If you think the Clippers don't matter in Los Angeles -- that they have too much ugly baggage to generate fan interest in a Lakers town -- grab coffee with Blake Griffin in Beverly Hills.
As we chat in the corner of a small coffee shop, two teenagers walk by outside and spot him. They call friends. Those friends call more friends. Ten minutes later, an employee is herding 50 teenagers out the door; more wait on the sidewalk. As Griffin walks to his car, they encircle him. They chant: "B-G, Thirty-Two!" And then: "Let's go, Clippers!" He walks among them, and above them, stopping for photos and handshakes. It is an L.A. version of Rocky running the streets of Philadelphia.
The Lakers will always rule L.A., but Griffin matters, and the Clippers with him -- even without Chris Paul -- still matter in a way they never did during their pathetic prior history. They could not stomach tearing all that down even though Paul gave them a rebuild road map: recoup picks for Paul, let Griffin walk, and bottom out ahead of a killer draft.
"You consider all your options," says Steve Ballmer, the team's owner. "But I don't want to lose. I like winning. Winning is good. Losing is bad. We think we have a unique opportunity to be a free-agent destination. If you want that, you have to be doing your best every year."
They could have walked that free-agency path with Paul instead of Griffin; Paul is a more attractive magnet for the Banana Boat generation. They had chances to trade one cornerstone big man for picks and players who would fit with Paul. Teams called regularly about Griffin. The Clippers have explored DeAndre Jordan trades, though perhaps only one proposal -- a deal which would have sent Jordan to Houston at last season's trade deadline for Clint Capela, picks and players -- ever gained semiserious traction, league sources say.
They had talks about the Knicks for Carmelo Anthony, though Doc Rivers, the team's coach, disputes reports they could have gotten him for Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford. "That's a complete joke," Rivers said. (This may be a game of semantics; would New York have accepted that deal had Crawford gone to a third team?) Melo is an interesting what-if. Nabbing him might have improved their chances at retaining Paul. He might have tipped the balance against Utah after Griffin suffered a toe injury. Rivers insists he has no regrets.
It's unclear if any deal -- Melo or otherwise -- would have juiced LA's title chances last season, or left them in a better position now. Jordan, Paul and Griffin are stars. Trading one star for three bit pieces is generally a losing gambit; it would have done little to narrow the gap with Golden State over Paul's final two seasons in Los Angeles.
The Paul-Griffin fit wasn't perfect, but it's not as if they diminished each other; as one executive puts it, they were "two 9s that added to 18" -- not 22, but also not 14.
Are an alterna-Clippers better off over the next half-decade with a sometimes-gimpy Paul earning $40 million per season in his mid-30s, Jordan on a new megadeal, assorted role players -- and no Griffin?
Paul's departure didn't rock them as much as you might think. The Clippers were hungry for change; Paul just initiated it for them. Players insist the culture wasn't as toxic as the on-court shouting and angry glares made it appear. Griffin and Paul were cordial. "A lot of that stuff was overblown," Griffin says. "You hear about drama on other teams, and it made us seem normal."
But something was off. Paul said as much in his recent documentary. Part of it stemmed from the turnstile of role players -- Josh Smith, Lance Stephenson, Alan Anderson, Spencer Hawes, Jared Dudley, and on, and on -- who felt Rivers overpromised in recruiting them.
Maybe it was the cumulative effect of playoff heartbreak, and especially their inexplicable collapse in the 2015 conference semifinals against Houston. "It's hard to shake something like that," Griffin says. "A cloud hung over us."
Some in the organization say that implosion frayed the fabric of the team in ways that are hard to see, or even verbalize -- ways you just feel. When things get tight again, do you trust the man next to you?
"Players start looking at each other's faults instead of covering for each other," Rivers says. "When we lost to Oklahoma City [the year before], we were fine. No one cared what others on the team couldn't do. It was fresh. I was new as coach. They were listening. They were following. But the next year, you fall apart again. Maybe you still want to be coached, and to play together, but you also want to try out different things on your own. That is the natural progression of a team growing apart."
