You have never seen so much free shit chucked, launched, and dropped into the stands in your life, as you did at the first Clipper game of the post-Blake Griffin era. It’s the kind of party a sports franchise throws to celebrate a $175 million dollar reprieve, having rid itself of financial obligation to an injury-prone star who also happens to be the most eminently watchable and likable player who has ever worn the uniform. Blake Griffin in the lineup or not, everyone stands for free t-shirts.
Early reviews, including one on this site, have generally given the Clippers a passing grade for Monday’s deal sending Griffin to Detroit for a package of players and picks headlined by Tobias Harris. The team increased its long-term salary cap flexibility, and when it comes to Xs and Os, it is no longer beholden to one guy (even if that guy is someone who once dunked the ball so hard the baseline referee instinctively recoiled at the impact).
The swift, unceremonious departure, and the consensus regarding how the team made out in the trade reflects a legacy of disappointment that Griffin seems to have picked up the tab for on his way out of LA.
“We were fun, we were exciting,” Doc Rivers told the media the day after the trade, “but we didn’t get it done.”
The it he’s talking about is a championship, and it’s true, the Clippers never sniffed one in the Blake Griffin era. Lob City at its peak had the most electrifying frontcourt in league history, the purest shooter in the game, and the Point God getting them the ball. Coming off the bench, the guy they’re naming the sixth man award after. That squad could not make it out of the second round. It’s fair to call that a failure.
But defining Griffin’s eight-plus years in Los Angeles by the team’s postseason letdowns misses the point. There wasn’t even a postseason before Griffin. The Clippers were just a revolving door of castoffs and busts who filled roster spots and cashed checks from the old racist owner; Blake Griffin gave them a reason to exist. (For all the anxiety in recent years of the team’s core becoming “stale,” the continuity was a revelation in itself.)
Rivers paid lip service to Griffin’s legacy, but only as a preface to revisiting the “debacle” of blowing a 19-point lead to Houston in a potential series clincher. Perhaps the lack of sentimentality from the organization following the trade is because Griffin predates almost everyone here. That includes the entire basketball operations team who dealt him (Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, with the input of Jerry West and Rivers), team owner Steve Ballmer and team president Gillian Zucker. Blake Griffin was the water they swam in.
The Mozgov. The Perkins. What other player’s signature plays are other people’s names?
Griffin debuted during Basketball Twitter’s infancy and instantly became the poster(-izing) boy for the NBA’s burgeoning digital media empire. His first bucket was an alley-oop; by the third week of his career, he had paid off your League Pass subscription. He incurred the greatest charging foul in NBA history baptizing Marcin Gortat. He double-dipped Pau Gasol. He triple-dipped Aron Baynes. Each of these events registered nationally in a way nothing associated with the Clippers ever had.
He dunked so much—214 times his rookie season—that he actually got blowback for it, for the most plainly delightful action in the sport. A sobering ESPN graphic in his sophomore campaign—the Clippers played 23 national TV games that year, up from 11 his rookie season—reminded viewers that ALLEY OOP = 2 POINTS. (The funny thing was hearing the Clippers announcers fight the math, pointing out that lobs are worth extra because of their effect on the crowd.)
That graphic epitomized the mysterious insistence on throwing cold water on Griffin’s intoxicating ability. For all his wonderful qualities as a basketball player—the ball skills, court vision, unselfishness, motor—his limitations have always dominated the conversation around him. Over the years the specific deficiencies have alternated: his free throws, then his perimeter game (both vastly improved since his rookie year), his defense, his health. Now it’s his contract, a five-year deal signed last June that will pay Griffin nearly $39 million in 2021.
He hasn’t made it easier on himself. He acquired a gruesome, inexplicable flopping habit his second year; he punched an equipment manager in the face and made several unforgivably bad Kia commercials with Jack McBrayer (after nailing the first few he starred in). He went from most entertaining player in the league to the one who was trying hardest to entertain you.
But still. There was Playoff Blake, the player who showed up to lay 24.6/10/5 over his last two healthy postseasons, a 27-game sample. He was the funniest guy in the league pre-Embiid, right? Or at least pre-Draymond. He was a cultural phenomenon, a five-time All Star who’s also a self-deprecating stand-up comic, a little smug, sure, but with great timing; the perfect star for LA’s other basketball team, he was as silly and glorious as the Hollywood sign, or the old Clipper logo that’s just a knockoff of the Laker one, or the stock photo of a chair we all thought was actually propped up against DeAndre Jordan’s front door.
If any NBA franchise could be liberated from the burden of championship aspirations, it would be the Clippers, and if any basketball player could pursue aesthetic transcendence without having to win all the time it would and should have been Blake Griffin. But the trade for Chris Paul after his rookie year reoriented the team towards contention, and Griffin’s viral reaction to the deal proved to be the last gasp of its naïveté. From that moment on, the team was about getting it done. And so was he.
They weren’t selling No. 32 jerseys in the team store and a Boban Marjanovic jersey hung in Griffin’s old locker. There was no trace of him in the Jumbotron highlight reels or in the rafters, where the Clipper posters that normally cover the Laker championship banners had been replaced by black tarp. The depleted lineup collapsed in the third quarter. DeAndre Jordan, one of the only members of the organization who predates Griffin, ducked the press after the game.
It’s still a vastly different scene from a Clipper game of 2009. There’s a pyrotechnics show in the pregame, and people in attendance are actually wearing Clipper gear, all the more impressive considering how unsightly it is. Celebrity fan Frankie Muniz has been upgraded to celebrity fan Jimmy O. Yang. The game isn’t sold out, but then again Tobias Harris wasn’t playing.
It’s hard to look at a team dumping its franchise player to save money three years from now; to realize the roster is now entirely comprised of players who arrived this season or can leave when it’s over; to see round after round of t-shirts mortared into the stands, and not imagine the revolving door starting to spin again. Somehow this detail needed to be reported and anonymously sourced, but LeBron James is almost certainly not walking through that revolving door; more importantly, neither is Blake Griffin. You only get one first superstar.
He was shot out of a cannon to rescue the Clippers from terminal mediocrity, and his arrival transformed the franchise. Through the dunks, the flops, and two of the greatest Twitter nights of all time, Griffin legitimized the Clippers in ways that only he could. He was exhilarating at every turn.
While the Clippers don’t have hardware to show for the Griffin era, it’s important to realize that it’s the Clippers, here, who are insisting that’s the point. Blake Griffin gave fans something to stand for beyond free t-shirts, and the franchise something to dream about. They did not get it done, but with Blake Griffin, they were fun, they were exciting, and it was possible to imagine a world in which they could.