Blake Griffin doesn’t need to be relevant

A FEW MONTHS BACK, Blake Griffin announced he was quitting comedy, his favorite extracurricular activity away from basketball, to pursue music as his next sideline. This declaration was the premise of the four-part mockumentary-ish “Comedy by Blake” digital series for Funny or Die.

After Jeff Ross broke the news with a smirk in one scene, Neal Brennan cracked that “moving from comedy to music to help people is like moving from L.A. to Detroit to become better known.” Griffin could hardly contain his laughter.

It’s been nearly a year since Griffin was traded from the LA Clippers, the team that drafted him in 2009, to the Detroit Pistons in a bombshell deal that went largely undetected by the league’s 24-hour digital monitoring system until it was complete. Seven months after the only NBA franchise he’d played for heralded him as a “Clipper for Life” in its pitch to re-sign its homegrown hero, Griffin was consigned to an Eastern Conference team with a 22-26 record.

The Pistons have a far richer legacy than the Clippers, but the fact that Griffin has made so many inroads in the entertainment world and so many dollars in endorsement deals is evidence of what most would call a geographic demotion. Brennan is a comic, not a branding expert, but his zinger was a reasonable estimation of relevance so far as the NBA is concerned.

This week, Griffin returns to play at Staples Center for the first time since his departure from Los Angeles. He’ll match up with the Lakers on Wednesday (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN), then face his old team Saturday afternoon in what will undoubtedly be one of the most emotional days of his professional life.

GRIFFIN WILL PLAY in front of a Clippers crowd that he very much cultivated from scratch over his eight years with the team. As a 20-year-old supernova who could dunk over sports sedans and unwitting 7-foot centers, Griffin immediately injected the fan base with hope. A franchise saddled with an abysmal history and reputation began to forge an identity around Griffin’s charisma and sell out the building on a regular basis.

“I’m proud to be part of the rebranding of the franchise,” says Griffin on a recent road trip as he reflects on the first lengthy chapter of his career with the Clippers, recounts how he found out about the surprise trade and projects ahead.

“It was like a movement. People don’t think about the Clippers today the way they did. I remember when I was about to get drafted and I think it was Bill Simmons who wrote a piece about how I should I hold out and tell them I don’t want to get drafted there. Tons of people were saying, ‘You don’t want to go to the Clippers.’

“That’s all I heard. And not only did I turn out OK, I had moderate success in the one place where they literally called it ‘The Clippers Curse.’ That’s what it was called! And here I am.”

By sheer chance, Griffin saw his old team less than two weeks after the trade last winter when the Clippers visited Little Caesars Arena. Although the game was played in Detroit and lacked the theatrics that will take place at Staples Center, where Griffin will be honored with a tribute video and warm applause, the meeting caught Griffin off guard. He found the moment more affecting than he’d anticipated.

“I almost wish I could get that experience back because it was too fresh for me,” Griffin says. “I’ve never been in that situation, and I’m an emotional person, I’m a sensitive person. It was hard for me.”

Perhaps it’s the passion for ironic comedy, but Griffin has always had a firm grasp on all those performative, meta rituals that define daily life in the NBA.

“I was not ready for that at all,” Griffin says. “Seeing all those guys, I wasn’t ready to have ‘that game,’ to have to do the ‘What’s up, man?’ ‘What’s up, man?’ ‘What’s up, man?’ [Griffin simulates the compulsory NBA dap.] I’d just left them a week and a half before.”

Virtually every pro athlete feels he’s misunderstood to a certain degree, but Griffin has always been an extreme case. He’s one of the NBA’s more revealing Rorschach tests. Depending on the angle, you can see Griffin as a star who turned around the fortunes of a struggling franchise, or a player who personifies the underachievement of a Clippers team that had the talent to win much more than it did. You can see Griffin as a flash-over-substance highlight reel, or as one of the most skilled big men in the game, a triple threat who can beat you with the pass, the outside shot or one-on-one from anywhere on the floor. You can see him as an injury-prone liability on a bloated contract, or a workaholic with one of the most disciplined individual training regimens in the league.

Hero, villain, franchise savior, slick pitchman, worker, flopper, dunker, unicorn, underrated, overrated, versatile — Blake Griffin is whatever you want him to be.

SOON AFTER BEING named the Pistons’ head coach last June, Dwane Casey flew to Los Angeles to meet with his new franchise player. Griffin was working out at a gym on the campus at West L.A. College, and when Casey arrived, he found a one-man training operation.

