The Clippers first hung banners at Staples Center depicting their marquee players in 2013, with the goal of covering up the many purple-and-gold championship ones that loomed over their games. The displays have been part of their game-day presentation ever since. At first, it was the big three of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, and DeAndre Jordan, along with supporting-cast members J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Jamal Crawford, and Jared Dudley. Eventually, Paul Pierce and Austin Rivers went up. Paul was dropped this season after his trade to Houston.
On Tuesday night, the banners were gone. In their place were long black cloths.
The first Clippers home game after Griffin’s eight-year stint with the team ended felt more like a funeral at times. As expected, the organization removed any sight of the former franchise player from the arena the day after trading him to the Pistons in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and first- and second-round draft picks. But Griffin’s presence still hung over the entire night. The Clippers lost 104-96 to the Trail Blazers, as none of their players (the reinforcements had yet to arrive by tipoff) scored more than 20 points. Griffin had done that five out of his last seven games with the team.
Danilo Gallinari, who had been sidelined with a glute injury since December 9, returned to action on Tuesday. (Pure coincidence, according to coach Doc Rivers.) After finishing up with a crowd of reporters before the game in the Clippers locker room, Gallinari took the spot where Griffin’s locker used to be—which had been cleaned out, except for a Marjanovic no. 51 jersey—and sat down to put on his game shoes. Both Gallo and C.J. Williams lamented the loss of Griffin, but they at least seemed to enjoy the extra leg room (soon to be invaded by a 7-foot-3 center).
To their right, Tyrone Wallace sat and recalled how he found out about the transaction that had sent Griffin to Detroit. “Man, I was taking a nap. My phone kept buzzing, and it woke me up,” he said. Wallace wasn’t the only one taken aback. Austin Rivers called it “fake news” when he received a call from Wes Johnson. Williams said a “little birdy” told him it was happening, but it was still a surprise. Sam Dekker had been with Griffin the morning of the trade; he thought Griffin was kidding when he disseminated the news via the team’s group text.
“Blake was obviously the Clipper of the past few years, so I didn’t see it coming,” Dekker said. “I know he was shocked. This was his team, it’s all he knows.”
Cody Moran pulled up to a nearby Staples Center parking lot in his bright-blue Ford Focus with mixed feelings. His bright-red Blake Griffin jersey stood out as he walked toward the arena three hours before tipoff. He had bought tickets to the game against the Blazers on Monday morning, in anticipation of getting to see Griffin. But on Monday afternoon, as the 28-year-old, a Clippers fan since 2000, walked out of his teaching job at Huntington Beach High School, his phone alerted him to the harsh reality.
“I really still thought we could build a team around him,” Moran told me. “Maybe he just didn’t want to float around knowing we might have a fire sale eventually.”
Cameron Bouldin, meanwhile, was still angry as he walked into Staples Center on Tuesday. He owns four Blake Griffin jerseys, and had recently purchased the new Nike version for $125. Bouldin, 30, had bought tickets for the game a week before, planning out a road trip from his hometown of Phoenix to see his favorite player live for the first time. When he found out about the trade, he made a call to Clippers ticket services to try to get a refund. No luck. Bouldin still made the day-trip drive from Arizona, but wore the only other jersey he owned: a sharp black DeAndre Jordan one.
“It felt like a family member died,” Bouldin told me, half-joking.
The trade was announced late Monday night by both teams, but it was difficult to ignore that, just this past summer, the Clippers had sold Griffin on the idea of being a Clipper for life in an elaborate presentation. When asked what changed between then and now, Doc Rivers said, “Detroit called.”
Earlier on Tuesday, at Clippers shootaround, Rivers had made it clear that this “tough” trade had come together “quickly,” that it was not true that the team would keep trading key components in the aftermath of Griffin’s departure (though president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said “you never know”). But a loss of innocence still rippled through the fan base.
“Blake is like 80 percent the reason why people watch the Clippers,” Bouldin said.
“I don’t think Chris [Paul] would have wanted to come here if we didn’t have Blake,” Doc Rivers said Tuesday. “I really believe Blake put this franchise on the map.”
Life without Griffin on Tuesday began with a loss. But after the game, there was faint hope running through the halls.
As Clippers owner Steve Ballmer exited the court through the arena tunnels, he found himself face to face with the team’s new crop of acquired players, who arrived at the game in the third quarter. Upon seeing Harris, Bradley, and Marjanovic, Ballmer’s frown quickly disappeared.
“Go get some rest,” Ballmer told them as he shook their hands. “You’re still on Detroit time.”
In the interview room, Doc couldn’t help but admit that while down 20 points in the second half, with only nine players available, he wished he had the new additions to lend a hand.
In another odd coincidence, the Clippers ran a montage on the Jumbotron highlighting Jordan’s franchise-record 718 total games with the team. They gave him an engraved basketball. Jordan wasn’t the last one announced in the starting lineup—that “honor” went to Gallinari—but he received the loudest cheers. As the game went on, and the Blazers’ lead swelled, it was hard not to wonder how many more games Jordan, a popular name in trade rumors for weeks, would be around for.
The Clippers have become a high-wire act, balancing themselves on the tightrope between competing and rebuilding. The team may very well be better off in the long run by stripping away the last vestiges of the most successful core in franchise history. For now, though, everyone is still searching for something to latch onto.
“We can accept it because of Jerry West. I would be more upset, but, I have a little more faith in him. In Jerry we trust, right?” Moran said. “This is the new process.”