Blake Couldn’t Beat The Curse

A decade after the Clippers moved to Los Angeles, a bitter joke began to make the rounds of the season ticket holders at the Sports Arena where the Clippers routinely tortured their fans. The joke that everyone loved to repeat was that the Sports Arena was built on the site of an Indian burial ground. It was the only explanation anyone could think of besides racist Donald Sterling’s bad karma paying dividends. The negativity that seemed to choke the ordinary Clippers year in and year out was rampantly out of control.

Norm Nixon, achilles. Marques Johnson, neck. Danny Manning, torn ACL. Loy Vaught, back. Ron Harper, torn ACL. Shaun Livingston, dislocated kneecap, torn ACL, PCL and lateral meniscus. Blake Griffin, broken kneecap before he played one game as a Clipper.

There were the bloody draft mistakes. The chilling misses that should have changed the Clippers franchise but didn’t. They were legendary for their incompetence.

Benoit Benjamin instead of Charles Oakley. Reggie Williams instead of Scottie Pippen. Danny Ferry instead of Shawn Kemp. Randy Woods instead of Latrell Sprewell. Antonio McDyess instead of Kevin Garnett. Lorenzen Wright instead of Kobe Bryant. Michael Olowokandi instead of  Dirk Nowitzki/Paul Pierce/Vince Carter. Chris Wilcox instead of Amare Stoudamire. Al- Farouq Aminu instead of Paul George. Reggie Bullock instead of Rudy Gobert.

Five players who were on the 1996-97 team had tragic fates. Malik Sealey. Killed in a car accident. Kevin Duckworth. Died of a heart attack. Bison Dele. Killed at sea. Rodney Rogers. Paralyzed. Lorenzen Wright. Murdered.

In 2011, the Clippers took Mo Williams off the Cavaliers hands. They gave the Cavaliers Baron Davis and an unprotected number one pick. Naturally, the Clippers won the lottery. The number one pick was Kyrie Irving.

Then there was the year (2014) when Donald Sterling went #racistwhitelivesmatter during the playoffs. The first team in the NBA to have their owner yanked from the league and have his own wife participate in the selling of the team was the Clippers.

A couple of regretttable years in the playoffs resurfaced the curse. At OKC, Chris Paul dribbled the ball off his foot in the closing seconds and OKC won the game and the series a few games later. And then infamy. The cursed Clips lost a 3-1 lead to the Rockets. They were one quarter away from their first Western Conference Finals. And then they were in a game 7. They lost the series. That damned curse was messing with people’s minds.

The only antidote to the curse, it seemed, was the 2009 draft and Blake Griffin.  Of the 23 lottery picks the Clippers earned, only one has been an All-Star five times. Only one  was a player everyone seemed to hate.

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It was the dunks. Those monster in your face dunks that made veterans very salty because after the dunk young Blake Griffin seemed to enjoy himself a little too much. He wasn’t showing the customary respect adorned as he was in repetitive dunking ecstasy,and because of it, Blake Girffin was taught a lesson that the refs didn’t really police. The cheap shots to the head and to the face and to the body, the refs pretended they didn’t see anything.

Blake Griffin is not what you call an extroverted personality, despite his explosive above the rim high flying game.

His career began tragically. Before he could suit up in the NBA, he suffered a broken knee cap and sat out a year. The next year, the anticipation was breathtaking and Griffin didn’t disappoint. He found his niche early. He didn’t have much of a jumper but he could dunk over everyone, he was unstoppable at the rim. He found his way on SportsCenter whenever and wherever the Clippers played and it didn’t matter who they played. He loved posterization and, in turn, players were quickly fed up with him.

With a young Griffin, the Clippers didn’t win. Griffin wasn’t a star, just a highlight. He couldn’t shoot away from the basket and he was still learning how to make the most out of his skill set. He was in a Kobe Bryant Los Angeles and was absorbed in the Bryant ethic and the stories he heard about Bryant waking up at four in the morning and running six miles before practice, the hours upon hours in the gym. Griffin admired him and his accomplishments and emulated the Bryant work ethic.

Skill came later, a drip here, a drip there. A 10 footer. Then a 15 footer. Always an unselfish player, he passed the ball out of double teams but if he beat you off the dribble it was over: poster baby. He made his first All-Star game when he was a rookie. Four consecutive appearances would follow. But he hasn’t been an All-Star in three years.

Blake Griffin endured injuries. The knee. The quad. The hand. When he punched the equipment manager in the face, a friend of his who said the wrong thing to Griffin at the wrong time, a fragile Griffin was humiliated and angry at his loss of control. Nothing seemed to go right the last few years .

His relationship with Chris Paul was professional but nothing more important than that. Paul exhausted him with his relentlessness and defensive criticism. Griffin loves comedy and to perform on stage. It was the perfect antidote and relaxation to Paul’s anal dictatorship. Laughter was Griffin’s way of practicing mindfulness.

When Paul left this year for Houston, it was to be a coming out party for Griffin. Finally, he could emerge out of Paul’s disapproving and intense shadow. But first.  Another Blake injury.

Nothing seemed to work as predicted; that pretty much is the Blake Griffin script.

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The Clippers were on the precipice of something special. 2013-14 was their year. They led the league in scoring and offensive rating. They were 9th in defensive rating. They were third in field goal percentage, second in getting to the line, 10th in defensive rebounding, 6th in steals, first in 3-point defense and 5th in field goal defense. Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan had offensive ratings over 120. Blake Griffin’s offensive rating was 114. Jordan, Griffin and Paul’s defensive rating were sublime, 98, 103 and 103, respectively.

