It’s hard to be a long-lasting franchise face in today’s NBA. Contracts are shorter. So is the patience of both management and players. Fail to win, get stuck, underachieve, ask out, and you’re gone.
All the change makes for fun television, though. Celtics-Cavs was one of the most highly anticipated opening nights in recent memory thanks to the offseason trade that saw Kyrie Irving go from Cleveland to Boston. DeMarcus Cousins made waves in his first return to Sacramento since getting traded last year, posting 41 points and 23 rebounds in a dominant reminder of why trading players of his caliber is such a hard call to make. Every episode Durant vs. Westbrook/OKC is must-see TV.
Friday saw three such reunions take place on the same night. Blake Griffin faced the team that traded him less than two weeks ago. Jimmy Butler returned to the Windy City. Dwyane Wade went back to South Beach.
Here’s a look at each reuniting, why it mattered, and how it unfolded:
Blake Griffin vs. LA Clippers
Reunion signficance: With Chris Paul having departed via trade and Griffin having just signed a five-year extension, the 6-10 forward had a chance to go down as the best and longest-tenured player in franchise history. Frankly, it would have been nice to see that happen after decades of Clipper bad luck and worse play.
Instead, LA pivoted midseason when they realized the team they re-assembled around Griffin was no sure bet to make the postseason in the brutal Western Conference. They dealt him and his enormous contract to Detroit in exchange for less money, decent talent and a pair of draft picks.
The move was an abrupt about-face from their off-season pitch to Griffin, which was basically, “You are the guy, and we want your life to be a montage of Clipper awesomeness.” Griffin himself was “shocked” at the move. Eleven days later, he was forced to face the only team he had played for in his seven-and-a-half years in the league.
Vibe heading in: Definitely centered on Griffin. The game was in Detroit, so there was no feel-good return tribute. Instead, this was about Griffin vs. old teammates, including fellow former All-Star DeAndre Jordan.
This was very much like the dumped boy/girlfriend being at the same party as the person who dumped him/her. Griffin has a new All-Star center (Drummond), a new high-profile coach (Stan Van Gundy) and a new blue-and-red team (Pistons) riding a seven-game winning streak. Would Griffin successfully prove he was better off without the Clippers than vice versa?
How it unfolded: Griffin’s offensive game was off from the start. He missed his first four shots and picked up an early technical foul after a brief dust-up with former Pistons guard Avery Bradley. The former Clipper star still showed the strength and basketball IQ that made him so invaluable in LA. The Pistons, however, sputtered in the fourth quarter, and the Clippers pulled away for the 108-95 win.
Highlight: Montrezl Harrell was teammates with Griffin for less than a season, so it’s hard to imagine there being much previous history between them. That didn’t stop them from making some. Late in the third quarter, Griffin used his vintage strength and speed to dribble coast-to-coast, bull-doze Harrell and still convert an and-one layup.
On the very next possession, it looked like Harrell might exact revenge after winding up with a loose ball near the rim. Griffin met and completely snuffed his dunk attempt, then added a dis to his defense by throwing the ball off Harrell and out-of-bounds. And yes, Griffin loved every part of the sequence.
Quest for closure: The final score wound up giving the Clippers their 28th win of the season. The Pistons also have 28 wins, but it was their first loss since the two teams executed the season-altering trade. The Pistons are all in on Griffin in a way he thought the Clippers once were. It appears that he is also all-in on Detroit, as Griffin wanted nothing to do with post-game handshakes or greetings with any of his former teammates.
Jimmy Butler vs. Chicago Bulls
Reunion significance: Other than Hall-of-Fame forward Spencer Haywood, Jimmy Butler might be the best 30th overall pick in NBA history. Yet despite his three NBA All-Defensive Second Team honors, a trio of All-Star appearances and last year’s All-NBA Third Team recognition, the Bulls seemed unusually willing to shop him as soon as his 2015 contract extension matched his production.
That might have had something to do with Chicago winning only one playoff round over the last four years. They were never able to successfully build around Butler, so instead they opted for a complete tear-down last summer. The Bulls traded him to Minnesota in exchange for more youthful, if less developed talent.
