Three years ago — almost to the date, Blake Griffin made his NBA debut in awe-inspiring fashion. In 38 minutes, Blake displayed a combination of explosiveness, supremacy and grace the league hadn’t seen in a rookie since LeBron James’ inaugural season. Within minutes, fans were enamored by both Griffin and the Clippers’ wayward group of young entertainers, all of which had yet to legally purchase a drink in the United States. Griffin was the future of the franchise, one that also featured Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Bledsoe and DeAndre Jordan. Clipper fandom was instantly vitalized. Words like “franchise player”, “bright future” and “hope” were popping out of their mouths for the first time.
That team was a lot of things. Too electrifying not to make forward strides, the promise of a better tomorrow overshadowed their flaws. The future was murky, definitely good, but… definitely murky. In reality, this squad provided a means to success rather than success itself. Excitement did morph into wins but in ways that were unimaginable at the time. Piece by piece, each member of this squad was exchanged for long-term stability until DeAndre became the lone survivor alongside Griffin. Today’s structure is different but the encompassing theme remains largely the same: living up to expectations.
Gordon and Aminu turning into Chris Paul was the first exchange of potential for weighty expectations. Blake’s grace period was over. Just two years into his career, he was forced to make the switch from lovably tantalizing rookie to unabated superstar on a contender. Growing up involved some inevitable speed bumps— progression is an invariably inconsistent process. Still, the Clippers long-term trajectory pointed upwards. They made their ascension to fringe contenders and Griffin simultaneously improved his game in every facet.
The potential-laden bouncy castle had officially been stripped away to make room for iron-clad expectations. The problem? They were expectations the Clippers were never quite equipped to live up to.
Amplifying the complications was the fact that Griffin’s improvements weren’t documented in the world of basic statistics. The box score would tell you his development had stagnated and that’s exactly what the prescribed wisdom of the day stated. Ignoring Griffin’s obvious advancements in post scoring, shooting, playmaking, defense and literally any aspect of the game I might have missed, his statistical drop gave detractors a perfect segue into condemning him. He could have been perceived as an unselfish superstar, taking a decrease in touches and minutes in stride but it was too late for that. The script (Get it? Because LA and movies! Weeeeee) had already been flipped on Lob City.
Defamed with tags ranging from “pretenders” and the truly creative “Flop City”, the Clippers became Public Enemy No. 1. It’s true; the Clips stopped running the floor with the vitality that originally captivated everyone but they also stopped leading the league in turnover ratio. Yet for the narrative-machine, LAC had been stripped of its innocence: The once-coddled youngsters just instantaneously grew up, and man, we really shouldn’t have spoiled them this much. Really, this team replaced entertainment with effectiveness; not effort with entitlement.
It was inevitable that the team would pick up some enemies along the way— a tried and true hallmark of refinement— and beneath the hysteria were relevant faults. Sure, there’s worse ways for an uber-criticized team to lose in the playoffs than going up 2-0 in a first round series only to drop the next four but they’re few and far between. Griffin’s ankle injury rendered him human and the Clippers, as constructed, had failed.
Five months into the future, Eric Bledsoe is gone. He’s replaced by the certainty of J.J. Redick’s and Jared Dudley’s three-point strokes. Griffin, in accordance, should be an offseason improved. The past three years have served as a lengthy morphing process. Griffin and Jordan have transitioned from lob-catchers to team leaders.. They turned from boys to men, from athletes to professionals. They’ve failed together.
By some means, this season is a yet another grand experiment. Expectations, for Blake and the Clippers, have never been so pronounced. The microscope unnerving, every triumph and misstep overblown while this team figures out who they are. Another disappointing year would be unacceptable and it could spell Jordan’s departure, nailing the coffin shut on the U21 Clippers and spiraling this team into another learn-on-the-fly season. Yet at the same time, this season shares similarities in spirit with that of 2011: nervous excitement, optimism amid uncertainty and most of all, hope.