This time, the Clippers' punch should be applauded.
This time, bones weren't broken, but strengthened.
Midway through its second season, the Steve Ballmer Era made its first real statement Tuesday, and there was no question mark about it. In a move that hurts them during the most difficult stretch of their schedule but solidifies the commitment to their new vision, the Clippers suspended Blake Griffin four games — and docked his pay for five games — as penalty for his parking-lot punching of equipment staffer Matias Testi.
The same old Clips? Not hardly.
Judging from this penalty, which is harsher than it might seem, the rowdiness of the Donald Sterling years has been replaced by a focus on doing the right thing. The Clippers still need to hurdle their Rocket-sized demons on the court, but if the Griffin incident were a playoff series, their organizational vision won in a sweep.
"We have made it clear that this conduct has no place in the Clipper organization," said Ballmer and basketball boss Doc Rivers in a joint statement.
The conduct on Jan. 23 in Toronto was reprehensible, the 6-foot-10 Griffin attacking a guy who stands more than foot shorter and is employed to pick up his socks. The results were brutal, with Griffin punching so hard he broke his hand while Testi's face was bruised and swollen. By not releasing the news immediately — the fight was revealed more than a day later by ESPN — the Clippers allowed questions to be raised about the seriousness with which they viewed the incident. In this column space it was wondered whether they had the fortitude to deliver the proper punishment.
Wonder no more. They delivered. And they did it on their own accord, without the cover of the NBA, the accountability beginning and ending with Ballmer and Rivers.
Some might ask, only four games? Well, it's two games more than Matt Barnes was recently suspended by the NBA for an off-the-court fight with Derek Fisher, who at the time was a head coach.
Others might ask, what's a five-game fine for a guy who makes about $19 million a year? Well, that's still an $859,442 penalty, which is surely the most expensive dunce cap in Clippers history.
Because Griffin is already in the middle of a projected two-month absence because of surgery on the broken hand, there are those who will wonder what would stop the Clippers from simply announcing he is ready to return four games before he is ready to return, turning this into a suspension of a player who couldn't perform anyway. Well, everyone is watching their every move with Griffin now, and there seems little chance they would risk resurrecting the specter of Sterling by running a suspension scam.
About one thing, there can be no question. Even though the basic numbers don't support this, the loss of Griffin during his suspension could seriously hurt the Clippers during the most compelling part of their regular season.
Yes, the Clippers have gone 18-4 since Griffin initially left the lineup Dec. 26 with a partially torn left quadriceps tendon, but check that schedule. Only eight of those 22 games were against teams that currently have better than .500 records. In those games they were 6-2, but lost both games to the top two teams in the Eastern Conference — Cleveland and Toronto. Also, without Griffin, they have yet to play any of the three teams they are chasing in the Western Conference — Golden State, San Antonio or Oklahoma City.
Accounting for Griffin's remaining expected injury absence, his suspension could occur during the Clippers' most grueling portion of the schedule, an 11-game stretch between March 2 and March 23 that includes eight games against teams with winning records and matchups against each of the NBA's current top four teams.
The Clippers fulfilled their duty by suspending him. Now the burden will be on Griffin, who will return as slightly damaged goods with an increasingly lousy reputation.
No, the Clippers won't, and shouldn't, trade him. That's silly. Remember, this is a guy who is still one of the 10 best players in the league. Because of the contract status of Chris Paul and Griffin, the Clippers have another 1 1/2 seasons to chase a title with their standout trio that includes DeAndre Jordan. There is seemingly no way they would break up that group before giving them two more postseasons to get it right.
But when he returns, Griffin must show some change. He will hopefully return humbled, grateful, and prepared to modify his behavior, not to mention make nice with Testi, who will probably have returned to the locker room by then.
That punch changed things. Like it or not, the target on his back just got bigger and bolder and will be noticed by everyone from referees to opposing fans to folks in the street. The incident with Testi is Griffin's second publicized off-court tantrum in less than two years — remember the alleged confrontation with a photo-snapping patron in a Las Vegas nightclub? Griffin needs to understand that his quick temper will be tested like never before, from places he never imagined.
Griffin also needs to be calmer on the court. He is still tied for the league lead with two ejections, and is tied for eighth with seven technical fouls, even though he's played in only 30 of the Clippers' 52 games.
The Clippers need the same Blake Griffin. They also need a different Blake Griffin. With this suspension, the Clippers have shown their aspirations of excellence. It is now Griffin's turn.