Maybe it was just simmering, palpable tension between Rivers and Paul. "There are times players don't want to be coached by you anymore," Rivers says, without mentioning Paul's name. (Paul declined comment through his representatives.) Rivers has seen Paul's remarks about the team's culture. "Who controls the culture?" he asks. "The players. Always the players. And even with Chris' comments, he thought about coming back. J.J. [Redick] was begging to come back."
(Redick disagrees. "There was never any indication from my agent that I wanted to go back," he says. "I didn't beg to come back. I didn't want to come back.")
Maybe there was no melodrama -- no hate, no unhealable rift, no watershed argument that broke them. Sometimes, teams lose, doubt festers, relationships reach their ending point. "We haven't won," Griffin says. "So I don't know if you could call what we had a winning culture."
The Clippers didn't want Paul to force a fresh start upon them, but when he did, they welcomed the chance at one. Ballmer went to separate dinners with Paul and Redick after they signed with new teams, and picked their brains about what had gone wrong. None of the three would divulge specifics, but the overall message was clear: "It was time to shake something up," Ballmer says.
Rivers ceded authority over personnel. Ballmer stocked the front office with smart new hires -- including Jerry West. They weren't well-positioned to rebuild, anyway; Rivers had frittered away too many draft picks, and whiffed on fringe signings. They would build again around Griffin -- and maybe Jordan.
When Griffin arrived at Staples Center for his free-agency pitch meeting on July 1, he found the Clippers had erected something of a maze for him with temporary walls. Griffin walked his 3-year-old son, Ford, through the art gallery-style corridors, and found photos hanging at each turn: Griffin on his green Huffy bike with his brother, Taylor, when they were kids; Griffin playing in college; Griffin as a Clipper.
The maze spit Griffin out onto a couch overlooking the Staples Center court, above the lower bowl. Crowd noise pumped in. The team's public address announcer declared the Clippers were retiring Griffin's number. Team employees raised an actual banner into the rafters -- a vision of the future they wanted.
"It was a cool feeling," Griffin says. "It was very thoughtful. But I really wanted to hear their plan. I wanted to talk basketball." So he did, for two hours, with Rivers, West, Ballmer and Lawrence Frank, the team's president of basketball operations.
The most pressing question: What to do with Jordan, who can hit free agency this summer? Re-sign him for $25 million or more, and the Clippers could have $60-70 million devoted to two big men in the summers of 2019 and 2020 -- moments they have targeted to strike in free agency. They'd have to strip the roster bare to (maybe) carve out max space for that elusive star free agent.
A bigger-than-expected cap jump would help. Even given one, they'd have to trade Danilo Gallinari to open any space in the summer of 2019. They also have long-term decisions to make on Rivers and Beverley, who will seek a raise in 2019-20 if he keeps playing like this. Going all-in on Griffin-Jordan could be a ticket to a bunch of 45- to 48-win seasons.
Jordan may want something closer to his maximum salary of $35 million. He has discussed an extension, but he would earn less going that route; talks have stalled. "If they want me, yeah, I'd love to be here," Jordan says. "But I don't have an extension, do I? So we'll see." (Jordan is also negotiating without an agent. He parted ways with Dan Fegan, his old agent, after the Dallas hostage situation. "I haven't had the best experiences with agents," Jordan says.)
The Clippers know the math. Perhaps they are angling to squeeze Jordan in a tight free agency market. Whether they can build a contender around Griffin and Jordan will depend in part on "what the number is" on Jordan's salary, Rivers admits. "We want DJ back," Rivers says. "We think we can win a title building around him and Blake. You also need room in the budget for other people."
The Clippers don't care that building around two behemoths would make them an anachronism -- even with Griffin, having drained 41 percent from deep on almost six attempts per game, blossoming into a legitimate 3-point threat. "We look at them as two of the top players at their position," Frank says. "You can't ignore that just because some teams have gone toward positionless basketball."
