LOS ANGELES — All season long, hanging on the corner of the massive television showing game clips in the Clippers’ locker room, there has been a black baseball-style cap, with three words in white on it:
“Next Man Up.”
All season long the Clippers have lived up to that motto. A roster decimated by injuries — from Patrick Beverley being out for the season to ironman DeAndre Jordan missing a few games — has seen the next guy step up night after night, and the team has scrapped its way to stay in the mix for a playoff slot in the West.
Tuesday night felt different.
It was different.
The overwhelming sense around the team Tuesday night was shock — with a heavy dose of “when will the other shoe drop?” The trade deadline is just more than a week away, and the Clippers have embarked down a road that may well see the team’s other top players — DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams — moved before next Thursday. Players were reeling from the sharp change of direction.
“Nobody saw that coming, we’re all surprised by it,” Austin Rivers said. “We all love Blake.”
The move was so out of left field to Rivers refused to believe it at first.
“I had missed calls from my teammates, and then I talked to Wes (Wesley Johnson), he called me and was like ‘you heard?’ I said ‘That’s fake news, that’s not true,’” the younger Rivers said. “Then I saw it. You know, you hear so many rumors you don’t know what’s true or not, and then I saw it. I was just surprised by it.”
Everyone was trying to wrap their head around the move — and what likely will follow.
“The organization felt like it was best for our team now and along the future,” said Jordan, in a monotone voice, reflecting the combination of shock and “what’s next?” that hung over the team.
What could well be next is Jordan and Williams following Griffin out the door before the Feb. 8 trade deadline as the Clippers look to acquire pieces that jump-start their rebuild and free up cap space. Even if the two are not gone then, it’s hard to envision them with the Clippers past this season. Coach Doc Rivers, as well as owner Steve Ballmer in a statement, both said that making the playoffs remains the franchise goal, but the team’s actions signal a different priority.
The Griffin trade — which coach Rivers said was rooted in the team’s playoff failures — signaled the Clippers have changed course. Dramatically.
Which is why this trade caught people off guard, Los Angeles could have started a rebuild last summer when Chris Paul and J.J. Redick pushed their way out the door and never looked back, but instead the Clippers re-signed Griffin to a five-year, $173 million contract (then went out and signed Danilo Gallinari to a three-year deal). They told Griffin he would be a “Clipper for life” and he believed it. Quietly, when the microphones were off, teammates said Griffin was crushed by the trade but was trying to see it as a new chapter.
It’s not easy because Griffin was more than just the face of the Clippers, he’s a guy who changed the franchise. Griffin was the draft pick Los Angeles got right. After the blown picks such as Michael Olowokandi, Yaroslav Korolev, and Benoit Benjamin (among others), Griffin came in as a No. 1 pick who was talented and driven, looking for success. Realizing the rare opportunity, Mike Dunleavy Sr. convinced then-owner Donald Sterling the organization needed to grow up and be more professional, and things happened such as Baron Davis and other guys without Griffin’s work ethic being moved. Griffin changed the culture of the franchise.
“I really believe it’s pre-Blake and post-Blake,” coach Doc Rivers said of Griffin’s impact on the franchise. “Before Blake came here, this wasn’t a great franchise… But when Blake got here, and then CP (Chris Paul) and DJ (DeAndre Jordan) followed, that’s when this really became a franchise you talked about.”
Now Griffin is gone, in a sudden act that may well have been the right basketball move but is still very painful for the franchise and its players.
“We had a lot of great times together and he’ll be a good friend of mine after basketball,” DeAndre Jordan said. “It’s tough to see him go.”
“Blake was a great teammate, a great teacher,” C.J. Wilson said. “He taught me how to be a professional. He taught me how to take each day on as a new day — no matter what happened yesterday you have to move on to the next thing. I just watched how hard he worked and everything, and I just learned from that. I try to implement that in my life.”
The vibe in the arena was different as well. Where the Clippers usually put massive posters of their players — heavily featuring Griffin — over the Lakers championship banners in Staples Center, Tuesday night it was just black curtains. Like those used at a funeral. On the court, the Clippers showed some heart and didn’t fold down 22 in the third to Portland. They made it enough of a game late that Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum didn’t get to ice their knees in the fourth, but in the end Los Angeles lost.
Many players turned to the “you can only control what you can control” line about the situation, because they had no control over the situation. Guys understand this is a business intellectually, but that doesn’t lessen the sting.
“Everyone understands, and he’s a player that understands, the NBA business, sometime’s it’s tough,” Danilo Gallinari said, confirming that he had spoken with Griffin since the trade…. “It was unexpected, every one of us didn’t expect this.”
Everyone understands. Everyone knows it’s “next man up.” But everyone is also waiting for the next big shoe to drop. Unsettled will be the modus operandi for the Clippers for at least the next week.