Los Angeles Clippers president of basketball operations and coach Doc Rivers loudly and vigorously declared recently, "Blake is ours." But that didn't stop rival executives from making calls about the availability of Blake Griffin in advance of Thursday's trade deadline. Amid a flurry of reported proposals and discussions, Rivers hoped to silence the speculation once and for all Tuesday, when he told reporters Griffin was staying in Los Angeles.
"We're not trading Blake," Rivers said, delivering a statement that likely wouldn't have been necessary had Griffin showed better judgment in a Jan. 23 incident with assistant team equipment manager Matias Testi that resulted in the power forward breaking his hand.
Griffin opened himself to a level of scrutiny that goes beyond his postseason failures, injury history or any flaws in his gradually diversifying game. Until his broken right hand fully heals and he serves the four-game suspension that came as a result of the fight with Testi, Griffin will continue to have his judgment, focus and maturity questioned.
The fight has clouded his future with the franchise and made it reasonable to ponder Griffin continuing his career in another uniform. Griffin has avoided taking too many hits to his image while becoming a superstar, daredevil dunker and deadpan pitchman over the years. But Rivers doesn't believe the negative attention from the incident will affect Griffin upon his return.
"Listen, he's tested every night," Rivers recently told The Vertical. "Blake gets hit, chipped more than any player in the league. He's already been tested."
Griffin has long been a target for elbows, extracurricular antics after the whistle and taunts from opponents on the court but he has usually avoided retaliating. How Griffin responds to his latest off-court test will help determine exactly what direction the Clippers will take moving forward.
Ever since he paired with Chris Paul and formed Lob City, Griffin has seen the franchise replace the foundering Lakers as the city's best team. But annual second-round ousters, at best, have kept the Clippers among the second tier of contenders in the Western Conference.
With this being a critical season to determine the ceiling of the Clippers' core, Griffin was playing arguably his best ball before a torn left quadriceps tendon in late December put the pause button on his season. Then came the incident that will keep him out until March, placing his standing within the organization on unstable ground and placing the burden on his teammates to compensate for his absence for a while longer.
"It's been tough to know that I let my teammates down, let our organization down, let our fans down, family, all that," Griffin told reporters Tuesday in his first public comments since the incident. "That's probably been the hardest part."
When Griffin went down with a staph infection in his right elbow last season, DeAndre Jordan developed a two-man game with Paul and proved himself competent enough offensively that he was rewarded with a maximum contract last summer – by two teams. Pushed back into a similar role that had the Dallas Mavericks believing he was a franchise center, Jordan has thrived once again.
"It was tough. It was tough," Jordan recently told The Vertical about his first conversation with Griffin after the incident. "He obviously didn't want to miss any more time because he was out with his knee before that. But we all make mistakes in life. And we sometimes make decisions that we probably shouldn't have made – I'm a living testament to that. We learn from it and continue to grow."
Paul will soon turn 31 and doesn't have many more years left in his prime to throw away, especially for a situation that could've been avoided. After shouldering much of the blame for the Clippers' recent postseason woes, Paul has a burning desire to avoid being the lone member of his banana boat clique – along with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony – to never reach at least the conference finals.
The pressure on Paul to perform without Griffin has been exacerbated by the absence of backup point guard Austin Rivers, who suffered a broken hand last week in Minnesota and will also be out several weeks.
"It's not easy, so you just do it. You don't have a choice. You figure it out," Paul told The Vertical. "I don't worry about having nothing left. We don't know what our team looks like until our guys get back. So for us, it's about winning games until our guys get back. We're just trying to be there, be healthy."
Griffin's teammates didn't necessarily need to see or hear him say he's "truly, truly sorry" to know that he was remorseful or perturbed by the embarrassing situation.
"That's Blake," Clippers sixth man Jamal Crawford told The Vertical. "He is so hard on himself while playing the game. He expects perfection when he's playing basketball. He'll have 25, eight and six, but if we lose, he'll be like, 'I could've did more. I should've did more.' And that's what's always been impressive about him. So he's always expected that from himself. So I know how hard it is now, dealing with this and what's going on."
The Clippers have gone 18-5 without Griffin, prompting several teams to contact Rivers to see what it would take to acquire the five-time All-Star. Rivers rebuffed overtures for Griffin and isn't under any delusions that the team is somehow better without Griffin, no matter what the advanced statistics might say about the past few weeks.
None of the Clippers' recent wins has come against the league's elite and three of the losses were against East-leading Cleveland, Toronto and Boston. They will get another chance to measure up against the best with games against San Antonio and Golden State coming out of the break.
"We know whenever he comes back, we're going to be a stronger ball club," Jordan told The Vertical. "We miss him. We can't replace him. We've got to find a way to continue to win without him and just encourage him."
Having a healthy Griffin is the only way for the Clippers to potentially topple the teams above them in the standings. Moving Griffin could be revisited this summer, if the Clippers have another playoff flop or on the long-shot chance he could be used in a sign-and-trade to acquire Kevin Durant.
Rivers would love to see how Griffin fits the small-ball style of play with which the team found success and had to embrace with its traditional power forward sidelined. The Clippers have explored accentuating the roster by aggressively pursuing stretch forward Channing Frye from Orlando.
"I failed as a coach, trying to implement the small lineup with the big lineup," Rivers told The Vertical. "Coming into this year, that was my goal. And up until 20 games, I hadn't done a good job of it. This has kind of forced me into it and now we know exactly how we want to play. Blake with the small lineup is even more dangerous."
Paul doesn't believe the team or Griffin will have to make many adjustments when they get back together. "Blake is watching games. Blake is a competitor. He's paying attention to everything and when he gets ready, he'll be ready, and he's going to come back ready to rock," Paul told The Vertical. "That's our brother. It's a family over here. And things happen within families. We're going to welcome him with open arms."
The word "family" is thrown around often within the Clippers' locker room, and the core of the team has been together long enough that the relationships don't come across as hollow. They aren't just missing Griffin but also Testi, who didn't receive any punishment from the team for his role in the incident. Players and coaches have tightened the circle since the fight, stressing absolution and reconciliation when the moment arrives.
"We're human," Rivers told The Vertical. "I joked when I said we built Richard Nixon a library. So, we're a forgiving country and we're forgiving people and you're really talking about young people. Blake's a young person, still. Unfortunately, his life is played out in front of people, where others' aren't. Blake, in the long run, will show you exactly who he is. He's a great guy. And he'll get past this."
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