This season will be one long test -- of how the Griffin-Jordan tandem fares without Paul prying open the first line of defense, and of Griffin as undisputed alpha dog.
So far, it's going well. The Clippers are 4-1, near the top of the league in both points scored and allowed per possession. They should be fine on defense with Jordan and Patrick Beverley bookending things; opponents have scored a miniscule 0.93 points per possession after running a pick-and-roll against the Beverley-Jordan tandem -- a mark that would have been the third-stingiest last season among almost 200 combinations that defended at least 200 such plays, per data from Second Spectrum.
Griffin and Gallinari aren't stoppers, but they're brainy and active. When Austin Rivers mans the other guard spot over Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic, the Clips unleash five solid defenders. Keep an eye on Sindarius Thornwell.
Teodosic is a sieve; the Clippers stash him on the weakest opposing player. That strains Gallinari; he had to defend Devin Booker against Phoenix so that Teodosic could chill on Josh Jackson. Some teams don't provide a hiding spot. Doc Rivers knows that. "I've told all of our guards: 'Any of you can be replaced on certain nights,'" Rivers says. He's also not worried about it. "Every team has weaknesses," Rivers says. "Even Golden State." (Don't poke the bear, Doc!)
The Clips won't rank as the league's best defense all season -- opponents have fared poorly on open 3s, and LA fattened up some punchless offenses -- but they should remain solid. They're allowing the right sorts of shots: lots of midrangers, few attempts at the rim, and even fewer corner 3s, per NBA.com tracking.
The more uncertain metamorphosis is happening at the other end. The post-CP3 Clippers want to reinvent themselves as a fast-paced, unpredictable and egalitarian offense with Griffin as fulcrum.
Everyone but Jordan and Willie Reed has permission to rush the ball upcourt; the coaches track which players dribble over half court, and exchange giddy looks the moment -- usually early the second quarter -- when every non-center has done it.
Pushing scrambles the matchups. The Clippers like switching on defense. Griffin and Gallinari can switch pretty seamlessly -- the upside of shoehorning one true power forward (Griffin) alongside a tweener who needs a lot of minutes there. If they get a stop and run hard, the opponent might not have time to normalize the matchups.
Griffin has already run 41 pick-and-rolls, by far the most among all traditional big men, according to Second Spectrum data. (DeMarcus Cousins is second, having shepherded 25 in one more game.) He can use literally any teammate as a screener: Gallinari, Jordan, or even one of the little guards. "There is no wrong pick-and-roll combination for our team -- except for maybe DJ handling the ball," Griffin says, laughing.
Switch a smaller guy onto him, and Griffin brutalizes fools in the post. Hell, a lot of starting power forwards today are converted wings Griffin can smash anyway. The bigger test comes when teams switch the Griffin-Jordan dance, and slide their centers onto him. (Some opponents will start games that way as a bulwark against Griffin's post game.)
Is Griffin agile enough to dust bigger guys -- or to open enough breathing room for step-back 3s? He appears to be. He toasted both Ed Davis and Jusuf Nurkic down the stretch against Portland last week.
Griffin is shooting 61 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports, and lasering inside-out dimes as usual. The Clippers are averaging a mammoth 1.455 points per possession on any trip featuring a Griffin post-up, according to Second Spectrum. They are straight bludgeoning teams; LA leads the league in shots within the restricted area, per NBA.com.
Griffin looks more explosive than he has in years. If he can abuse mismatches in both size directions, the Clippers have a fail-safe -- a guaranteed way to draw help, bend the floor, and open seams for teammates. In other words: What Paul did for five seasons to kick-start every possession. Gallinari offers the same mismatch versatility.
Core lineups feature four plus ball-handlers. The Clippers are betting the collective can compensate for the loss of Paul's individual brilliance.
Williams is a legendary trickster. Teodosic is a passing savant. Beverley has snazzier ball-handling chops than he showed spotting up around James Harden.
