knee by playing on it, which would seemingly be contradicted by the fact that Blake bounced in and out of the lineup, even missing the Pistons’ first two playoff games, for the remainder of the year. But anyway, he toughed it out the best he could, delaying knee surgery until the summer.
Apparently that surgery didn’t accomplish much, because Blake placed himself back on the operating table a week-and-a-half ago. He’s out indefinitely and will rehab until at least the beginning on next season, and though we never know the outcomes of these things for sure, the prognosis for a soon-to-be 31-year-old Blake, coming off two knee operations, looks grim.
Did he do any extra damage in those final weeks of last season? It’s impossible to say, but the idea that an injury can’t get worse, which coaches, trainers, and sometimes even players claim with infuriating regularity, is disingenuous bunk. Kevin Durant played through what the Warriors kept insisting was a balky calf in the Finals, which couldn’t get worse, and ended up tearing his Achilles. Kevon Looney broke his collarbone in the same series and missed only one game, because it couldn’t get worse. He’s been laid up with an assortment of health problems for most of this season. John Wall, for the bulk of 15-16, was dealing with bruised ribs, a hip issue, and, most problematically, what he called “a fat-ass sprain” on his right ankle. He said the sprain couldn’t get any worse—except for, you know, the fact that it wasn’t healing. He got surgery on both knees the following offseason and, at age 29, hasn’t played a single game since tearing his Achilles in December of 2018.
This isn’t to suggest that playing through one injury always begets a greater one. In late 2017, James Harden juddered and feinted away on a sore knee that couldn’t get worse and it seems like it didn’t. It’s hard to draw a clear relationship between Looney’s current injury issues—neuropathic aches in his hamstrings, abdominal pain—and him trudging through the Finals one-armed and in visible anguish, other than to say that trauma like that can’t be good for the body overall. Medical science, which practically nobody writing about basketball is versed in anyway, is inexact and injury situations are fluid. We are all making guesses, highly educated or otherwise, about what’s causing a problem, and what might exacerbate it.
But you don’t have to be a doctor or an athlete to understand that any injury can get worse, or at least create a new injury in another place. If you’ve ever tweaked your neck or rolled an ankle, you know it changes the way you move and puts unfamiliar stress on other parts of the body. You know that rest is better for it than labor, especially if that labor involves, say, trying to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo away from the rim. Whether Blake Griffin destroyed his knee by playing on it last spring, only made it a little bit worse, or didn’t negatively affect it at all, there was a safer option and a less-safe one. He chose the latter, and it looks like his leg is now seriously jacked up.
A couple days ago, Nate McMillan told reporters that Domantas Sabonis, who has been struggling with a sore knee and sat out a recent game against the Bulls, will continue to play without any minutes restriction because, you guessed it: the injury can’t get worse. We’ll see how that goes for Young Domas, whose only slightly more gargantuan dad had a foot like a gnarled tree root by the time he was 30. He could heal up just fine and continue what’s been an immensely satisfying breakout season. He could also—obviously, obviously—turn the wrong way on a weak knee and suffer a setback. To pretend that’s not a possibility is dangerous folly. Athletes should do what they want with their bodies, and that includes wrecking them, but they should understand the risks too. At least then they can make a calculated decision, before being as heedless and wild as they need to be in their wearying work.