Butler told reporters after the deal that he had “already moved past it,” but he did contribute his own take on why the Bulls did what they did. “They weren’t convinced I was good enough — whatever you want to call it, I don’t know,” he said.
Now Chicago is headed for the NBA lottery, while Butler is an All-Star representing a Timberwolves team headed for its first postseason berth since 2004.
Vibe heading in: Vengeance bubbling just beneath the surface. Heading into his return to Chicago, Butler repeatedly dubbed it just “another basketball game.” Bulls VP John Paxson was slightly more honest.
“The one thing that we learned about Jimmy while he was here is that he’s motivated by a lot of things, but he’s motivated by having that chip on his shoulder,” Paxson said.
How it unfolded: Bittersweetly. Butler showed every reason why many Bulls fans were unhappy with giving him up, finishing with 38 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals. His effort was trumped, however, by the reverse angle of the Bulls-Timberwolves revenge story. Former Minnesota guard Zach LaVine had his best game yet since returning from a torn ACL, hitting the go-ahead free throws in the closing seconds to give Chicago a dramatic 114-113 victory. LaVine had to make his new team feel pretty good about the future, finishing with 35 points of his own, including 15 in the fourth quarter.
Highlight(s): After a Karl-Anthony Towns miss, the Timberwolves got the offensive rebound and the ball back to Butler, who had a last-second chance to drive the ultimate dagger into his former team. His 3-pointer missed, forcing him to leave his old gym with an unexpected loss.
On the plus side, Butler did receive a heartfelt tribute and ovation from his original NBA team.
Quest for closure: While Butler is no doubt disappointed about losing his return game to Chicago, he has to feel good about being on the most talented team of his career. The Timberwolves are a more-than-solid playoff team with the inside track on homecourt advantage in the first round. Key teammates such as Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns should only get better. This season, he has confirmed the opinion that he is a franchise player capable of leading a team to games that matter in April.
It will be worth monitoring how well the Bulls fare. Seventh overall pick Lauri Markkanen has blown away expectations. Zach LaVine has hit the ground running since returning from injury, and former Wolves lottery pick Kris Dunn was enjoying a breakout season before a concussion sidelined him in mid-January. It may take a few years to see which team actually won this particular trade.
Dwyane Wade and Miami Heat
Reunion signficance: Unlike the previous trips down memory lane, this one is all love. As a courtesy to Wade’s wishes and legacy, Cleveland traded him to Miami for next to nothing before Thursday’s deadline.
There is no exaggerating the emotional significance of Wade back in South Beach. He is the best player in franchise history and a leading force behind all three of the championship banners hanging in American Airlines Arena. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported that when the Heat made his City Edition jersey available for purchase online, it sold in over 100 countries in 15 hours, and that team merchandise sales were up 8000-percent. Wade County, indeed.
Vibe heading in: Historically happy. How many players are with a franchise long enough to be iconic, get traded, but still have a chance to return and play for the team that made them iconic in the first place? Too often, the last step is left incomplete. George Gervin, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon are just a few examples.
Instead, Wade and Miami get to enjoy all the welcome home feels. It felt wrong when they were apart. A year-and-a-half later, they get the rare chance to make it right.
How it unfolded: On a team scale, about as well as you could have hoped. Miami struggled from the start, got an unbelievable emotional lift once Wade come off the bench to steady the ship, then blew the game open in the third quarter. We’ll excuse Wade’s 1-for-6 shooting and four turnovers as a consequence of reacquainting himself with his old gym. That and he came up with the game-clinching block.
Highlight: Wade didn’t start, but that was probably a good thing. That meant even the late shows to the game could witness his anticipated return to the court. He checked in with 5:19 remaining in the first quarter, and when he did… well, see for yourself:
Quest for closure: Wade is synonymous with the Heat, and the world feels a little more right now that they’re back together. Questions still remain. Will he continue to come off the bench? Will Miami re-sign him this offseason? For now, however, the two parties are simply grateful to be reunited, as is the NBA world.