Blake Griffin heads to L.A. not as an ex-Clipper but as a Piston: ‘I feel like this is the place now’

Blake Griffin will get to play 2 games at his old home, Staples Center, this week as the Pistons visit both the Lakers and his ex-team, the Clippers.
Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – The impetus for the Clippers to trade Blake Griffin – seven months after a lavish ceremony declaring him a “Clipper for life” on the occasion of signing him to a $171 million contract – has never been made public. Or explained to Blake Griffin, for that matter.

That the trade was made the day after Griffin did Griffin-like things – 27 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, zero turnovers – in a road win at New Orleans only further clouds the speculation.

Maybe it was that the Clippers were 25-24 at the time, one game out of the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. Maybe it was the fact that Griffin, coming off three injury-plagued seasons, had missed nearly all of December with another nagging injury.

And probably it had at least as much to do with the roster around him. Here’s who started with Griffin that day in New Orleans: DeAndre Jordan, headed for free agency, and three guys who even the most diehard fan would have difficulty picking out of a lineup: Milos Teodosic, Wesley Johnson and Tyrone Wallace.

Nobody, LeBron James included, was dragging that team to the NBA pinnacle.

So the Clippers opted for a reboot and the Pistons, eager to add a certifiable All-Star-caliber player since Tom Gores bought the team seven years earlier, cobbled together a package that satisfied their needs.

A few weeks shy of a year later, Griffin will line up against the Clippers at the place he called home for his first 7½ NBA seasons on Saturday. He’s sure he’ll experience a rainbow of feelings but not certain exactly what they might be.

“I’m not sure what to expect,” he said before the Pistons flew to Los Angeles to start a four-game road trip. “I’ve never really been in a situation like that.”

Maybe it won’t be quite as emotional as he expects. By the time they tip off, he’ll have (a) already played the Clippers once, less than two weeks after the trade, when his head was still spinning and (b) already played as a visitor at Staples Center, that coming Wednesday when the Pistons play the Lakers.

Throw in the fact that there are very few familiar faces left wearing Clippers uniforms and the complete mental and emotional transition he’s made in adopting Detroit and the Pistons as his anchor and, well, he’s far enough removed at every level to insulate him from becoming overwrought. Other than a few security guards or other arena workers and the fans who watched him grow up and became friends, there isn’t much of a connection left.

“It’s crazy because DeAndre (now playing in Dallas) was the last guy I played with for more than a year,” Griffin said. “Everybody else on the team was there just the beginning of last year, so I didn’t even get a full year with those guys. Even organizationally – people at the top, not the front office, but (public relations), all of that – there was a big changeover. It’s a totally different feel than it was when I first came here.”

Griffin was bemused by the expectations that getting traded from Los Angeles to Detroit would be soul crushing for him. Though he thrived in Los Angeles as a pitchman and has interest in the entertainment industry beyond the NBA, Griffin is hardly a fish out of water in the vast part of America viewed as less than glamorous.

“I grew up in Oklahoma. Chose to play at the University of Oklahoma,” he said. “Got drafted to L.A. and people were like, ‘Wow, this must be different for you.’ Not really. I still do the same things. Then when I got traded here, people were like, ‘Oh, wow, that must be so different for you.’ I don’t know that people really know my background or know who I am as a person. I don’t think they understand: This is very familiar to me. I wasn’t expecting a crazy change.”

Griffin has found Detroiters to be even more accommodating and friendly than he expected – and he was expecting an embrace. The night of the trade, Pistons owner Tom Gores invited him to his Los Angeles-area home and something Gores’ teenaged son, Charles, said struck a chord with him – that as a teen, it was tough for him, too, to move to a new place, but Griffin would find Michigan and its people exuberantly welcoming.

“He was great,” Griffin said last winter. “He kind of reminded me that at the end of the day it’s about the people you’re surrounded with. Once I got here, I definitely saw what he was saying. It reminds me a lot of home – the quality of the people that genuinely care, people that are excited about sports. All of that, it’s definitely made this transition much, much easier.”

Griffin will return not so much as an ex-Clipper but as a Piston. There’s not a shred of doubt among teammates, coaches or anyone associated with the Pistons where his loyalties and efforts are directed. Griffin’s team – and as he’s settled in, there’s no doubt among those same sets of people that it is firmly Griffin’s team – won’t enter Staples Center with the record he hoped to have, but it’s through no fault of his.

Injuries and inexplicably poor shooting surrounding him have dulled the impact Griffin’s performance should have translated into on winning games. So there’ll be that measure of vindication for him when he lines up against the Clippers – the 25.3 points a game, the career-best .589 true shooting percentage, the continued successful transformation to 3-point shooter (.366) – later this week.

Griffin doesn’t get caught up in the whispers of a career in decline that preceded and were leveraged to justify the trade from a Clippers perspective, but he was never unaware of them.

“For several years I heard so much negative that at some point you just …,” he said, dismissing the notion. “When and if it comes back around, you don’t pay that attention, either. In this league, you’re only really as good as your last game, your last week, your last season, your last month, whatever it is. It’s more important for me as a player for my teammates and my coaches and everybody who is in this organization fighting for a win to know that I’m in here doing the right thing. I’m trying to be a good teammate. All the outside stuff is opinions.”

There’ll also be this, perhaps even more compelling than his gaudy statistics: 37 games played out of 38. Griffin was held out of one game, a decision made by the organization, not Griffin, as a precaution. The fears that the run of seemingly random, unrelated injuries would intensify have ebbed.

Now it’s just about Griffin and his teammates synchronizing the pull of their oars to salvage this season and about delivering more help for him from the front office so that Dwane Casey can work his magic as he did in fitting the pieces together in Toronto. It might not feel as strange as outsiders expect when he shows up to play the Clippers wearing a Pistons uniform in a few days.

“Time has been huge for me,” he said. “Last year, coming here it was such a whirlwind and now this feels like home. When you feel like you have a home, everything is in a little bit better perspective. All that has worn off for me. I’m obviously happy to be here and feel settled. I feel like this is the place now.”

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