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Another Leg Injury Throws a Wrench in Blake Griffin’s Free-Agent Future

Nobody wants to think the Clippers star’s body is failing him, but the evidence is suggesting just that

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Blake Griffin’s history of injuries to his left leg is troublingly long: broken kneecap, meniscus tear, partially torn quadriceps, knee bone bruise, sprained knee, and strained hamstring. Along with numerous other injuries (back stress fracture, right elbow staph infection, and broken right hand), Griffin’s health has caused him to miss nearly two full NBA seasons’ worth of games, the 2012 Olympics, the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and the 2016 Olympics.

The list is getting longer: According to The Vertical’s Shams Charania, Griffin will undergo “minor” surgery on his right knee, a procedure that the Orange County Register’s Dan Woike says will remove “loose bodies,” such as “fragments of cartilage or bone.” This is the first injury to Griffin’s right knee after a series of surgeries to his left leg.

Griffin will be out for “three to six weeks,” making this the third-consecutive season he’s missed a large chunk of games. The Clippers are 41–23 since 2014–15 without Griffin, so they’ve played well without their five-time All-Star, but this is obviously still a blow. Griffin has been stellar this season, averaging 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 4.7 assists. The list of players to put up 21, eight, and four over a full season is littered with Hall of Famers. When Griffin was out last year, the Clippers played more small ball with Wesley Johnson or Luc Richard Mbah a Moute at the 4, which increased their spacing and defensive versatility, so we could see something similar this time around. If Doc Rivers wants to play traditional two-big lineups, Brandon Bass could get more minutes. But the implications of Griffin’s injury are greater this time around.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, players who qualify for a “designated player veteran extension” are eligible to extend five years at 35 percent of the cap. Stephen Curry, for example, could sign this summer for five years and $209 million. Griffin also could’ve qualified, but the time he’ll miss due to surgery assures he won’t be named to an All-NBA team, which is one of the deal’s requirements.

That means Griffin’s choice will be a lot harder this summer: He has an early-termination option for the final year of his contract (worth $21.4 million in 2017–18). He could choose to test free agency, as he’s expected to, but Griffin wouldn’t be able to sign one of the new max extensions. Alternatively, he could opt in and play out the final year of his deal with the hopes of being named to an All-NBA team next season (and, as a result, receive the five-year designated player veteran extension).

There are obviously risks in the latter approach, on both sides of the table. Even an optimist would have trepidation about Griffin’s ability to stay on the floor. For Griffin, this is like a pro version of why so many college players leave for the draft even if they underachieve as freshmen: Why play another year and risk major injury that could plummet your value when you can cash in now? If Griffin were to agree to an extension with the Clippers or sign long term elsewhere, it would provide security that he may not be granted if he suffers another major injury.

Griffin is still bouncy, but his dunks today don’t have quite the same power as he did when Lob City was a thing. In a 2015 Players’ Tribune piece, Griffin explained that early in his career he was relying on his athleticism to get by. “My rookie year I tried to get out of bed on a road trip near the end of the season and I was like, ‘Am I physically able to walk right now?’” he wrote. “I went out on the floor that night and ran up and down just trying to look like a real NBA human.”

With the hopes of improving his health and energy, Griffin made alterations to his game that are most apparent statistically:

A year after a left meniscus tear caused Griffin to miss the London Olympics, his dunk rate rapidly declined. Over the first three years of his career, one-third of his made field goals were dunks. That number declined to one-fourth in 2013–14, and has since plummeted to nearly one-eighth. Griffin might be dunking less, but the injuries have only increased in magnitude.

When Griffin was involved in a flurry of trade rumors this summer, a rival NBA executive told the Boston Herald’s Steve Bulpett that Griffin’s partially torn left quadriceps, requiring a bone marrow procedure, was “a pretty serious thing.” The source said, “I’m not saying you don’t go after him, but you’d better be really sure about that leg before you go making any big commitments.”

Doc Rivers has a tough choice to make, regardless of whether Griffin hits free agency in 2017 or delays until 2018. As Griffin’s history of leg injuries mounts, and his athleticism wanes, one can’t help but recall the many big men who have seen their careers cut short. Griffin could have a wonderful prime, but he could also go down the same path as Amar’e Stoudemire, who quickly turned from franchise savior to albatross contract.