PLAYA VISTA, Calif. -- Doc Rivers wasn't trying to send a direct message to Blake Griffin when he invited a member of SEAL Team 6 to speak to the Los Angeles Clippers on the morning of their first preseason game. Rivers simply hoped the message of teamwork would leave an impression on his squad. He didn't realize that choosing a speaker with this background would resonate so strongly with Griffin.
"I've loved that stuff since I was little," Griffin said. "I used to read books on Navy SEALS, Special Forces, the Green Berets, all those guys. It was cool for me. I just think that's the ultimate showing of sacrifice and teamwork and humility. It's hard for a basketball team to even begin to understand that, because your life's not on the line. I don't know, everything he said, man, it drove something home."
Griffin was locked in as the SEAL talked of sacrifice, including spending more than 250 days a year away from his family. He talked about doing it all for maybe $60,000 a year, which prompted Griffin to recall the absurdity of Latrell Sprewell's "I've got my family to feed" explanation for turning down a $27 million contract extension.
"All we've got to do is play basketball," Griffin said.
Griffin heard the tale of progression from SEAL Team 5 to SEAL Team 6 to team leader and wanted to know what changes the SEAL had to make along the way. Griffin wondered how, after completing a perfectly executed mission, the team could still find ways to get even better. He learned about complete accountability.
"They have these meetings where there's no such thing as rank," Griffin said. "Anybody can say anything to each other."
So after a summer of reflection -- "More so than ever," Griffin said -- brought on by the collapse of a 19-point lead with a berth in the Western Conference finals just more than a quarter away and the undoing of a 3-1 series lead over the Houston Rockets, Griffin is now willing to forge camaraderie through a little healthy dissension.
"Speaking up and saying things when I see them, not letting it slide," Griffin said. "Not thinking, 'Oh, it's October.' Or, 'That's OK for now.' I've started to cut out all that.
"If I see something, I'm going to say something. If my teammates or people don't like it ... I'm trying to make the team better. That's one thing I've tried to change, other than my physical stuff."
The change in leadership style is more apparent than the "physical stuff" in the preseason. He'll demonstrate new wrinkles, such as a floater in the lane during warm-ups, but he's in no rush to show anything during the exhibition games. Meanwhile, he'll shoot with teammates before and after practice, instead of off by himself. At the Clippers' last home practice before departing on a trip to China, he stopped everything to explain some team concepts to newcomer Josh Smith, the type of moment observers didn't see from Griffin in the past.
Rivers' expectations for Griffin's workload this season are "the same."
"Better, but the same," Rivers said. "We've probably been on him more about defense. And really just not even hesitating on that elbow shot, just taking it."
Griffin has had numerous discussions with Clippers assistant coach Lawrence Frank about becoming an elite defender. If Griffin is going to expend the energy necessary to do that, it will require conservation elsewhere. That probably means even fewer drives for spectacular slams -- he dunked far less in 2014-15 (78) than he did the season before (176) -- and perhaps bringing the ball upcourt less often. Maybe his rebounding numbers will stay down in single digits, as well. He went from 36 games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in 2013-14 to only nine such games last season, when his rebounding average dropped to a career-low 7.6 per game.
All was forgiven and forgotten in the playoffs, when Griffin averaged almost 13 rebounds per game. It was obvious he had been saving himself. The youngster who was so gung-ho as a rookie, he soared over the scorers' table in pursuit of a loose ball in his very first preseason game, had learned to pick his spots for exertion over the course of the long NBA season. But the Clippers overall slipped to 20th in the NBA in rebounding.
"I want to rebound at a better rate during the season," Griffin said.
"But when you've got a dude grabbing 15 of 'em a game," he said, nodding toward DeAndre Jordan's location across the practice facility, "there's not that many to go around. That's what he does, and he does that so well for us. But I need to do a better job of helping him."
"Somewhat, it is about -- I don't want to say pacing yourself, because you don't want it to sound like you're not playing hard in the regular season -- but you have to find that fine line between pacing yourself and being lazy."
LeBron James chose to bend toward the extreme of rest last season, and his two-week sabbatical was one of the best moves in the NBA, leaving him fresh enough to almost carry the depleted Cleveland Cavaliers to the title.
The flip side of that is if LeBron is going to scale back again this season, and Kevin Durant is working his way back from foot surgery alongside a more empowered Russell Westbrook, and Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors won't feel as great a need to establish themselves during the regular season, and Ty Lawson relieves James Harden of some of his responsibilities for the Houston Rockets -- the most valuable player award could be there for the taking if Griffin set his mind to it.
"Why not?" Griffin said. "Why not try to be the best player?
"When [a] player says something like that, [people] always say, 'Oh, is he delusional?' But why not? I saw Victor Oladipo a couple of weeks ago, and he said, Why can't I be the best player? That's the mindset you've got to have as a player. That's always my mindset. ... My biggest thing is, if our team does what we're supposed to do and we play the right way, then a lot of times those individual things take care of themselves."
Curry wasn't the popular pick to win the MVP before last season, and he held up the Maurice Podoloff trophy in June after the Warriors won 67 games. Draymond Green made the all-defensive first team. Klay Thompson was an All-Star and third-team All-NBA.
Group achievements lead to individual accolades. It's the NBA twist on the lessons of a SEAL team member, imparted to Griffin and the Clippers by a member of a highly accomplished group whose job requires him to keep his own identity a secret.