- The Clippers are taking a step backwards for now, while the Pistons roll the dice on Blake Griffin in the first surprise deal of trade season.
Well, it wasn’t the Clipper anyone expected. After weeks of trade rumors surrounding DeAndre Jordan, the Clips on Monday agreed to send their other star big man, Blake Griffin, to the Pistons, league sources confirmed to The Crossover. News of the deal was first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, with Detroit reportedly sending Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and two draft picks, a first and a second-rounder. Going to Detroit with Griffin are Brice Johnson and Willie Reed.
The move comes as somewhat of a shock after Griffin inked a new five-year deal to remain with the Clippers last summer totaling just over $171 million in salary. With the trade deadline next Thursday (Feb. 8), Detroit’s big swing and L.A.’s apparent step backward should open up a wave of moves to come around the league. Wojnarowski reports the Clippers continue to engage in trade talks surrounding Jordan and the red-hot Lou Williams, lending credence to the notion that L.A. plans to remodel their rotation and aim for a soft reset. For now, let’s just break down this deal. Whew.
Although Griffin may not be too happy about this change of area code after spending his entire career with the Clippers and being pitched by the franchise in free agency on leaving a legacy as a lifelong member of the team. Well, that’s out the window and blowing around on Sunset Boulevard. For the Pistons, who are rarely players for star free agents and have been hovering around the middle to low end of the East for much of the last decade, it’s a declaration of immediate intent. Detroit has been sitting on the cusp, and going for it with Griffin will ultimately make or break Stan Van Gundy's tenure with the team.
Detroit opened the season 14–6 and had hoped to make a splash in March before backsliding to its current 22–26 mark. Clearly the front office had bigger designs, and saw an opportunity to strike as the Clippers began to dangle the house. Harris and Bradley are the Pistons’ two leading scorers, but both are essentially high-level role guys who were cast into bigger shares of the scoring load. Griffin, when healthy and locked in, is a legitimate offensive bell cow whose scoring and passing can make his entire team better. His addition creates a legitimate opportunity to make a run in an Eastern Conference that—until Cleveland decides what it wants to do in the next 10 days—appears open for the taking.
Pairing Griffin with Drummond creates a fairly intriguing spin on the Clippers’ longtime Griffin-Jordan pairing. Coupling Griffin’s inside-out game with the freakishly athletic Drummond, currently one of the league’s leading rebounders at age 24, should mean space for both to operate. Although Jordan is a superior rim protector, it’s often forgotten how good of a passer Drummond has become (he’s averaging a career-high 3.8 dimes) and that his free-throw shooting has also markedly improved this season. Reggie Jackson (who has missed 15 games and counting with an ankle injury) may not be the ideal guard to facilitate for these guys, but should enjoy having Griffin as a high ball-screener. The issue is finding shooters to place around them, and rookie Luke Kennard and swingman Reggie Bullock are currently Detroit’s only options on the wing.
The good news is, the Pistons can try to figure this out long term. The bad news is, they’re locked into serious risk and financial investment for the next several years. Griffin will turn 29 in March and comes with a checkered injury history, having last played 80 games in a season in 2013–14. He is signed through 2020–21 with a player option for 21–22, meaning he could be 33 by the time the Pistons are off the hook for his deal. They’re betting on his health and his chemistry with Drummond, whose massive deal runs through 2020–21 (he has an option for that season). Jackson is also signed through 2019–20, and barring another move, this is what Detroit is working with. The long-term risk may be more consequential than what the Pistons traded away, given Bradley is a free agent to-be, and the better they play, the less valuable this year’s draft pick will be for the Clippers.
Is this new core enough to get the Pistons over the hump? We’ll find out. Of course, they’ll have to keep Griffin happy. But Detroit was already in the market for a wing player, and a second deal to bolster their rotation would be unsurprising. From a competitive standpoint, the potential reward is significant and gives them a chance to be a player in the East. It’s an admirable gambit from Stan Van Gundy and will likely remain the biggest surprise of deadline season.
It would be truly unlike Doc Rivers to deal with a true rebuild, so consider this more of a rejiggering for the Clippers, who were able to get younger, add depth and draft assets, potentially create future cap space and shed Griffin’s albatross contract all at once. Nobody they’re bringing in will magically elevate the roster, and until the deadline passes and we know the fates of Jordan and Williams, it’ll be hard to fully evaluate their decisions (hence, the asterisk). But philosophically, it’s a fascinating play in the long-term.
Harris and Bradley are useful rotation guys, with Harris and Danilo Gallinari giving the Clippers some versatility and scoring in the frontcourt for now. Bradley’s strengths are the exact opposite of what Austin Rivers does well, and if they re-sign him over the summer, he could form one of the league’s best defensive backcourts with currently-injured Patrick Beverley. L.A. as constituted should have enough to continue a push for the eighth seed in the West if the front office so desires. The Pistons’ first-rounder will likely convey this season (it’s only protected for a top-four selection) and the Clippers also add a second-rounder next season. Extra assets never hurt anyone.
But more importantly, the Clippers are probably going to have significant cap space in 2019, when Harris and Marjanovic’s contracts come off the books. Factoring in the loss of Griffin, L.A. can be a player beyond that. It’s well known that owner Steve Ballmer wants to spend and win, and the team will be in position to market the cash and their city to marquee free agents. After all, there’s no guarantee the Lakers are going to be any good. Depending on if and how the Clippers choose to move Jordan, they could become a player this summer.
There’s some level of P.R. hit with the unceremonious closing of the Griffin era, but the NBA is a business and everyone moves on from these things. It wouldn’t be a stretch to expect shock and frustration trickling out of Griffin’s camp one way or another. But it also took some guts for the Clippers to recognize they’d hit a wall and think outside the box. As it turns out, Chris Paul’s departure was just the beginning. Who would have thought DeAndre Jordan would be the last of the big three standing? Anyway, without over-trumpeting this as a brilliant decision to start over, let’s just respect the Clippers’ dice roll. All eyes are on what they do next.