Blake Griffin's return keeps once-irrelevant Clippers relevant

When Blake Griffin contemplated what his first foray into unrestricted free agency might look like, the thought of a choreographed dance with the league's high-powered suitors in early July seemed icky. For all the endorsements and comedy ventures, Griffin finds the conventions of NBA stardom a little odd. The freedom of free agency is appealing, but the midnight-July 1 spectacle is not.

"I don't need to feel wanted," Griffin said just before the LA Clippers' ill-fated playoff run. "It's nice to hear how you could fit in with teams in the future, but I don't need that hard recruiting pitch. If I went and met with a team and they brought a celebrity to the meeting, I would immediately be turned off. That's pitiful."

Griffin entertained the possibility of taking meetings -- as late as Friday morning, he had a couple on the books with Phoenix and Denver -- but there would be no charade or cattle call. If he knew he was returning to the Clippers, he wouldn't waste anyone's time, least of all his own.

In the end, Griffin took only a single meeting. On Friday at Staples Center over a meal catered by stylish eatery Republique, Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers and Jerry West, along with DeAndre Jordan and a few of the newcomers sent over from Houston in the Chris Paul deal made the hard sell to Griffin. He was presented with a veritable biopic of himself, and the prevailing theme was clear: He was the lifeblood of the Clippers, the team's native son, an evolving star just beginning to scratch the surface of his leadership potential. Soon thereafter, Griffin committed to remaining with the Clippers, accepting a maximum offer hours before the NBA's official July 1 starting gun sounded.

Jilted by Paul, the Clippers had pored over their contingency plans. They could use Paul's departure to launch a full renovation. Without the league's best distributor, did it really make sense to extend a five-year max deal to Griffin, who has missed significant time to injury and will be 33 when the contract expires in 2022? Was it time for a team that has, for years, regarded future planning as an inconvenience to start accumulating draft picks and players whose futures promise to be better than their past?

Instead, the Clippers opted to swallow hard, present Griffin with the coveted fifth year and retool around the phenom whose arrival in 2009 launched the Clippers' ascension into relevance.

After all the heartbreak and unnatural disasters of the past six seasons, it's easy to forget that before Griffin, the Clippers didn't register. They were a woebegone franchise owned by a cartoon villain, one that operated on the cheap and had the putrid results on the court to show for it.

The Clippers drafted Griffin No. 1 overall in 2009, yet in what almost seemed like a cosmic act, he never suited up for a regular season game after falling to a broken kneecap. But when he took the floor in the autumn of 2010, fans lavished him with pure affection. The league's most charismatic new League Pass star was ... a Clipper. The team started to gain traction in their local market that had ignored them for 25 years. Though the Clippers were still the third tenant in the building, Staples Center buzzed in anticipation of Griffin's acrobatics. The league took notice as well, and when Paul surveyed the league for a new home, Griffin's potential to grow into the game's best finisher made the Clippers an acceptable destination.

Somewhere along the way, Lob City fell from grace. The compression level around the team rose, and basketball started to feel like work. By 2015, the Clippers were known more for their locker room dynamic than any on-court success, despite being the only team in the league other than San Antonio that has posted 50 or more wins each of the past five seasons. And Griffin was no longer the league's new crush. Marred by injuries, playoff disappointments and "the dynamic," he no longer looked like a player who was having any fun.

Griffin will spend the next few months rehabbing the plantar plate of his big right toe. After that, he will reclaim his place as the face of the Clippers' franchise -- and with the profile comes responsibility. Often a reticent locker room presence amid the voluble Paul and Rivers, Griffin will need to assert his voice as a primary leader, even if that hasn't always been his inclination. A grinder who works out early and often year-round, Griffin will have to work even harder to carry the load in Los Angeles. Above all, he will have to produce wins.

While he was sidelined last winter, from afar Griffin observed the Sixers' Joel Embiid -- all the idolatry and anticipation as basketball fans fell in love with the rookie sensation. Seeing Embiid bask in rookie sunshine, Griffin reflected on the trajectory of his own career, both what it was and what it has become.

"It's funny to watch it happen to someone else," Griffin said. "'This guy is awesome. He can do no wrong. He's so much fun to watch.' It's, like, 'Just wait, man. You don't know what's coming.' Everything is great now, and it's fun -- and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just weird to see where people start to turn. You don't win right away. You struggle here, you struggle there. Then people start picking you apart. It's interesting to see guys' mindset, how they change, how they're different with media, with fans, Twitter, in games, with the refs -- it all changes."

Griffin has changed over seven seasons, and he's far removed from the giddiness and whimsy that surrounds Embiid. Fatherhood has tempered him. His 2010 All-Star Weekend leap over a KIA is a distant speck in his rearview mirror. He's no longer a highlight-reel matinee idol, but a veteran, playmaking power forward with a grown-up's game. But for all the maturation, Griffin's best pivot as he enters the next chapter of his career will be to rediscover a trace of the fun he spotted in Embiid. The Clippers are his team now, and he can guide the club however he pleases.