Los Angeles — A few months after making a big financial commitment to Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers went through a severe case of buyer’s remorse.
In the first season of Griffin’s megadeal for five years and $173 million, they figured out that they wanted to reset and go in a different direction. After their over-the-top “Clipper for Life” presentation to get Griffin to renew his deal and to say, “I do,” again, the Clippers got cold feet. Getting an annulment for such an expensive marriage wasn’t going to be easy.
Enter the Pistons, who were looking for such a superstar, to elevate their status and to try to make the playoffs for just the second time in a decade.
Almost a year later, Griffin is set to make his return Saturday to face the Clippers for the first time in Los Angeles. In their second meeting last season — about 10 days after the trade — the Pistons lost at Little Caesars Arena.
This time is different. If it’s not like seeing an ex-wife for the first time since a divorce, maybe it’s more like seeing her happy for the first time.
Griffin returns Saturday to play his former team for the first time in Los Angeles. Rod Beard, The Detroit News
“It’ll be definitely emotional. I’m not sure what to expect; I’ve never really been in a situation like that,” Griffin said this week. “I wish we hadn’t played them last year, especially so close to that happening…
“This time around, it’ll be a little different because I’ve had so much time to process things and talk to people. I’m looking forward to seeing some fans that I grew up with.”
Griffin, 29, isn’t as bitter about the divorce as much as the circumstances surrounding it. The Clippers had made changes in their front office, including removing Doc Rivers’ title as team president and adding Jerry West as an adviser.
That changed their overall philosophy on the direction, but generally, even those moves don’t often lead to trading their franchise cornerstone. His return to Los Angeles, even for the Lakers game on Wednesday, drew attention, but Griffin has been able to keep it in perspective and focus on the Pistons’ problems, as they’ve tumbled below .500, though he’s having an All-Star season.
“Blake’s a pro and a lot is being made about him coming back. Anyone would not be telling the truth if it didn’t pull some emotional string that you have coming back to the place you helped build,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s matured and focused; he’s one of the most focused guys out there. He knows what to do and how to play, he’s smart and he’s a perfectionist. (Returning to L.A.) may bother him a little bit, but not too long.”
What bothers Griffin more is the Pistons’ recent skid, as they’ve fallen six games below .500 and out of playoff position as they near the midway point of the season. He’s almost certain to earn his sixth All-Star appearance, posting 25.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in what’s becoming the best season of his career.
The Pistons haven’t followed suit as a team, struggling to support Griffin’s efforts with inconsistent shooting and shoddy defense. The Clippers (24-17) are off to an encouraging start this season, ranking fifth in the loaded Western Conference, behind Tobias Harris, the primary piece the Pistons gave up in the deal.
Clipper for ... now
Part of the business of basketball is understanding the machinations of deals, as teams try to improve — by any means necessary — and rightsize their payroll to meet their expectations. At the time, the Clippers were churning their entire roster, preparing to shed the final two pieces of the “Lob City” era: Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.
Griffin’s departure was different. In their proposal in July, they made an elaborate appeal that he would be their betrothed for the remainder of his career. Even as team executives and Clippers owner Steve Ballmer moved forward negotiating with the Pistons, they kept Griffin and his agent in the dark — even on the day of the deal.
That left a bad taste in Griffin’s mouth, such that he’s had little contact with them since last January.
“I understand that’s just part of the business and how it goes. I also understand teams want to make a change and move on. My whole thing is how it was handled — that was the only thing,” Griffin said. “It’s a business — I’ve heard that since Day 1. You see it happen to other guys every year and it’ll continue to happen to guys in all sports. I understand … my whole thing is how it was handled (in terms of communication).
“At some point, you have to move on. Once you have another home — and I’ve settled in here — that’s just in the background. It’s not like I spend time thinking about that. I have this (team) to be invested in.”
A new normal
In the past year, Griffin has established a new normal, settling into his Oakland County community and establishing his new Midwest roots. Time has healed some of the hurt feelings and he’s been able to gain a different outlook.
“It’s huge for me because last year coming here, it was such a whirlwind and now this feels like home,” he said. “When you feel like you have a home, everything is in a better perspective, at least for me. All that has worn off for me … I feel happy here and feel settled.”
Some are quick to assume that because Griffin spent the first eight seasons of his career in Los Angeles that he had adapted completely to that lifestyle. On the contrary, he said he never lost his Midwestern values that got while growing up in Oklahoma.
That’s what’s kept him grounded and helped him to focus on the bigger picture.
“I’ve said this so many times, but I grew up in Oklahoma and chose to play at the University of Oklahoma and got drafted to L.A. and played there,” Griffin said. “When I got to L.A., people asked where I’m from and they said it must be so different for you. I said not really; I still do the same things.
“When I got traded here, people were like it’s so different for you. I don’t know if people really know my background and who I am as a person. They should understand (Midwest living) is very familiar to me. I wasn’t expecting a crazy change; this is just different.”
In Wednesday’s game against the Lakers, Griffin received a mix of cheers and boos when he was introduced — which is to be expected with a mix of general Los Angeles fans and some rival Lakers faithful.
Saturday will be the real indication — but he’s not sure what to expect.
“I don’t know, in terms of what fans think or feel. I would hope there would be a warm reception as opposed to a negative one,” he said. “I don’t know that I did anything to warrant that — but you never know what people are feeling or how people take things, or if they know how trades work.
“There are people over there who mean a lot to me and I know how that’ll go.”
Pistons at Clippers
Tip-off: 3:30 Saturday, Staples Center, Los Angeles
Outlook: The Pistons (17-23) have lost four straight and nine of the last 11 games. Tobias Harris is averaging 21 points and is having a breakout, All-Star season.