Why Blake Griffin returned to the Clippers, embracing next-level challenge without Chris Paul

LOS ANGELES – They were sitting in a meeting on the eve of free agency, when one of the NBA’s icons captured the room for Blake Griffin. With owner Steve Ballmer, coach Doc Rivers and Los Angeles Clippers teammates, Jerry West captivated Griffin, who made clear his desire to return. West had been hired as a special consultant with the Clippers, and the first task he had embraced was persuading Griffin to re-sign with Los Angeles. For all of the voices in the final meeting before midnight, West’s resonated, and Blake returned.

“Jerry had a major voice to me, and he’s had an influence in coming and working on the culture here,” Griffin told The Vertical. “This franchise had unfinished business, and I had unfinished business here. We had unfinished business together and I valued that. We laid it out there that no matter what was going on around us, both sides hadn’t accomplished what we set out for.

“I couldn’t abandon this now.”

Griffin sat in a quiet part of the Clippers’ locker room inside Staples Center, remembering canceling his other free-agent visits and committing to a five-year, $173 million maximum deal to stay. Beyond the contractual component, returning to the Clippers meant a personal investment from Griffin. Chris Paul had abandoned the Clippers’ mission, agreeing to a trade to the Houston Rockets before free agency, and suddenly this gave Griffin a fresh motivation, a quest to be the final star standing in L.A. His drive and persistence in training – his ability to expand his arsenal with shooting and ball-handling and defense – made Griffin a refined all-around player and more than simply a dunker.

Blake Griffin is now flexing his muscles as the Clippers’ franchise player. (AP)

This season has placed Griffin in position to drive this Clippers offense and cement a full season as a lead shot-maker and creator. Paul ran the Clippers’ play calls and commanded the ball for most of the shot clock. But Griffin had thrived as a do-it-all component, something of a point forward at times when Paul sat out with injuries in previous seasons.

“I embrace the challenge,” Griffin told The Vertical. “With Chris gone, it changed our dynamic. For me, of course, I can look at it: I have the responsibility on my shoulder – all season. I have to do it. When Chris sat out, I was able to show it. I want to prove that I can sustain that style of play. Chris was one person, but we also lost J.J. [Redick], who I knew going into the free-agency process wouldn’t be back, Jamal [Crawford], who I thought we’d keep this summer but we had to move him around.

“So part of our core guys separated and that affected us. It changed the philosophy and we had to be accepting of the challenge.”

So far, Griffin has eclipsed every challenge. He’s off to the best start of his career, averaging 26.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists in four games. His shooting range continues to improve, up to a career-high 43.5 percent from 3-point land on 5.8 attempts per game, including Thursday night’s game-winner in a 104-103 victory over Portland. There’s a long way to go this season, but here is Griffin at his best: the full arsenal of his gifts, all on display and untethered.

During the summer, Griffin’s approach toward improving his game is ferocious, displaying a passion for sharpening his craft and his body. Yet for him, his workout regimen is the reason why the numerous injuries he’s suffered over the course of his career are senseless. It’s why Griffin admits that he broke down mentally like never before after suffering a season-ending right toe injury last April, sulking in another lost year and personal setback.

“I’m not going to lie, after the toe injury last season, I cried,” Griffin told The Vertical. “I’ve put myself in the best possible positions, through my daily training and my recovery processes and my offseason regimen and preparation. I break down when I have these freak injuries happen, when the hard work is basically thrown out. I feel I put myself in all the right positions – and then this happens.

“It was by far the toughest, the most emotional injury for me. Again?

As much as anything, however, the Clippers understood the rigors to which Griffin pushes himself and this organization.

“It’s maniacal how much Blake puts into his work,” Clippers executive VP of basketball operations Lawrence Frank told The Vertical. “It’s why the fluke injuries hit him harder than anyone else, because everything he does is geared toward being the best he can be. What he puts into his body, how he prepares, how much rest he gets – he understands the science of the body as well as any player I’ve ever been around.

“When you see his rehab work, corrective work, court work, it’s done. There is no [expletive] to him. He’s improved his shot so much, but this is six years of work. Some guys, if they don’t get instant gratification, they’re done. He totally changed his entire stroke throughout his career. To us, he’s the most versatile power forward in the league. His passing, his ball-handling. He can play pick-and-rolls with every position on the floor. He can play out of every position on the floor. When he prepares, everything you see on the floor, he’s done thousands and thousands of times.

“To have that type of persistence and that discipline … right from the beginning of the process, we told Griff what we wanted to do. The fortunes of the franchise changed when Blake was drafted. For us, we looked at Blake as forever a Clipper. You started here, you finish here. He’s right: We both have unfinished business.”

It comes with Griffin’s leadership, too, his communication with DeAndre Jordan, Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley on connecting the locker room. Griffin has built a calming presence since the 2016 physical incident with a team staff member, which cost him time with a broken hand. Paul had moments of loud, rah-rah messages, but those are no more, and Griffin has led a collective effort.

“There isn’t someone here always giving speeches now, and trying to rile up the guys by yelling in a fiery speech,” Griffin said. “We have been able to feel out the vibe of this locker room and understand which techniques work in every situation. Me and D.J. have tried to find effective ways to lead different guys. Me personally, I’m always going to lead by example first. But there are moments where I need to use my voice and go up to a guy and get my message across.”

This summer provided a new opportunity for Griffin. Jerry West delivering a speech, ball in his court, and Blake Griffin renewed his promise to the Clippers well before his blistering start to the season.

“I’ve embraced challenges at every level,” Griffin said, “and I welcome this challenge.”