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After Trading Blake Griffin, The Clippers Are Finally Ready For The Future

After a seismic trade that sent Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and two draft picks, the Clippers finally have control over their own destiny.
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Trade season has officially commenced with a league-altering transaction that features several fascinating implications, one household name, and two franchises that just glued themselves to diametrically opposite long-term paths.

Six months after they locked him into to a five-year maximum contract that all but cemented his status as the most iconic player in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers have said goodbye to Blake Griffin, shipping the five-time All-Star, Brice Johnson, and Willie Reed to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a top-four protected 2018 first-round pick and a future second-round pick.


At a time like this, the instant reaction from anybody who follows the NBA deserves to be nothing less than “oh my god wow.” The 28-year-old was overpaid on a deal that gets marginally less attractive by the day, but injury concerns and defensive limitations aside, he’s still a very good player in his prime, averaging 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and a career-best 5.4 assists per game. Griffin is on pace to make more threes this season than in the previous seven years combined, and possesses rare skills that allow him to run 4-5 pick-and-rolls with admirable nonchalance.

He remains a double-team magnet in the post, with enough vision and touch to punish defenses that have no other option. Despite being on the bubble of a postseason berth, Los Angeles nearly owns a top-five offense with Griffin on the court—his final game in a Clippers jersey featured 27 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists, and four threes in a nine-point win against the New Orleans Pelicans. Blake didn't make the All-Star game but he very much remains a relevant player in this league.

But, ongoing metamorphosis from their best player aside, injuries to Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley, and Austin Rivers, mixed with unrestricted free agency on the horizon for an aging DeAndre Jordan and the ageless Lou Williams, the Clippers haven't been a very good team in the present, which is concerning because that's precisely what they're built for. This wasn't a rudderless organization, but their direction felt unnecessarily circumspect. A big move has been necessary since Chris Paul left, and they finally made it.


Los Angeles could've traded two of their best pieces for future assets and maybe an attractive young player or two to build around Griffin, but doing so would've wasted his prime anyway, and prevented the organization from establishing the type of clarity every smart one has/needs. Days after DeMarcus Cousins ruptured his Achilles tendon on national television, the Clippers shed a contract that had the potential to cripple their future and was on track to virtually guarantee middling annual results. Moving on was never going to be easy, but what breakup is?

Trades involving Jordan and/or Williams may be the next shoe to drop, (or maybe…not?), and it’ll be interesting to see what the market yields for a pair of expiring contracts looking to get paid this summer. Milos Teodosic, Wesley Johnson, and Rivers all have player options this summer, too. It’s unclear whether they’ll exercise them or not.

Cap flexibility will be convenient heading into a summer where very few teams have max room, and notable free agents like Paul George and LeBron James are heavily rumored to have interest in a move to Southern California. The Clippers may be able to have their cake and eat it too if they scrap for the eight seed, attach one of their 2018 first-round picks as a sweetener to get rid of Gallo’s contract and then enter free agency with enough space to sign two max players alongside Harris and Beverley’s non-guaranteed deal.


The money would be extraordinarily tight, and L.A. would have Marjanovic’s expiring $7 million plus whatever salary they took back for Gallo, and the uncertainty surrounding those three aforementioned player options. But it’s not impossible. Nothing is too crazy in the NBA, especially if Jerry West, Steve Ballmer, Doc Rivers, LeBron, and George all find themselves in the same room.

But so much can happen between now and then and there are way too many variables to leap towards that conclusion. Meanwhile, back in reality, if the Clippers don’t move on from Jordan and Williams, they should be able to make the playoffs (assuming the Pelicans drown) and get trounced by the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets in a first-round bloodbath…which is exactly what would happen if they kept Griffin. Instead they can do that with two first-round picks in this year’s draft (L.A. owes a lottery-protected first to the Boston Celtics in 2019) and, if shrewd and lucky, the possibility of rebuilding on the fly with a much younger core.

It’s hard to say where the Clippers will be even a month from now, but what shouldn’t be overlooked is Harris, a 25-year-old who was in the All-Star conversation for decent chunks of this season. He gets better every year and is shooting over 40 percent from deep on nearly six attempts per game. With only one more year and $14.8 million on his contract, he can be flipped for another pick before the draft or used as a building block for whatever the next chapter this franchise has in store.


Photo by Brad Rempel - USA TODAY Sports

Looking at it from the Pistons point of view, life is more congealed. It's easy to see why Stan Van Gundy made this trade. The Pistons were capped out this summer and had a painful path towards financial flexibility beyond that; Van Gundy probably wouldn't get a chance to oversee two rebuilds and one playoff appearance in a six-year span. Reggie Jackson should be back by February 23rd, and if there aren't any setbacks in his recovery it'd be somewhat of a shock if Detroit missed the postseason.

Griffin is the best player this organization’s seen in well over a decade, and he lets Van Gundy make some intriguing choices with his lineup. (One possible substitution pattern: substitute Anthony Tolliver for Griffin midway through the first, then bring Griffin back to start the second quarter at center beside Tolliver, against the opposing reserves.) But if his on-court relationship with Jordan was perpetually stuck in a state of mild awkwardness, how will he co-exist with Andre Drummond, who's a younger version of Jordan with higher upside and underdeveloped defensive instincts.

Griffin’s improved three-point shot (he’s up to 34.2 percent with a release that seemingly quickens by the month) should make life easier for everyone involved, while the 24-year-old Drummond is a much better passer/free-throw shooter than Jordan ever will be. Griffin can give Jackson even more looks as the pick-and-roll partner who can pop while Drummond rolls.


But if Griffin, Jordan, and Chris Paul never made the Western Conference Finals in their prime, how can Detroit have higher expectations to do so in the east with Jackson, older Blake, and Drummond? Obviously the East doesn’t project to be nearly as cutthroat as the West was during the Clippers heyday (especially if LeBron signs with the Clippers because that's totally possible and I won't believe it's not until it isn't), but this core still doesn’t feel as complementary or modern as it needs to be.

The Pistons have adopted an aggressive scheme guarding pick-and-rolls this year, and if they stick with it—as opposed to the more switch-friendly strategy Griffin is used to—the four-time All-NBA forward will need to be a timely, reliable presence at the rim whenever Drummond flies up to meet the ball-handler at the screen. Their defense promises to be a work in progress, at the very least.

But it's not totally hopeless in Detroit. Holding onto Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard was a wise move (by Van Gundy; this roster’s collective development is absolutely crucial for a team that has no clear path towards upward mobility. Unless hosting a playoff series or two, and filling some of those empty red Little Caesars Arena seats over the next few years is the goal, they'll need Johnson to establish himself as a decent outside threat who can guard both forward positions.

It's unclear how good this team can be, and if Drummond continues to make strides they'll be an unpleasant matchup more nights than not. But being locked into the back-half of a very good player's career, paying him more money than he's worth, feels a little depressing. Either way, the Pistons have not been this interesting in quite some time, while, over on the West Coast, the Clippers have discovered a different kind of relevance.

Trade season is here.