Blake Griffin eyes Clippers' next step as Jordan's free agency looms large
LOS ANGELES—Tucked inside a makeshift tent, hiding from the Southern California sun and a pack of enthusiastic gawkers, Blake Griffin lounges in a director's chair while wearing a tank top and basketball shorts, looking nothing like the picture of misery you might assume from someone who just watched the best title shot of his career slip away in stunning fashion.
Roughly six weeks after the Clippers were eliminated by the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, blowing a 3-1 series lead along the way, L.A.'s five-time All-Star power forward is back to work. Work can mean a lot of different things for the multitalented Griffin. Tuesday, work meant starring in a television commercial for one of his sponsors, with a sandy beach, a row of palm trees and the ocean providing a postcard backdrop. After a brief vacation with DeAndre Jordan and Spencer Hawes in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, work has also meant a quick return to the gym, where Griffin has continued to hone his jumper and refine his post arsenal.
A little time, a little distance, and a little rest and relaxation appear to have done the trick, as Griffin emits only a light sigh when asked about the Clippers' collapse, which marked just the ninth time in NBA history that a team has lost a series that it led 3-1.
"It was tough," Griffin told SI.com. "It was really disappointing. At some point you have to come to terms with what happened. It's on us as a team. We realize that. ... We got too comfortable. We went home for Games 3 and 4, we win by 20+ points each game, and we're up 3-1 going back to Houston. We got complacent because we were like, 'If we lose Game 5, we're still coming home for Game 6' [and then], 'If we lose Game 6, we still have another game.'
"We had three games to win one, and that's not how good teams think. That's not how teams that are successful think. We messed up. There's no other way around it. You can't blame it on anything else besides us. I think it's good to realize that, accept that as a learning point."
Griffin's loose demeanor, easy-going manner and willingness to crack jokes suggest that he's moved past the dwelling stage. For everyone else, the "Woulda, coulda" stuff is still there. On paper, the Clippers—even with their weak bench—matched up better with the Warriors than the Rockets, and L.A. eliminated Golden State from the 2014 playoffs in the first round. L.A. was the only team to boast a more efficient offense than the eventual champs, and the Clippers were coming off a stirring and confidence-inspiring series victory over the Spurs, last season's champions.
What's more, Griffin was playing at an extraordinarily high level during the postseason: he averaged 25.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists, numbers that haven't been posted in the playoffs by anyone except Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson in 1963, while regularly running himself to the point of exhaustion. All signs pointed to an epic Western Conference finals showdown, which would surely have rekindled past animosities, but it wasn't meant to be.
Now, with free agency beginning Wednesday, Griffin and the Clippers find themselves staring at a franchise-altering decision. If Jordan re-signs as an unrestricted free agent, thereby solidifying the "Big 3" with All-Star point guard Chris Paul and Griffin, the party can go on. Since Paul's "Lob City" arrival in 2011, the Clippers are 209-103 (.670), a record bested by only the Spurs and Thunder. Paul (30), Griffin (26) and Jordan (26) are all in their respective primes, and they have made for a devastating trio, posting a whopping +15.9 net rating when they shared the court last season.
The 6'11" Jordan, SI.com's No. 9 ranked free agent in the class of 2015, is central to L.A.'s approach on both ends. Offensively, he expertly finishes opportunities set up by Paul and Griffin, and the constant threat posed by that finishing ability creates loads of space for L.A.'s offense. Defensively, he led the league with 15 rebounds per game and served as L.A.'s lead rim-protector, blocking 2.2 shots a night.
If Jordan goes elsewhere, though, the Clippers' outlook changes considerably. Coach/president Doc Rivers recently traded small forward Matt Barnes and Hawes, a seldom-used backup center, to the Hornets for guard Lance Stephenson. While that move addressed a need by adding an extra play-maker and defensive presence to the backcourt, it left Rivers without an obvious alternative in the middle should Jordan leave.
