Detroit Pistons: Don’t worry about Blake Griffin’s age

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 3: Blake Griffin
MIAMI, FL - MARCH 3: Blake Griffin /

An awful lot has been made about Detroit Pistons’ forward Blake Griffin. Particularly, the combination of his contract and age. But his game should age well. Injuries are the real concern.

Currently, at the age of 29, Blake Griffin is set to make just under $32 million dollars with the Detroit Pistons this season.

His salary will rise until he has a player option (that he will almost certainly take) for just under $39 million when he will be 32 years old.

It is worth mentioning, that paying any player this amount of money poses a significant risk. Obviously, for some players that risk is more than worth it, but no matter what, it’s still a liability.

With that said, Griffin does not fall into the “Obviously good enough to be worth the risk,” category. The gamble with Griffin is higher than it is with some other guys on similarly huge deals. Griffin is paid more than he is probably worth, and at best, he can come close to being a decent value.

Exactly how much of his contract he is worth is an argument for another time. The point here is specifically about his game as he ages.

Any time that Griffin’s name is brought up, most people think the contract isn’t ideal, with many even going so far as to call it one of the worst in the league. And that’s not only because of the money, but since the Pistons will be paying Griffin $39 million once he’s 32.

 This is a complaint that is pretty much unfounded.

The biggest worry about Griffin’s contract is his injuries.

This is accepted by even the most optimistic among us (which, admittedly, I am one of them). These injuries have a real potential to make Griffin’s time in Detroit a bona fide disaster.

Over the last three years, Griffin has played in 35, 61, and 58 games. Some have occurred in the playoffs, which can’t afford to happen in Detroit.

Even still, many believe that even if he stays healthy, Griffin will age poorly.

More than “just a dunker”

A big swath of these people are simply ignorant. No small amount of casual NBA fans still think of Griffin as being a dunker, who caught lobs from Chris Paul for years and very little else.

Griffin as “just a dunker” was never really true in the first place. He scored 22.8 points with 3.8 assists per game as a 21-year-old rookie with no Chris Paul, but it became even less true as time went on.

Part of the belief that Griffin will age poorly is also based in a simple falsehood. It is the idea that players who are incredible athletes age poorly by default.

There are a couple of problems with this theory. First, not everyone who comes into the NBA as a truly supreme athlete relies totally on their athleticism. As stated above, Griffin’s image as being “just a dunker” was always unfair to how skilled he is as a player.

When you have such a head-start in athleticism, you’ll typically be more athletic than most guys your age the older you become.

LeBron James has lost small amounts of his athleticism, which are most visible on the defensive end. He is just not as agile as he once was, even when he’s trying. That said, he is such a supreme athlete that he still stands as one of the most athletic players in the entire league.

As always, James is an outlier. He may very well be the most supremely gifted and versatile athlete to ever live. But the basic point still stands.

One of the reasons Vince Carter has stayed in the NBA so long is because he is a similar type of athlete. Even though he is no longer the freak he once was, Carter still stands fully capable of keeping up with much younger NBA players.

Let’s say that Griffin’s injuries are going to slow him down significantly to the point where he is no longer able to rely on athleticism. While that would make him less explosive of course, he should still be regarded a highly effective player.

Skills that stick

In the NBA, there are two things that you never lose with age; and a third that generally sticks around. The main two are size and basketball IQ, while the third is shooting.

Generally speaking, players who are good shooters remain so forever. However, there are plenty of really good shooters who reach a point where they can’t get their shot off in the tiny windows that defenders leave. Sometimes, this can even cause them to lose their stroke entirely.

But being a large human is something that literally never goes away. Being whip-smart on a basketball court is also something that never goes away. The player mold that is most likely to age well throughout history is the highly skilled big man.

Griffin currently stands as, legitimately, one of the best passing big men not only in the game today, but to ever step on the court. Griffin has averaged over five assists per game throughout the last three years, while also creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.

Griffin’s most valuable asset is his ability as a true, offensive hub. He’s a classic example of a guy whose combination of size and ball skills make him a match-up nightmare.

If you put a big on Griffin, he can drive past him. If you put a wing on him, he will bully the unlucky soul inside. Throw in his elite passing ability, and he is the total package. 

Griffin can remain that way long after he has lost his athleticism. As long as he can walk, he’s capable of making plays like this:

Neither of those plays show some high-flying leap, or incredible crossover displaying quickness. That’s just a huge human being with a great basketball mind and a soft touch. As long as Blake Griffin can walk, he should be able to be an effective offensive hub out of the post.