Griffin's emerging 3-point shot isn't just about clearing the lane for Jordan's pick-and-roll lob game -- though it will help in that regard:
It is also a new way to unlock Griffin's expert playmaking -- another small method of regaining some of what went out the door with Paul. Once defenders respect Griffin from deep, they'll have to run out on him harder -- leaving them vulnerable to Griffin's pump-and-drive game:
The notion of Griffin logging significant time at center has gone by the wayside. If he shoots like this, the Clippers may not need him to.
When Griffin rests, Rivers brings Gallinari back in as a sweet-shooting power forward spotting up while Jordan (or Reed) jaunts down the lane on the pick-and-roll.
For now, the offense is working. In some ways, things are not so different. The Clippers are still playing at a slightly below-average pace -- even after misses -- and minimizing turnovers, hallmarks of a Paul team. They are tossing almost exactly the same number of passes as they did last season.
But the touches and time of possession are spread out more evenly, and the Clips are running like bananas when Griffin rests, per NBA.com. That makes intuitive sense: When your best one-on-one weapon in the half-court hits the pine, run like hell so you don't have to play in the half court at all.
"I love the chemistry," Doc Rivers says. "When everyone touches the ball, everyone feels better about themselves."
Everyone is happy. No one will say they are happy because Paul is gone. Veterans will say they are happy to try something new after years of playoff frustration. "It feels fresh," Griffin says. "We have so many new guys. It was time to shake things up."
The Clippers already have a rollicking team-wide text chain. They had one last season, too, but they had to exclude Jamal Crawford because his BlackBerry messaging wasn't compatible with the iPhones everyone else used. "We miss Jamal, but his BlackBerry was holding us back," Griffin says with a chuckle.
When the Clippers started hot, as they did in bolting to a 14-2 record a year ago, Paul warned that the real test would come when they faced adversity. These Clippers will, soon enough.
Their guards outside Teodosic are decent playmakers, not great ones. They are good shooters when they have time to gather themselves, not dead-eye sorts that warp defenses. No one panics over any of them pulling up on off-the-bounce 3s. Several teams have already ducked under picks and handoffs against every Clipper guard, forming a shell, betting LA won't pull the trigger if the defense recovers quickly.
Griffin has to prove he can helm the offense in crunch time, when Paul did all the heavy lifting. If he can't, possessions will stall out. Rivers certainly trusts his own play-calling chops.
"I've never had a problem getting guys open at the end of games," he says. But he can't script everything.
This still feels like a team that tops out short of 50 wins even if they somehow stay healthy -- a team that might finish around 10th in both points scored and allowed per possession. Good, not great.
The Jordan decision then becomes pivotal. There is only so much Griffin can do to loosen the spacing when he shares the floor with Jordan. He will never jack like Kevin Love. It's easy to suggest the Clippers re-sign Jordan, and trade him later if they need space for a superstar -- or if they can't crack the contender's circle with Griffin and Jordan as their top two players.
But dumping a $30 million contract isn't as easy as the Warriors dumping two midsized deals to clear room for Andre Iguodala. It's certainly possible; Jordan is a legit All-Star, and any team with a stud free agent batting eyes at the Clippers might consider Jordan a nice sign-and-trade consolation prize. But it's not a guaranteed thing.
Give Griffin a decent supporting cast on short-term deals, and he might be able to keep the Clippers competitive enough without Jordan to make an appealing case for free agents. Everyone loves playing with good passers. Maybe the smart move is to flip Jordan now, bet on Griffin, and dip into free agency without constraints.
After all, free agency is the plan to return the Clippers into 55-win territory. Ballmer is open about that. It might be the only plan absent some unlikely home run in the draft.
The holdovers aren't ready to go there yet. They want to see what this team can do.
"We want to get into the mix" with Oklahoma City, Houston, and San Antonio, Griffin says. "I had unfinished business here. I like our identity. I like where this is going."