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Emboldened by a contract whose intended purpose was to make him a Clipper for life, unchallenged as the face of the franchise following Chris Paul’s trade to Houston and fully aware of the flaws that kept the organization stuck in neutral, Blake Griffin didn’t view this season as redemptive but rather refreshing. The Los Angeles Clippers were starting over, the hype had been muted and the expectations were so low that any signs of a pulse would’ve been deemed a success instead of a joyless letdown.
As he leaned against a ceiling support in the bowels of USC’s Galen Center before an open scrimmage last October, Griffin mentioned that “the vibe was different” around the Clippers. Griffin stood barefoot, unbothered and unconcerned about stubbing the surgically repaired big toe that caused him to weep as he missed the end of another playoff run with his teammates. “I think, just in general, our team is just much more free,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports.
The reason Griffin was at ease wasn’t just because he’d been taking subtle steps toward assuming more leadership, or that he’d brought the team together in the summer by renting a house in San Diego for a weekend of workouts and bonding. Griffin’s spirits were high because he was in great physical condition. He was prepared to remind fans of the man who once turned Timofey Mozgov into a verb.
“I feel like this is the healthiest I’ve been, strongest I’ve felt, top to bottom, so it’s definitely a year that everything has fallen into place,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports.
Optimism has always been fragile in Clipper Land, because the franchise has been too often struck with the bad-luck stick. Even with little pressure and less scrutiny, the Clippers now find themselves in a place where they have to contemplate turning a reboot into a full rebuild. The good health that Griffin cherished, the good health that gave him the physical strength to do the unthinkable again has betrayed him once more.
A repeat victim of the flukiest of fluke accidents, Griffin added another to the list when teammate Austin Rivers fell into the worst place possible — Griffin’s left leg. That limb has long stood in the way of Griffin prospering. He missed what should’ve been his entire rookie season with a fractured left kneecap. He missed what should’ve been an Olympic gold medal run in 2012 after tearing his meniscus in a Team USA practice. He suffered a partially torn left quadriceps that contributed to the worst season of his career in 2015-16. While sidelined, he broke his hand punching a team trainer, returned too soon from the quad setback and aggravated the injury again in the playoffs, likely costing him another Olympic appearance. Now, Griffin has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his knee that will keep the five-time All-Star sidelined for about two months, likely costing him an All-Star appearance in his adopted hometown.
Injuries have decimated an already thin Clippers roster, making the second option for Los Angeles basketball fans even more of an afterthought. An encouraging but unsustainable start was followed by a nine-game losing streak during which Griffin was on the floor for every one of those losses. Griffin was responsible for putting that streak to bed with a triple-double in Atlanta on Nov. 22 and a pretty rainbow game-winner in Sacramento in the next game, but the Clippers have no chance of competing in his absence, even when Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic finally return to action..
Though he has long ditched his reputation for being just a dunker — his steadily expanding game was recognized with a third-place finish in MVP voting behind winner Kevin Durant and LeBron James in 2014 — Griffin hasn’t been able to shake concerns about his health. He hasn’t dealt with a recurring, nagging injury but the mishaps are beginning to add up. After Monday’s collision, Griffin knew he was in trouble before he buried his face into his jersey and walked off the floor.
At the time Rivers crashed into Griffin’s knee, the Clippers were on their way to a third straight win that made the playoffs a faint possibility and patience the preferred plan. Griffin got the best possible news under the circumstances. His season isn’t over, but the Clippers now offer a more difficult decision for team consultant Jerry West and executive vice president Lawrence Frank in determining what kind of team to which Griffin will return.
DeAndre Jordan would usually team up with Paul, Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick to keep the Clippers going whenever Griffin went down. But Paul appears prescient for abandoning Los Angeles for a more durable superstar in James Harden. Jordan is without a point guard capable of even doing a poor man’s impersonation of Paul, with Teodosic out indefinitely and Patrick Beverley done for the year. So, continuing to test Jordan’s market value between now and the trade deadline makes the most sense for the organization. Jordan can opt out of his contract and become a free agent next summer and already came close to leaving in 2015. What vision would keep him in place now?
Selling off players for picks and prospects seems like the best possible fix, but Griffin’s age and injury history complicate matters. Griffin belongs to the Clippers for the foreseeable future, given that they have chosen to commit — to the tune of five years and $173 million — to a player who hasn’t played at least 70 games in any of the previous three seasons, a streak that will continue.
Would a team desperate for a superstar be willing to give up something of value for the right to pay someone who can’t avoid getting hurt? Would a team that believes Griffin could put it over the hump take a similar gamble? Griffin is in what should be the prime of his career and the timeline for what he wants to accomplish wouldn’t coincide with the youth and inexperience that comes with a full-blown rebuild. And having Griffin as the lone star on a stripped down team wouldn’t be appealing to him or coach Doc Rivers, who fled Boston when the Celtics elected to move on from its aging core. But if the Clippers continue to struggle, what Rivers wants to do won’t matter.
Griffin cares too much to be able to take well this latest setback. Doc Rivers describes Griffin as “a tightly strung guy. But that’s what makes Blake good. There’s probably a fine line there. He walks it pretty well, but he’s always on the line.” Griffin constantly puts pressure on himself to be perfect and he has had difficulty grappling with different injuries disrupting his progress.
The Clippers and Griffin decided they were meant for each other last summer. But two months into the season, the franchise is already at a crossroads, with everything that appeared to be falling in place for Griffin suddenly falling apart.
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