Finally, it seemed an embarrassed page had been turned. The Clippers beat the Warriors in seven games, overcoming their owner’s penchant for overt racism. They were in a flow. But the next series was that fatal OKC Chris Paul turnover and the Clippers were done. Just like that. Never a threat again for the Western Conference Finals, though, as a comical aside, they were dragged into a hate grudge against the Warriors, primarily started by Draymond Green who said for anyone to hear that Blake Griffin was overrated, not an uncommon belief.

After the Clippers game 7 win against Golden State on May 3, 2014, the Clippers would beat the Warriors only two more times . They would lose 13 times.

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Timofey Mozgov put Blake Griffin on the map. Griffin’s theatrical dunk on a frozen Mozgov had everyone just about speechless. When you look at again, it still amazes. The electricity of Griffin’s jump, his hand on Mozgov’s head, his dominion over the basket, his ferocity with the ball. Gravity was irrelevant. Just look at his face. It was reminiscent of the Greek god Zeus.

When Doc Rivers became the Clippers coach he put all of that Lob City business to bed. He wanted Blake to improve his midrange shot which he did. He wanted Blake to improve his passing which he did. He wanted Blake to ask for the ball in the 4th quarter, which he didn’t do. Blake is introverted and it showed in key moments. He willingly let Chris Paul be the star.

But absent Chris, the Clippers were determined to keep Blake Griffin. This is Los Angeles. No star means no one is coming and ordinary doesn’t sell here. Despite everything financial falling into place, Blake Griffin, for the first time since his rookie year, had pressure.

But truth be told, he lost some support after the irresponsible incident with the equpiment manager. Fans began to think a little differently about his image. It wasn’t the same as the many sides of the Kobe Bryant image because Bryant won games, demanded that everyone watch him win games. Griffin had a tendency to disappear in the Chris Paul shadow. But Paul was gone. It was Blake Griffin’s team.

Paul Pierce believed he was ready. He reminded those that didn’t know what an expert comedian Griffin was away from basketball, that Blake had a rapport with his teammates. Chauncey Billups, another ex-teammate, believed Blake was mature enough to take his game to another level.

Blake started out strong. Four straight 20+ games. A 30 point, 11 rebound game against Memphis. A game winning three in front of a stunned Portland crowd. 23 and 12 against the Cavs. And then the injury. And then Lou Williams took over the team and Blake was forgotten.

Six of his last seven games were 20+ points. He had a triple double, 32 points, 12 assists, 11 rebounds, against the revamped Timberwolves. His last Clippers game was against the Pelicans and he had 27 points and 12 rebounds. It was a reminder of his first Clippers game against Portland, more than seven years ago. Then, 20 year old Griffin, had 20 points and 14 rebounds. He is the same player but better, and sometimes not.

Trading him feels a little bit like hypocrisy you swallow when you run out of reasonable options.  After Chris Paul left for Houston, the Clippers made a point of making Blake Griffin feel as if it was his turn. Finally. No second tier, no Robin to Batman. It was all about him. He was the hero in his second basketball life. In the free agency pitch, the Clippers superimposed his image on large screens and he saw himself with his number retired in Staples Center. The Clippers wanted Blake Griffin.  It was July. July is for dreams. And dreamers.

It is convenient to say Chris Paul changed everything for the Clippers but really Blake Griffin changed everything for the Clippers. He was their greatest draft pick. He was the puzzle the Clippers had decades to solve but couldn’t, the athletic star. Blake Griffin was the beginning of what created a NBA evolution. The non-7 foot power forward was suddenly explosive and athletic, could run the floor, start pick and roll, finish with a monster dunk, rebound, dribble up the court and pass it to the wing. The Blake Griffins chased the Carlos Boozers out the league.

This past summer, Doc Rivers and the gang made a promise to Blake about his ascendancy, with Chris Paul in the rearview mirror. It was a huge committment, five years $171 million. The fans weren’t exactly buying in. Clippers attendance last year was 100.1% capacity. This year it is 88.4%. The last season the Clippers took the floor without Blake Griffin, fans were 84.8% capacity.

Return to normal.

The money and Blake Griffin are Detroit Pistons issues.  Blake Griffin was shocked at how disposal he was for the Clippers franchise, something he never imagined, forgetting briefly about the business side. Often overlooked in the Blake Griffin narrative of not what he should be is this: he made it possible to get Chris Paul and appear in six straight playoffs, unheard of for the Clippers.

Basketball reasons or finance reasons or The Process West Coast reasons, close the book on Blake and the Clippers.

Years from now, they will talk about Lob City. Years from now, they will talk about Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. They will say, as a trio, they were overrated. They will say, as a trio, they were intensely unlucky. Someone will bring up the curse and the Indian burial ground.

If recent history can be condensed, it would come down to this. Once upon a time, the Clippers beat the Warriors in a game 7 at Staples Center. It was the best of times, almost a sense it was finally their turn.  But soon thereafter the Warriors annhilated them without malice. It was the worst of times. In rough stretches of life, things end quizzically. They just do. Maybe, it’s a crash. Maybe, it’s a fall. Or, perhaps, an unexpected trade on the 29th day of the year. The result is still the same.

Someone who used to be here is gone. It’s like a divorce. But worse.