“I walk in there, and he’s got about five or six college guys set up to simulate situations with him handling the ball, making decisions,” Casey says. “He was charting all of his shots, he was putting it all on the computer. I mean, doing it with a shot clock and everything. He had all of his workout guys with him, his strength coach, his physical therapist coach. I walked in and I saw this, I said, ‘This guy is serious about his game, his craft.'”

Griffin has always been largely indifferent about the jabs regarding his flopping, or the portrayals of him as the max guy whose name and paycheck exceed his actual achievements. But the one criticism that has always rankled him is the notion that he’s an unrefined, one-dimensional player who has relied exclusively upon athleticism.

“Being a rookie, or my second year and third year, all I heard was how I wasn’t a good basketball player,” Griffin says. “I heard it from so many people for so long that I became — I wouldn’t say jaded because I know who I am as a basketball player — but I hear that and I’m just like, ‘That person doesn’t know basketball.'”

For the eighth time in nine seasons, Griffin ranks among the top three power forwards in assists. He is a potent threat in the pick-and-roll — the only power forward to finish more than 300 plays as a ball handler coming off a pick. Griffin might not have invented the 4-5 pick-and-roll, where two big men execute the action, but he has been the most prolific initiator, first with DeAndre Jordan and now with Andre Drummond. Griffin is also one of only three big men to attempt more than six 3-pointers a game and drain them at better than a 36 percent clip (Lauri Markkanen and Brook Lopez are the others).

Griffin arrived in the NBA with some skills, even if acrobatics were his calling card. Yet in a profession where “declining athleticism” looms over players who use it as their primary attribute, Griffin has added these facets to his game methodically over the past nine seasons.

“This is the first year I really feel like I’ve gotten a little bit of credit for that from a larger group,” Griffin says. “I truly feel like that.”

GRIFFIN FIRST LEARNED he was likely being dealt to Detroit around 10 a.m. the Monday morning the trade was executed. The news didn’t come from his agent, Sam Goldfeder, nor anyone who worked in either the Clippers’ or Pistons’ front office, but rather from a friend who was connected throughout the league. The Clippers had returned from New Orleans the previous night. Though no practice was scheduled for Monday, Griffin planned to go into the facility to lift weights.

After hearing the news from his friend, Griffin called Goldfeder, who in turn tried to reach Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank. Goldfeder couldn’t reach Frank, nor could Griffin, who texted Frank, asking him to please get in touch when he had a chance. Griffin then drove to the Clippers’ training center, where he noticed a tense vibe among the training staff.

After his weights session, Griffin walked upstairs to the basketball operations office, where he asked Frank’s assistant if he could speak to Frank. Griffin encountered an awkwardness in the executive offices similar to the one in the weight room. Frank eventually came out of his office, where the finishing touches were being placed on the transaction.

The conversation between Frank and Griffin was tense, though entirely civil. Griffin asked for definitive information about the negotiations, while Frank responded that players of Griffin’s caliber were frequently the subject of discussions with other organizations, and that the discussion in question had become more substantive. Griffin, well-acquainted with basketball operations speak, this time made a more assertive request: If and when the discussions materialize into a trade, he and his agent wanted to get the news from Frank — not a third party. Frank assured Griffin he’d be his first call.

Griffin left the facility to pick up his kids, and on the drive home, the friend texted that the deal was on the 1-yard line. He should expect a call from Pistons coach and president Stan Van Gundy shortly. Griffin promptly texted Goldfeder with the news and 10 minutes later received a call from Frank and one from Clippers coach Doc Rivers 10 minutes after that. Griffin declined to answer either call, as well as one later from Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. He has not spoken to any of the Clippers’ principals since leaving.

Griffin says he has no regrets about re-upping with the Clippers during the summer of 2017, when the team courted him with the now infamous “Clipper for Life” presentation. He doesn’t hold a grudge over the elaborate, over-the-top schmaltz of the pitch. Perhaps had he only known the team had designs to possibly trade him, he and his agent could’ve had a role in identifying a possible destination. But he says he doesn’t ultimately resent the trade itself.

“I get it,” Griffin says. “Basketball is a business and they said what they had to say at the time, and that’s what I wanted to do. The only thing I wish is that [the trade] had gone down differently.”

From the Clippers’ vantage point, the trade negotiations with Detroit were conducted with pinpoint precision. In a hyperconnected world where league gossip is passed around publicly in real time, the Griffin-to-Detroit talks were entirely absent from the rumor mill. The only way to ensure that would be the case is to keep the discussions confidential, and both teams were especially insistent on an omerta. Had Griffin learned the Pistons were his intended destination, a single report that he had no desire to play in Detroit could’ve torpedoed the deal and ravaged both franchises.

