Can Blake Griffin Solve L.A. Clippers Identity Crisis in Post-Chris Paul Era?

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterJuly 7, 2017

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: Head Coach Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers coaches Blake Griffin #32 and Austin Rivers #25 against the Sacramento Kings on November 18, 2016 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Before we complain about the Los Angeles Clippers' lack of identity going forward, it's only fair to recall how embarrassing their previous identity was.

Even before Donald Sterling's public downfall, the Clippers were losers, and not lovable ones. True, Chris Paul's tenure didn't bring a title, even if Steve Ballmer figured his 2014 arrival as owner was timed with the franchise going over the top, but it undeniably brought progress.

What now?

With Paul off to Houston, there's reason to worry that another identity crisis is on the horizon as Blake Griffin takes over as the face of the franchise, with Doc Rivers still the steward of basketball operations.

But here's the scary truth: Griffin and Rivers are both pretty well known...

In hardcore basketball circles, they are both objects of substantial derision—the sort of guys who would trigger that droning "over-rated!" chant if folks inside the NBA treated their offices like NBA arenas.

Very few people at this point believe Griffin is strong enough, physically or mentally, to be a franchise's rock for every game and every minute. Rivers' mismanagement of the Clippers' assets—and clear failure to guide them even to a conference finals with Ballmer's support—has only reinforced skeptics who believe he is better at making the most of something easy than anything difficult.

Their supporters, however, would argue that both are largely misunderstood—and point out that they are frankly more enjoyable to talk to and hang out with than Paul, whose hard-driving edge can often pierce instead of prod.

But at this point, one has to question what will become of the Clippers' basketball side without Paul, who for all his commercials and All-Star appearances was, at his core, more substance than style.

Though praised by players for his coaching, his moves as a front-office executive have garnered Doc Rivers some criticism.
Though praised by players for his coaching, his moves as a front-office executive have garnered Doc Rivers some criticism.Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images

Rivers remains charming, but team sources say his work ethic as a coach and executive lags far behind the championship rep he built on the shoulders of veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Rivers' moves to remain competitive with legit pieces in Danilo Gallinari and Patrick Beverley (salvaged from the Paul wreckage) and luring fancy-passing Serbian point guard Milos Teodosic to try the NBA aren't bad—if you accept that Rivers is never going to surrender his disregard-the-future mentality.

Gallinari is sweet on offense but is a consistent threat to be embarrassed on defense by opposing small forwards, and it's uncertain if Rivers is enough of a basketball visionary to make anything close to the most of a giant frontcourt of Gallinari, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.

In many ways, Teodosic reinforces the underlying point about the direction of the franchise. He is a commodity that is exciting to consider because of his flash, and he brings a certain sense of superiority in his demeanor—the same thing that people have noticed in Griffin and coach's son Austin Rivers and found pretty grating.

The division of playing time between Beverley, the tenacious agitator with overflowing intangible value, and the stylish but unproven Teodosic will be an interesting. Teodosic, 30, feels entitled to start in the NBA based on his accomplishments overseas, per league sources, but is "a downright bad defender," according to one NBA scout. Quality scheming by coaches (and Jordan's rim protection in this case) usually can cover for subpar point guard defense, and Rivers will no doubt be trying to make Teodosic look as glorious as possible.

It will come down to the Clippers, especially Griffin, delivering more substance than they've been known for.

"He's sort of an enigma," said one team source who has spent considerable time with Griffin.

Maybe more of an open-floor game on offense without Paul pounding the rock will free Griffin to play with more joy than ever—and encounter less defensive resistance and injury risk in slow half-court sets. This is a guy who was, it's easy to forget, third in the MVP voting behind Kevin Durant and LeBron James just three years ago.

Blake Griffin hasn't played more than 67 games in a regular season since 2013-14.
Blake Griffin hasn't played more than 67 games in a regular season since 2013-14.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Griffin now is far better remembered for dunking over a car—while also being maligned for not dunking as forcefully as he did back then. He lacked his former lift last season even before suffering a plantar plate injury to his right big toe in April. However, as he has dunked less, he has shot better and passed pretty well—so don't be surprised if he emerges among the best facilitating big men in the league with more chances in charge of the ball.

That's if he is on the court to handle all those chances, which is no sure thing considering his history of injuries.

Griffin's inability to be more of defensive presence and fourth-quarter go-getter, despite his athleticism, figures to be an even bigger problem with more energy allocated to a greater load on offense. Through much of his career, Griffin has shown a tendency to be easily distracted by opposing players or referees instead of dictating the game to others. His sense of timing in when he should speak up to teammates hasn't been sharpened nearly as much as his comic timing in pursuit of Hollywood fame.

That often left the burden to Paul, who leaves L.A. stuck with the bad rap of having never taken the Clippers beyond the second round of the playoffs. And while the chemistry concerns about Paul's hard-driving leadership style have to be considered, what about Griffin's and Jordan's willingness to listen—or their inability to speak for themselves as the inspirational leaders a great team needs?

With his return, Griffin sent a signal that he believes he is ready for all the Clippers require of him. The question is whether Griffin misunderstands the vast difference between being the face of a franchise and the heart of one. Indeed, Jordan ultimately didn't show he had that faith in himself to lead the Dallas Mavericks and turned back on his free-agent expedition.

As for Griffin, "what he thinks he can handle and what he actually can are very different," one league source said.

Maybe in the end, though, it won't matter, especially if the Clippers don't truly care.

Under Steve Ballmer, the Clippers have tried to make inroads in Los Angeles as an entertainment product as much as a basketball team.
Under Steve Ballmer, the Clippers have tried to make inroads in Los Angeles as an entertainment product as much as a basketball team.Mike Windle/Getty Images

It has become clear under Ballmer that he is hell-bent on the Clippers achieving much more as an entertainment company than ever before.

They are winning style points thanks to some technological innovations around the team (among them a system that allows fans to choose what highlights they want to see on the video scoreboard). A luxurious private Season Ticket Club lounge opened last season at Staples so important people could feel properly important. President of business operations Gillian Zucker has hired a number of people with no sports background to help further the organization's business agenda, according to team sources, although that doesn't include Jerry West as a new basketball advisor after he grew apart from the Warriors and wasn't asked back by the Lakers.

Going after that glitz in L.A. makes sense, but it also risks turning off their humble old fan base, especially without the title hope that Paul made viable.

Locally, the Clippers have long been a niche product some fans took pride in because of their underdog status; others only got interested because parents could bring kids to the arena at an affordable price. Those fans got some small reward for their longtime faith in recent years.

Despite the success on the court, the Clippers—with all of their star powerstill didn't rank in the league's top 10 in team merchandise sales last spring.

That isn't likely to change soon. Even if Griffin returns to his MVP-contending form before he declines in the worrisome big-money years of his new five-year max contract, the Clippers without Paul have little shot of finishing among the Western Conference's top five. And that would make it a lot easier for Jordan to leave as a free agent next year.

The whole thing leaves one with the feeling that these Clippers are a lot of polish without much under the hood to power them through the tough times.

Constructing something that really matters, with lasting value, was hard enough with Paul—and now the Clippers are left to try again without him.

Kevin Ding is NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.