The most senseless mistakes often make for the best learning experiences, a truism that sets up Blake Griffin for a “moments of clarity” marathon over the next month or so.
One day, perhaps, Griffin will be able to look back and chuckle at this week’s news that he sustained a spiral fracture of the fourth metacarpal in his right hand while punching Matias Testi, a Clippers equipment manager, during a fight in Toronto. That day certainly isn’t today, not with Griffin expected to miss 4–6 weeks with the injury, not with the potential legal ramifications of the incident still unsettled, not with the playoffs fast approaching and not with the Clippers taking a fairly harsh stand publicly against their five-time All-Star.
“This conduct has no place in our organization and this incident does not represent who we are as a team,” read the statement, which was attributed to owner Steve Ballmer and coach Doc Rivers. “We are conducting a full investigation with assistance from the NBA. At the conclusion of the investigation, appropriate action will be taken.”
Regardless of what that investigation finds, and whether it results in a fine and/or a suspension, this punch is, at best, an incredibly stupid mistake, one that could push back Griffin’s return to the court into March.
Griffin became one of the NBA’s leading pitch men because he’s capable of both out-of-this-world dunks and guy-next-door humor, a chameleon who has mastered the ferocious poster dunk and the self-deprecating quip, a star who believably pitches one of the most accessible cars on the market, a Kia, while earning nearly $19 million this season. Griffin’s Instagram account is a tribute to this fame/relatability dichotomy: a photo of a young Griffin preparing to swat a baseball off a tee precedes a photo of a 10-story Red Bull ad bearing an image of Griffin soaring into the heavens.
Last summer, Griffin described to SI.com how his favorite birthday party had a “Space Jam” theme, a fact that he shares with thousands of kids in their mid-to-late 20s. Setting Griffin apart, of course, is that he now has a Space Jam-themed Jordan Brand sneaker and that he could credibly carry the movie sequel. As the Clippers found themselves wrapped up in a high stakes, eight-figure negotiation over center DeAndre Jordan, Griffin turned to emojis, the ultimate universal expression, to help ease the tension.
While it often behooves Griffin to come across like “one of the guys,” he’s anything but that to the aspirational and oft-frustrated Clippers. Griffin, nothing less than a franchise talent, now has no choice but to process the gravity of his lapse in judgment.
This punch will almost certainly cost him an All-Star selection and an All-NBA selection. This punch forces his Clippers teammates, who have done well to carry on while he’s been sidelined with a torn quadriceps, to plow forward without their leading scorer until after the All-Star break. This punch could have playoff seeding and home-court advantage implications, as the Clippers are currently fourth in the West, sitting four games behind the Thunder and three games in front of the Grizzlies. This punch makes the Clippers, widely mocked for years for their supposed dysfunction, the butt of another round of mean-spirited jokes and speculation about their core group’s future. More directly, this punch could cost Ballmer something like $4-plus million worth of Griffin’s availability.
At 26, Griffin is too old, too mature and too indispensable to put himself in this situation. While the Clippers have gone 12–3 without Griffin over the last month, thanks to strong contributions from a variety of sources, this team can’t be satisfied with just getting by. If the Clippers are to fully break through, by shaking off last year’s postseason collapse and advancing to the conference finals, Griffin must join Chris Paul in leading the way.
Griffin must be there, at full strength, full speed and clicking on all cylinders with his teammates, when it comes time to staring down the West elite’s frontcourt difference-makers, like Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan and Serge Ibaka. Rivers couldn’t ask for a better short-term crisis manager than Paul, who has consolidated authority nicely in recent weeks, but toppling the West’s powerbrokers without the do-everything Griffin logging huge minutes won’t happen. Paul Pierce, Cole Aldrich and the other Clippers frontcourt players enjoying enhanced roles would certainly be overmatched, especially now that Rivers sacrificed a measure of depth by trading Josh Smith to the Rockets last week.
By throwing this punch, Griffin now must accept a counterpunch: the full burden of the Clippers’ season. Griffin can’t point to L.A.’s makeshift bench, or its unresolved hole at small forward, or DeAndre Jordan’s free-throw shooting woes, and he can’t shift the blame to the referees or to Paul’s polarizing personality. By failing his teammates and by causing another distraction for an organization that certainly doesn’t need it, Griffin has rounded up all the bullseyes and pasted them onto his own back.
Classic photos of Blake Griffin
The car-jumping, quip-happy Griffin is suddenly flirting with a new, wholly unexpected role: the fall guy. He seems to understand that, as he issued an apology on Tuesday evening.
“A situation among friends escalated and I regret the way I handled myself towards someone I care about,” Griffin’s statement read. “I want to apologize to the Clippers organization, my teammates and the fans for creating a distraction. I am working with the team on a resolution and getting back in the game as soon as possible.”
Griffin’s “resolution” shouldn’t simply be agreeing to a formal punishment. He doesn’t need to overhaul his fun-loving personality, but he does need to realize that this episode can go down as a learning experience or as a point of splintering. Depending on how he responds to one of the lowest moments of a stellar career, Griffin can emerge from this as a better, wiser and more conscientious leader, or as the straw that broke the Clippers’ back.