The Griffin trade and last July’s DeMar DeRozan deal are apt illustrations of one of the most uncomfortable realities of the NBA. Front offices must operate in confidence when they’re discussing the most sensitive deals, and young men are human beings who have devoted themselves to a team deserve better than finding out through a third party about one of the most impactful events in their lives.

These are two legitimate but irreconcilable truths, and the more professional a team is at conducting its business, the more excruciating it is for the player.

As Frank puts it, “It’s f—ing terrible. This is our guy, and he’s given his career to the team. And at the same time, we have an obligation to do what’s best for the organization.”

“I DO HAVE fond memories,” Griffin says of his eight years with the Clippers. “But this year more than ever, I’ve really leaned on those experiences. I’ve found myself telling my teammates things that I heard guys say or learned throughout my whole process with the Clippers.”

Earlier this season, the Pistons were working on some defensive principles, specifically the art of “stunting,” by which a defender will pounce toward and away from a player who isn’t his specific assignment while maintaining responsibility for his primary matchup. In a world where the floor is spread with perimeter shooters ready to catch and fire a 3-point bomb, this has never been more important. Griffin remembered a maxim Rivers had used with the Clippers, specifically that if you’re stunting while a guy is catching the ball, you’re already too late. Griffin made the point to Casey, who implored him to share it with the entire team.

“When he speaks, everybody listens,” Casey says. “If we have a team meeting, or a film session, he sits back, he takes in what he sees and what he hears. He’s usually the second or third guy to speak, but it’s very profound. He’s definitely the leader of our team — this is his team.”

“Not only did I turn out OK, I had moderate success in the one place where they literally called it ‘The Clippers Curse.’ That’s what it was called! And here I am.”
Blake Griffin

Given the heft of his contract and his public profile, this shouldn’t come as a revelation, but as much as he contributed to the brand and consistent regular-season success in Los Angeles — to say nothing of the five All-Star appearances — the Clippers’ locker room wasn’t a place where Griffin made an imprint. With Rivers at the helm, and Chris Paul at the controls, there simply wasn’t enough oxygen in the room for another prominent voice. Griffin is temperamentally more introverted than his court presence might suggest, a player who once went to Tim Duncan for advice on how to lead without saying too much.

Griffin is assembling an All-Star season — averaging 25.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game with a career-high true shooting percentage of 58.9. For the first time in five seasons, he’s injury-free. The Pistons have struggled in recent weeks, hobbled by missed games from key contributors. Detroit doesn’t have a single perimeter player on the roster who has compiled a positive real plus-minus rating. Right now, they’re an above-average defensive team trying desperately to manufacture baskets — with Griffin as the fulcrum of the offense.

Griffin takes the long view of what’s a long-term project in Detroit, all the while building himself a home nearly 2,000 miles from his last one. He’s set up shop in a woodsy section of Oakland County — he sees deer in his front yard regularly — which is a short drive to the Pistons’ current facility. The team’s new training center opens next season in the New Center neighborhood, just north of downtown Detroit, where Griffin will move. He’s in love with the arena, which sits just a couple of miles from Little Caesars Arena. “Our locker room, lounge, medical room is unbelievable,” Griffin says. “It’s awesome.”

As he enumerated the simple pleasures of suburban wildlife, an ego-free coach he admires and the pleasures of leading, Griffin sounds faintly like a man approaching professional middle age. There’s less noise in Detroit, even if that means there’s also less relevance — but Griffin doesn’t seem to care.

“To me, ‘relevance’ — it’s a popularity contest,” Griffin says, putting relevance in vocal quotation marks, as is his habit when talking about one of the conventions of pro sports (like “revenge game”).

“It’s not really my thing. To me, there’s all this jockeying for ‘relevance’ right now, then it starts to get a little more real with the playoff race. Once you get to the playoffs — if you make it, you’re relevant, whether you’re the 8-seed or the 1-seed because you’re playing playoff basketball.”

He also realizes that Saturday’s game against the Clippers will feature all the drama of a playoff game, even if it lacks the consequences. Griffin is a player fueled by emotions, for better or worse, and there are few things more emotional than when the past collides with the present. Taking the floor at Staples Center as an opponent will bring into focus his entire professional career, most notably what he both contributed and endured as a Clipper.

“I’m not saying that what I accomplished with the Clippers is my legacy or my success — I don’t mean all that,” Griffin says. “But what was expected of me or of that situation, it was surpassed. So I don’t care. I really don’t. That’s how I look at — that’s as honest as I can put it. There are things that I wish went differently, of course. But I learned a lot and I got to play with a lot of great players. I got to play in some really awesome games — fun games, big games. I had some big experiences.

“Now I’ve moved on.”

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