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Is Blake Griffin Developing or Declining?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 2, 2014

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There's something different about Blake Griffin, something besides his missing Movember mustache—though we should probably take a mournful moment to grieve its passing.

Hard as it is to believe on the heels of a familiar Player of the Week acknowledgementhis fifthGriffin isn't the same guy he was two years ago. Or even last year.

The question: Is the change in Griffin's game a sign of development or decline?

Let's break it down.

What's New?

November 15, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin (32) shoots against the defense of Phoenix Suns forward Marcus Morris (15) during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Griffin's overall numbers are down from a year ago—marginally, but in ways that speak to a larger change. Key scoring, rebounding and field-goal accuracy numbers are below the levels set last season. Steal and block rates have also headed south. Free-throw frequency? Yep, that too.

Blake Griffin, Then and Now
PPGRPGFG%BPGSPGFTA/GM
2013-1424.19.552.80.62.18.4
2014-1522.67.549.00.30.56.2
Basketball-Reference.com

Again, these are minor steps backward, and it's still early enough in the season to chalk them up to a small sample.

Except there's even more compelling evidence of Griffin's altered game hidden in his shooting profile.

Pull up Blake's Basketball-Reference.com page, and you'll see the real story.

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Just 30.3 percent of Griffin's field goals have come from inside three feet, the lowest rate of his career. And he's never taken more shots from outside 16 feet. An eye-opening 35.8 percent of his field-goal tries have come from the much-derided "long two" area of the floor.

Here's his shot chart from this season:

NBA.com

Essentially, Griffin has swapped out point-blank looks for the least efficient shots available. No wonder his overall field-goal percentage is down.

Swapping close looks for long ones also explains Griffin's declining number of trips to the foul line. He's not getting fouled as often because he's not visiting the slap-happy, congested paint like he used to.

Here's last year's chart, complete with better volume and efficiency inside:

NBA.com

It's not just Griffin's interior volume that has slipped. He's also converting close-range looks less efficiently, at 70.5 percent. That's a very high success rate for most mortals, but the lowest one Griffin has posted since he was a rookie.

The cherry on top is this: Griffin is posting a career low in assisted field goals. So not only is he shooting from less efficient distances, he's also taking those shots without the accuracy boost of the catch-and-shoot.

What Gives?

There are two ways to explain this curious change in Griffin's game.

Option 1: Griffin is in the early stages of developing a stretchier offensive repertoire, perhaps as part of a plan to help the spacing-starved Los Angeles Clippers compensate for their perimeter-challenged wings and paint-bound center.

Increasingly, rolls into the lane have become pops to the perimeter.

Viewed that way, Griffin's change makes some sense. The Clips need to threaten defenses outside the lane, and based on what he told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, head coach Doc Rivers seems sympathetic to the difficulty Griffin is encountering in trying to help:

I don't think Blake can just attack every possession and be good, and I don't think he can settle for jump shots. We want him to be a full player and that's what he's becoming. There's a learning curve in that, when to do it, when not to do it, when not to settle, and I think he's figuring that out.

If this is all part of an evolution to make the Clippers better, good for Griffin. There are plenty of players who'd simply keep doing the same things they've always done, regardless of what the team needed.

The alternative is less promising.

Option 2: Griffin is hurt, losing athleticism, already declining physically or, worse still, all three at once.

It may seem crazy to suggest Blake's physical prime is over at 25, but he's had knee issues throughout his career and I think we'd all admit a nagging worry that his insane athleticism would someday be diminished by wear and tear.

Griffin's first four years in the league featured nightly beatings at the hands of frustrated defenders. Even now, with fewer forays inside, the Clippers forward takes more than his share of hard fouls.

Plus, he's been under the knife three times since 2008. It started with a minor arthroscopic procedure at Oklahoma. Then there was surgery to repair a broken left kneecap in 2010 that ended his rookie season before it ever started. In 2012, Griffin had another scope to repair a torn meniscus.

We're not dealing with ACLs here, but a trio of surgeries is no small thing.

Would it really be so surprising if Griffin has retreated to the perimeter because his body won't let him dominate the lane anymore?

What's Next?

So, will the changes Griffin is implementingwhatever the causebe good or bad for his career going forward?

The answer depends on what you want out of Blake.

If you believe the changes and attendant struggles are temporary—a necessary step toward greater progress—you're excited. If he gets comfortable enough to stretch out to the three-point line, where he's made four of his seven attempts this season, it would breathe life into the Clips offense and give him a frightening new facet.

Everybody wants power forwards who can hit from distance, and a three-point shot would make Griffin a terrifying force.

At the same time, so much of what makes Blake great is his raw physicality—his strength, speed, power and ability to elevate inside are virtually unparalleled at his position.

If he's truly losing those things, or if he's simply choosing to make them a smaller part of his game, the repercussions will be huge. Griffin's post game isn't polished, and he uses those inherent gifts to go over and through opponents, compensating for his lack of height and relatively short wingspan.

It would be sad to see Griffin losing his interior presence, especially if the Clippers decide not to keep DeAndre Jordan as a free agent this summer, leaving them without an inside force of any kind.

The evolution of Griffin's game was bound to happen eventually, but few would have pegged age 25 as the time for change.

Players should be lauded for expanding their games, particularly when that expansion happens in a way that addresses team needs and keeps pace with league trends. But what made Griffin so special, so unique, was his combination of freakish athleticism and reckless attacking style.

Seeing changes in those areas fundamentally takes away what was best about him.

We're not watching a disaster unfold. Griffin was Player of the Week, after all. And he's still a star. Critically, his effort level remains high, as noted by Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

But Griffin has changed, and it sure feels like this is just the beginning of a larger metamorphosis that'll eventually result in a very different Blake than we've seen in the past.

Even if this is what Griffin and the Clippers need, it's not what most of us want.