From a business perspective, the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t owe Blake Griffin any more than they had given him over the past eight-plus seasons. Griffin has been handsomely compensated, had his numerous ailments treated by the best doctors and been given the platform to become a superstar who can flash his dry humor in car commercials, make cameos on hit TV shows, try his hand at stand-up comedy and even star in an upcoming movie. He knew what he signed up for when he agreed last summer to a five-year, $173 million deal — regrettably, without a no-trade clause — with the only organization he had known.
But when the Clippers lured Griffin to stay before he fully tested free agency for the first time, the over-the-top pitch at Staples Center was anything but strictly business. The Clippers tapped into their personal history and the tight bond that came with their shared rise and struggles to go higher. They sold him on the chance to be a lifelong member of the organization, showed him what his jersey retirement might look like. They tugged at his emotions and Griffin, whose heart was already leaning that way, succumbed. He had a basketball home, the lifestyle and the money. No need to leave all of that.
“It wasn’t a decision that I made easily,” Griffin told Yahoo Sports last October. “I thought about it, more so beforehand. Once I got into my meeting with the Clippers, heard everything and saw their plan for the future, it became an easier decision.”
Of course, the Clippers laid out a long-term business strategy to persuade Griffin not to go elsewhere — and he had few other places in mind. Detroit was not one of those places. Detroit was never going to be one of those places, because Detroit never is one of those places for players of Griffin’s caliber. But nearly seven months later, Griffin is going to throw down his next dunk for the Detroit Pistons after the Clippers executed a trade in advance of the Feb. 8 deadline that stunned the basketball world for myriad reasons.
Coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy is that desperate to make the playoffs that he’d throw away a first-round draft pick and future flexibility to take on a player with declining athleticism, a long injury history and a massive contract that could be frightening in that final season? The Clippers waited until they fought back into the playoff race — despite a litany of injuries — to finally blow up Lob City? Wait, the Clippers really traded away the player who made the franchise relevant for the longest sustained period since the team arrived in Los Angeles?
Once the shock wears off, the reality that loyalty in sports is a misnomer that ultimately requires two sides becomes all the more clearer. With Griffin gone, Stephen Curry and DeMar DeRozan are now the only members of the 2009 draft class with his original team. Russell Westbrook and DeAndre Jordan are the last remaining players with their original team from 2008, and it appears that Jordan might soon be out the door, the irony being that he is the last man standing after Griffin, Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and Paul Pierce basically kidnapped him in the summer of 2015 to keep him from signing with Dallas.
Griffin certainly had increased leverage at the time he signed because the Clippers had just traded Paul and didn’t want to lose the two greatest players in franchise history in the same week or so. Having spent his first eight years with the team that drafted him, Griffin could’ve pressed a lot harder for a no-trade clause — the mechanism that empowered Carmelo Anthony in New York before he landed in Oklahoma City — but he left negotiations simply with financial security and not the ability to determine his own destiny. That the Clippers decided it would be in Detroit before Griffin had a chance to possibly lead the organization to his first post-Paul playoff appearance just feels cold. And not just because Griffin will need a thick, winter coat or two for his new home.
Griffin had a sense of humor about his situation, putting out a GIF of a stunned Will Smith shortly after the trade leaked. He probably sensed it was coming, especially after his name had already been floated in a rumored discussion about Karl-Anthony Towns that went nowhere. But none of that makes the move any less painful for a player who has watched this season turn into nothing that he considered possible after re-signing. Griffin thought lowered expectations from Paul’s departure meant the Clippers had time to regroup and move forward, not that he wouldn’t be a part of those plans. He found out that “for life” meant less than a year.
[Related: Is Blake Griffin enough to save the Pistons?]
Another fluke injury in November, after Austin Rivers came crashing into his unlucky left knee, pushed the Clippers toward this rebuild. They declined to move Griffin two years ago when his trade value was much higher, holding on to the hope that he would eventually mature into a reliable cornerstone of a legitimate contender. Paul was first to give up on that possibility as he leaped into James Harden’s arms. The Clippers were a little late. They could’ve let him walk, could’ve let him talk to other teams and possibly fall in love with Phoenix, Denver or Boston. Instead, they locked him up with dreamy sentimentality, but Griffin didn’t get that loyalty in writing, and the Clippers decided to get out of their commitment before the contract became an albatross. Which they had every right to do. Still feels a tad chilly.
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