LOS ANGELES — The moments after a superstar defection are often filled with Comic Sans regret, and so it was that the lights dimmed at Staples Center on June 30 and the public-address announcer flashed forward in time, to Blake Griffin’s jersey retirement ceremony. “Tonight, we’re honoring a lifelong Clipper,” the P.A. announcer bellowed, as the No. 32 was lifted to the rafters. Andra Day sang “Rise Up” with a choir that evoked the Kia Optima and the dunk contest long ago, when Griffin leapt onto the national stage, the savior of a team that never had one.
Lifelong Clipper. Griffin liked the sound of that, plus the $173 million only the Clips could offer, so he canceled meetings in Phoenix and Denver to instead recruit Danilo Gallinari over lunch at Doc Rivers’s house. Free agency moves fast. Chris Paul was off to Houston, after the first truly successful stretch in the history of the franchise, and nobody in L.A. was interested in going back to the Michael Olowokandi days. So the Clippers gave Gallinari $63 million and convinced themselves they could finish fourth in the Western Conference.
Between July and October, other moves were made, under smaller headlines. Rivers was stripped of his title as club president. Lawrence Frank took over basketball operations. Michael Winger was hired from Oklahoma City as the general manager and Trent Redden, formerly of the Cavaliers, as the assistant GM. Jerry West, a consultant for the Warriors, brought his acumen to the Clippers. The front office was essentially remade with the promotion of Frank and the additions of Winger, Redden and West, who represented three of the NBA’s most successful organizations. They arrived with fresh points of view.
Still, the Clippers were prepared to give Griffin and DeAndre Jordan a couple more years. They probably wouldn’t win a championship, but they’d surely compete, and maybe a few of the Western Conference elites would fall off. Then the season began. Griffin tore his MCL, Gallinari tore his glute and Patrick Beverly was lost to knee surgery. Jordan, Austin Rivers and Milos Teodosic were sidelined as well. The top teams in the West did not stumble. The Rockets surged. The Wolves emerged. The Spurs held steady. The Thunder re-signed Russell Westbrook. And, of course, the Warriors remained unbeatable.
The Clippers took stock of their injuries. Some were flukes. Others were harbingers. Jordan, Beverley and Gallinari will be 30 this summer, Griffin 29 this spring. Teodosic is already 30 and Lou Williams 31. Owner Steve Ballmer wants to compete, and he could have, scrapping for the No. 7 seed with the Blazers and Nuggets. But the long-term outlook was gloomy. Recent draft picks had been squandered. The cap sheet had been filled.
On Monday, the Clippers made a move they put off for a long time. They were not trying to deceive Griffin when they cued the choir. If anything, they might have been trying to deceive themselves. In July, a club may believe it can withstand the loss of Chris Paul and keep chugging. By January, reality hits. No one in the Clippers offices—especially not Ballmer or Rivers—wanted to trade Griffin. They wanted to retire his jersey. But they already succumbed to their own sentiment once.
Now, Griffin is gone to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a first- and second-round pick. DeAndre and Lou, both free agents, could also move by the deadline. Rebuilding without tanking is a trick few teams have been able to pull off, but the Clippers want to try. They understand premium free agents are reluctant to play alongside 20-year-olds or 35-year-olds, so they will stockpile young talent to go along with picks. Harris and Bradley are a start.
The Clippers likely won’t be major players in free agency this summer, but they have an eye on 2019, when Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler could become available. Thompson and Leonard are Southern California natives and Butler spends his summers in Malibu.
The idea of the Clippers as a free-agent destination was once laughable, but that changed with the arrival of Ballmer and Rivers and, yes, Griffin. He made possible the notion that stars would consider L.A.’s other team. It’s ancient history now, but Griffin was the reason the Clippers were able to acquire Paul, launching the birth of Lob City.
An era ended Monday, and for a while, the Clippers will absorb jabs. They might want to tone down the next free-agent recruitment ceremony, unless they’re prepared to offer a no-trade clause with it. In swapping Griffin for picks, young players and cap flexibility, they lost a P.R. battle, and there’s no guarantee they’ll land anybody better than the guy they just dealt. The future is uncertain, but that may be more promising than what it was before.