Because of their major salary obligations to Paul ($22.9 million in 2015-16) and Griffin ($20.1 million in 2015-16), the Clippers' options to replace Jordan are severely limited. Outside of a double sign-and-trade scenario that might return a replacement, L.A. simply doesn't have a mechanism for adding a high-salary center capable of replicating Jordan's production. It probably goes without saying, but a Jordan defection would also further stretch a rotation that is as top-heavy as it gets. Although Paul and Griffin are miracle workers, it's difficult to imagine that pair keeping the Clippers in the championship conversation without a true third wheel.
Hoping to stay on neutral ground, as superstars often do in these situations, Griffin pushed back slightly against the idea that the Clippers would be lost without Jordan while also expressing a clear desire for their professional partnership to continue.
"There's smart ways to build teams, and teams have lost guys and rebuilt and had success," Griffin told SI.com. "With that being said, we don't want to lose DeAndre. It would be selfish of me to say, 'He shouldn't go anywhere else.' He has his own decision to make as a man. He knows how we feel about him as teammates and as a player. I'm not that type of person to do that to him."
Jordan and his agent, Dan Fegan of Relativity Sports, will meet with the Mavericks, Lakers, Knicks and Clippers in L.A. this week, according to the Los Angeles Times. Meanwhile, ESPN.com reports that Jordan, widely viewed as a candidate to receive a maximum salary, is interested in signing a four-year contract that includes a player option so that he could have the flexibility to re-enter free agency more quickly once the NBA's salary cap spikes up next summer.
The list of Jordan-related rumors is a long one. The Texas-born Jordan has been floated as a possible sign-and-trade target for Dallas, which could in turn sign-and-trade unrestricted free agent center Tyson Chandler back to L.A. The crosstown Lakers are reportedly interested in pairing Jordan with another unrestricted free agent, All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge. And then there are the recruiters. Everyone from Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony to actor Jamie Foxx to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has reportedly joined the fray in hopes of swaying Jordan's decision.
Griffin has no particular interest in adding his own voice to that cacophony with a last-minute pitch or a direct appeal. Despite the obvious stakes, Griffin is willing to let his five seasons as Jordan's teammate speak on his behalf.
"Our friendship is always going to be the same no matter what," Griffin said. "I've known him for a lot longer than we've been in the NBA together. This is a decision that he has to make. As a friend, I'm behind him 100%. Whatever he feels like he needs to do, I'm behind him."
The bustle from the nearby set starts to pick up, which means Griffin's time in the tent is running out. Before he goes, the conversation turns back to the postseason one final time. One season after their first-round loss to the Clippers, the Warriors vaulted all the way to the title. Golden State's charmed path to the trophy stood in direct contrast to L.A.'s tortured ending, and those divergent paths served as a reminder that Paul, Griffin and company have yet to advance out of the second round.
Griffin not only rejected the notion of bitterness toward the Warriors, he made a point of downplaying the tension between the California teams.
"Everybody wants to say we've had this rivalry with the Warriors," Griffin said. "Maybe the last two years. Before that, everyone wanted to say our rivalry was with Memphis. As a fan of basketball, actually knowing what a real rivalry was, I don't feel like we're around there like that too much. We don't compare ourselves to teams like that too much.
"[The Warriors] deserved the championship. They were the best team in the regular season. They were the best team in the postseason. They have the guy [Stephen Curry] who had the best season individually, and they played the best as a team. They deserve all of that. For us, it's taking that next step to get where they are and to have what they accomplished."
The first step to that next step is Jordan's return. If Griffin is concerned about a pothole or a wrong turn, he hides it very well. Moments after the chat finishes, he palms a basketball, flips it against a backboard, rises off the concrete and flushes a one-handed dunk, as a crowd filled with dozens of extras erupts. Then he does it again, and again, and again, tweaking his body position and altering the force of his finish for artistic purposes. This is the easiest thing in the world to him, and he could go on like this forever.