- J.A. Adande, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- They were there for Blake Griffin, and they didn't even get to see him play. Fans started lining up at an autograph booth in the Thomas & Mack Center concourse before the Los Angeles Clippers' summer league game, and they stayed there until Griffin arrived some 20 minutes after the game ended, sat down and started signing jerseys, cards, basketballs, shirts and programs. The line extended past concession stands and entry portals, with more fans breaking ranks to get a glimpse of the Clippers' No. 1 pick. A team official said he's never seen anything like it for one of their players at summer league.
This is different.
And this goes against everything I've learned since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1985 and provided us with a quarter-century's worth of bad draft picks, loafing centers, point guards on 10-day contracts taking last-second shots, and Donald Sterling's ownership serving as the lone constant, but I believe Griffin can change this team.
If he does, if he turns the Clippers into regular playoff residents instead of occasional visitors, he'll go down as one of the greatest No. 1 picks ever. That's the magnitude of the challenge, and that's how monumental that accomplishment would be.
There have been other moments of hope: the "Space Cowboys" group of past-their-peaks Norm Nixon, Cedric Maxwell and Marques Johnson; the head-pounding young squad of Quentin Richardson, Darius Miles, Elton Brand and Lamar Odom; and the team that got to within a game of the Western Conference finals. You don't need to be an NBA historian to know how those promising stories ended. Just look at the upper reaches of the Staples Center. You won't find a single piece of Clippers fabric. No retired jerseys, not even so much as a division championship banner.
When the Clippers won the draft lottery and selected Griffin with the top pick, I didn't think this one would turn out any different. It would be just the Clippers' luck to go first in what's viewed as a weak draft. They never get this chance when there's a Shaq or a LeBron to be had.
Then I saw Griffin flying around the court in a summer league game against Memphis, soaring over everyone in the paint to throw down a tip dunk, running down an opponent to pin his shot against the backboard. The fact that it came while the No. 2 pick, Memphis' Hasheem Thabeet, was turning in an Olowokandian performance and disappearing for stretches made it even more jarring. For once, the Clippers wound up with the player you'd want if you had the choice. This wasn't Lancaster Gordon instead of John Stockton, or Yaroslav Korolev instead of Danny Granger.
(That reminds me, my favorite moment of summer league came when Korolev, playing on the Knicks' squad, blocked Sacramento forward Jason Thompson's shot from behind. Thompson seemed willing to accept it as part of the game until he turned around, saw who got him, and said, "Oh, s---!" He looked as shocked as he would have if someone had just walked on the court and served him a subpoena.)
This time the Clippers got exactly what they needed, even if it didn't seem that way on draft night. They already had a surplus of frontcourt players, with Zach Randolph at power forward and Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman at center, with Camby the only one with a contract that seemed easily tradable. Then, miraculously, the Clippers got the Memphis Grizzlies to agree to take Randolph and the two years and $33 million left on his contract in exchange for Quentin Richardson in a trade that was finalized over the weekend.
One league executive said that losing Randolph might be the best thing about getting Griffin. That's cold. The reality is that the best thing for the Clippers is they're getting someone who cares, who's fully invested in this, who arrives with no checked baggage, only a carry-on.
It's hard to get worked up over big scoring performances in summer league because they're coming against players who won't be in the NBA next season (not to mention players who have been hanging out in Vegas for a week). And it's silly to get discouraged when opponents swarm Griffin, as the Washington Wizards did Saturday night, because he isn't surrounded by players such as Baron Davis and Eric Gordon to keep defenders honest.
If there's one thing to take away from Griffin's play in Las Vegas, it's his effort. He boxes out. He's the first one down the court on fast breaks. And even though it makes you wince to see him put his body at risk in a meaningless game, he'll dive on the ground in pursuit of loose balls.
Can this be the new standard for the Clippers, a squad that seemed disinterested and disconnected at times? Rookies rarely set the tone for teams, just as the last name added to the law firm doesn't call the shots. It's even more difficult for a power forward. Transformative rookies are usually either point guards who control the ball or giant centers who control the paint.
"I can bring energy, bring excitement, athleticism, defense, stuff like that," Griffin said. "Hopefully those are things I can help out with.
"I know my boundaries. I know what I need to do. My thing is just to lead by example. We'll have guys that have been in the league for a long time. They know what to do. My thing is to come in here and work as hard as I can and do the right things."
He doesn't have the charisma of Baron Davis, who had his fashion flair (beard, hat, Malcolm X glasses) and personality on full display Saturday when he watched the Clippers play and made a boisterous tour of their locker room afterward. It will be interesting to see just how much of the light he allows Griffin to have. Davis did consent to an interview that Griffin conducted for NBA TV.
"A rookie can just provide that energy that we need, and that's going to be crucial," Davis said. "We're ready for it. We're ready for everything he's going to give us."
(Just as noteworthy as Griffin's performance was Davis' sitting courtside with Clippers general manager/coach Mike Dunleavy and assistant GM Neil Olshey as the three talked, laughed and made dinner plans. New harmony in Clipper Country?)
Of course, one thing that hasn't changed is the owner. This is still Sterling's team, which means it's still subject to his eccentricities, such as his apparent infatuation with Allen Iverson. While Dunleavy & Co. would prefer to pursue Milwaukee Bucks restricted free-agent guard Ramon Sessions, who is also drawing interest from the New York Knicks, Sterling thinks Iverson is the guy to help ticket sales, regardless of his impact on the win-loss record. Dunleavy even asked the Detroit Pistons for their assessment of the Iverson experience. You never know when Sterling will intrude on personnel matters and bring his own brand of bad decisions to the forefront.
When people talk about the Clippers' losing culture, it's really on Sterling, since he's the one who's been there through all of the front-office changes, through a baker's dozen of coaches, through 22 losing seasons since they moved to L.A. It's why I always say that despite Larry Brown's championships in college and the NBA, his greatest accomplishment is coaching the Clippers to a winning record in his two years there. He's the only full-time coach in the franchise's history who can make that claim.
The same weighted standards apply if Griffin plays out his career as a Clipper and emerges as a winner. That should merit inclusion on this short list (above, right) of all-time great No. 1 overall picks. (Caveat: They must have done great things for the teams that drafted them. For example, Shaq's glory days were in Los Angeles, not Orlando, which keeps him off this list.)
Dunleavy is shifting from scouting to coaching mode on Griffin now, nitpicking, saying, "Every night there's certain things you see that he needs to learn. There's also things you say, 'Wow. He can do that. That's great.'
Right now he's out there doing well but going through a lot of learning."
OK, we'll try to show a little patience and understanding. It's the least we can do for someone trying to do the unprecedented.
He has until January.