Blake Griffin becomes the NBA’s reluctant new celebrity

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Blake Griffin wants to be just a regular guy.

Not on the court — there he is fully at home on the stage. There he wants to win. He wants to destroy you. And dunk on you ferociously.

But when your dunks electrify stadiums and bring life to a dormant franchise, when you have the kind of athletic gifts Griffin does, there is no being a regular guy off the court.

Especially not in Los Angeles, where people make a career out of latching on to the new, hot thing. Not in a city where Rihanna stops by outside the Clippers locker room to say “hi.” Especially not All-Star weekend, when his viral fame is about to explode into the national spotlight.

But Griffin comes from a different world than the bright lights of Hollywood. He’s an Oklahoma kid, born and raised.

“I miss my family and friends the most,” Griffin said. “Also I miss being just a regular guy – the relative anonymity that being from Oklahoma City brings.”

His ties to those Oklahoma roots were in evidence Wednesday, when media entered the Clipper locker room post game to see Griffin with his head in his hands, distraught. He had just learned an old friend from Oklahoma, a former teammate and Tulsa football player, had died from cancer.

Griffin may live near the beach now, but he is as connected to home as ever. He admits there are things to like about Los Angeles — the restaurants, the weather, the beach — but Griffin is not going Hollywood. He’s still an Oklahoma boy at heart, with a different makeup than many who gravitate to Los Angeles.

“I’ll never change who I am. ‘Celebrity’ is really not who I am,” Griffin said. “That does not motivate me at all. Wanting to be the best player that I can be and help my team win games is all the motivation I need.”

But make no mistake, he is a celebrity. He certainly is in NBA circles. The NBA is already a league of guys who won the genetic lottery, yet his NBA peers see Griffin as a freak of nature. Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James tweet about his dunks. On more than one occasion I’ve heard NBA players ask, as they are dressing after their game, if Griffin played that night because they wanted to catch his highlights.

His powerful, fearsome dunks have propelled him to being a huge favorite heading into Saturday night’s All-Star Dunk Contest. But staged dunks for this exhibition are different than throwing it down in a game.

“I don’t think any of that bothers him. I really don’t,” said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro of the difference. “It’s just his personality, he loves the stage, he’s a competitive kid and loves the challenge of it. This is just another thing for him to excel at.”

Griffin is much more than dunks, though. Other teams are learning that the hard way. He’s got a midrange game that is coming along. As the double teams have started to come earlier and harder this season, Griffin has shown a real patience with the ball and ability to make the correct pass out of the post.

“I am proud of my passing and I really think that my motor is helping out a lot this season,” Griffin said. “I have always prided myself on playing hard every play. I feel I have done that. I would like to improve on my outside shot to make it a consistent weapon and to become a better free throw shooter.”

Griffin was the No. 1 pick in 2009, but missed all of his first season in the NBA due to a stress fracture in his left kneecap, something he injured landing on a preseason dunk, in what seemed an innocuous play at the time. That meant he got to learn some things just watching the NBA up close. He was with the team at every game, in a suit just behind the bench.

But watching and actually playing through the physical and mental grind of a full NBA season are different things. He’s not sure if the physical or mental side is harder.

“Both are extremely hard adjustments,” Griffin said. “I have taken a lot of double teams and have been defended very physically. I am at the tail end of my first extended road trip and it is very tiring. It is hard to recall where exactly you are (literally) at times!”

Somehow you have no doubt Griffin will adjust to the physical on the court challenges.

Off the court, here’s to hoping he never really changes — we don’t need more celebrities in the NBA. We need more guys with a real passion for the game. We need more Griffins.

James Harden reiterates it was “false talk” he and Chris Paul were at odds

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The Houston Rockets — not in an anonymous way, but in a “we are putting our names on this, quote me” kind of way — have pushed back hard on the narrative that there was tension between Chris Paul and James Harden that led to the Rockets trading CP3 for Russell Westbrook this offseason. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has denied it, team leader P.J. Tucker called it fake news, and Paul himself has pushed back.

Harden has done that again, speaking at his camp on Saturday.