But Griffin can’t shoot!

The shooting is actually a secondary concern to his defense long-term, but more on that in a moment.

Griffin isn’t a terrible shooter now. In his first season taking a significant numbers of threes, he shot 34.5 percent from deep on 5.4 attempts per game. That’s not all that good, but it isn’t bad either.

It’s in line with heavy-usage offensive players who aren’t known as shooters. For reference, in Griffin’s first, real season shooting 3-pointers, he shot better than Russell Westbrook ever has in his career.

Beyond that, there is a good reason to think that Griffin will get to be better than just a sort-of-serviceable shooter. Once again, it’s a case of his reputation and the actual, on-court product being vastly different.

Griffin’s perception among so many fans is that he is a great athlete who dunks a lot but does little else. He’s also gained a reputation as a pretty boy who doesn’t work hard or do the dirty work.

Now there is some truth to the dirty work argument. Griffin, like most stars, occasionally has a problem with doing the little things for an entire game. But even that is overstated.

His on-court game suggests that he is a relentless worker who does a great deal to improve his game. Griffin’s improvements as a free throw shooter, ball handler, passer, and shooter from the floor are nothing short of remarkable.

Rebounds? Relax

Even the biggest complaint people levy against him, his drop off in rebounds, holds little water. Griffin averaged 12.1 rebounds per game his rookie year. Yes, it has largely gone down since then. But that has more to do with circumstance, rather than Griffin losing the desire or ability to grab rebounds.

Griffin played next to DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers and now has Andre Drummond next to him in Detroit. His teams have consistently rebounded at an elite level. As such, Griffin’s ability to rebound is still very high. He just simply decided to be content doing the dirty work of boxing out, and letting the behemoth next to him swallow up rebounds.

For every facet of his game where he’s put in the effort to improve, Griffin has done just that. While it would be unlikely for Griffin to ever become an especially high-level shooter from outside, he went from shooting 52.1 percent from the line his second season up to 78.5 percent last year.

It is in fact fairly reasonable, given his improvements everywhere else, that Griffin will manage to become a reliable shooter from all over the floor.

The last point beyond all of this is that in the last year of his contract, Griffin will be 32 (and turn 33 at the very end of the season) which is not that old.

There are tons of high-level players who remain at that very high-level at 32. In fact, the guys who drop off significantly by 32 are the outliers. Griffin is well documented as being very diligent in taking care of his body and staying in shape.

So, unless he suffers a truly catastrophic injury, it’s very unlikely he slows down that much by then.

You mentioned defense?

This is actually the area where you should be most concerned with Griffin.

He may slow down, but his offense is likely to hold pretty consistently well into his 30’s as a big, lumbering, match-up problem.

The bigger worry is on the defensive end. Even at his peak, Griffin topped out as a pretty good defender when he wanted to be. But even then, he lacked lateral quickness on the perimeter and his (comparatively) short arms did little to help make up for it.

Griffin’s size will allow him to remain stout inside, both as a post-up defender and rebounder. Yet his side-to-side quickness has never been great.

Lateral quickness is generally one of the first things to decline in athletes. It’s the one area where LeBron James has shown real signs of decline, for instance. And in a league where the ability to switch onto perimeter ball-handlers is becoming increasing important, it isn’t great that the Piston’s super-max player can only really top out as “okay” in those situations.

Even worse is that Griffin hasn’t really showed all that much desire to be consistently good on defense. Considering that maximum effort only makes him average is a big problem.

If Griffin loses enough lateral quickness, and doesn’t have some sort of epiphany to give great defensive effort, he could quickly become a serious liability on the defensive end.

But, the injuries.

I mean, yeah.

No one is denying the worries about his health.

Griffin’s injuries have been largely freak incidents that are not connected to show some bigger weakness. But there are some guys that just break down easier than others, and as he nears 30, injuries will become harder and harder to bounce back from.

The Detroit Pistons will need (at minimum) 60 games from Griffin, as well as health in the playoffs, if they’re going to become even dark horse contenders. He hasn’t managed that in several years, which that is the ultimate worry.

But the idea that Griffin is “rapidly declining” is just untrue. Even with the injuries the previous three years, Griffin has averaged 21.5 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per game with a true shooting percentage of 55.4 percent.

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He remains an incredibly high-level player. His game isn’t falling off, and it’s built to last.

The only question, and it’s a real question, will be if Griffin’s body is as built to last as his game is.