The counter-argument to this: Chris Paul is in Oklahoma City right now.

People will believe what they want to believe, but the Rockets guys have all gone on the record about this. Nothing leaked and anonymous.

From the Rockets’ perspective, they made a trade for Westbrook that is a roster upgrade. Houston has a dynamic duo that can compete with the Los Angeles teams and the other contenders around the league, and whatever questions fans and the media may have about the ultimate fit of Harden and Westbrook the talent level is not in question.

Do the Rockets make that trade if everything is great between Harden and Paul? Probably, if they saw CP3 as in decline and Westbrook as a talent upgrade (which they did). The Rockets can be a cold, business-like organization in terms of their pursuit of a title.

We will see next season if that calculation paid off. Whether or not Harden and CP3 got along.

Report: Kyle Korver reaches one-year deal to join Milwaukee Bucks

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The Bucks can never have enough shooting around a driving Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Enter Kyle Korver. The veteran sharpshooter will be headed to Milwaukee on a one-year contract, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This is a quality pickup at the minimum (it is a veteran minimum contract). Korver averaged 8.6 points per game last season, taking 72 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and knocking down 39.7 percent of them. The man has gravity and pulls a defender because even at age 38 defenders cannot leave him. Shooting is a skill always in demand.

The Bucks will start Wesley Matthews at the two and have Sterling Brown behind him. They have Khris Middleton and Pat Connaughton at the three. Now they have some reliable veteran depth at those spots and a guy who can hit the big shot for them.

James Harden buys piece of MLS Houston Dynamo

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NBA players being minority owners in a soccer team is not new, LeBron James owns a small piece of Champions’ League winner Liverpool, for example.

James Harden is keeping it closer to home — he bought a share of the Dynamo, Houston’s MLS franchise.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to join the ownership group of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash and proud to be a part of a club with tremendous history and a great future,” Harden said in a statement. “Houston is my home now, and I saw this as a way to invest in my city and expand my business interests at the same time. Soccer in general, and especially MLS, have exploded in this country throughout my lifetime. I’ve been a fan of the game for several years, and I know that Houston has a massive soccer fanbase, so it was an easy decision for me when this opportunity arose.”

Harden reportedly purchased a five percent stake in the team.

The Dynamo — a former MLS cup champion and a franchise that has consistently been strong — is primarily owned by Gabriel Brener, and it has boxing legend Oscar De La Hoya as one of its minority owners.

Harden has earned more than $141 million in NBA salary in his 10 NBA seasons and has four years left on the $228 million contract extension he signed with the team in 2017. In addition, he has a large shoe contract with Adidas and other endorsements.

Report: R.C. Buford moving on from Spurs GM role, Brian Wright taking over

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For 15 years, through championships and an unparalleled run of playoff berths and success, R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich seemed to work as one brain. Popovich was the coach but also team president, Buford the GM, and together they built an NBA powerhouse.

Buford is moving on from that role. Or, more precisely moving up into a new management role, and assistant GM Brian Wright is taking over as GM, reports Jabari Young of The Athletic.

After a little more than 15 years serving as GM, Buford is getting prepared to bequeath the role to assistant GM Brian Wright, league sources have confirmed to The Athletic. Wright will report directly to Buford, who will officially get a new title that some around the NBA believe will be a role helping to oversee Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

When the Spurs initially hired Wright in 2016, he stayed behind the scenes and focused mainly on scouting. But sources have informed The Athletic over the last year Wright has been more involved, even fielding calls and packages for the trade of Kawhi Leonard the previous summer.

Wright came to the Spurs from the Pistons a couple of years ago. That said, don’t expect a big change in how things are done in the Spurs front office. For one thing, Popovich is still there. Also, Wright has an excellent reputation around the league as being smart and a straight shooter. On top of all of that, Buford will remain his ultimate boss, although Buford’s role will change into one of more of a business manager for Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

Young hints there could be more changes coming. Obviously, the biggest would be when Popovich decides to step back in his dual roles as coach and president, but there could be shifts in the assistant GM ranks as well.

Just don’t expect the Spurs to stop being the Spurs.