The Los Angeles Clippers and Detroit Pistons pulled off a blockbuster trade Monday evening, with sources confirming to The Washington Post that star forward Blake Griffin would be going from the Clippers to the Pistons, along with reserve bigs Brice Johnson and Willie Reed, for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a protected 2018 first-round pick and a future second-round selection.
It’s a trade with myriad layers and plenty of meaning — both for the present and the future. Let’s dive into them:
1. Detroit is desperate
Things are not good in Motown at the moment. The Pistons have lost 12 of their last 15 games — a run that, not by coincidence, began when Reggie Jackson suffered a badly sprained ankle in late December — and have fallen from comfortably in the Eastern Conference playoff picture to, as of Monday morning, three games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Desperate times, as they say, call for desperate measures.
That’s certainly one way to look at this trade. Detroit has given up two rotation players, as well as a first-round pick, to take on Griffin, who is owed a combined $141 million over the next four seasons. For a player who turns 29 in March and has had injury issues throughout his career, that is an awfully risky contract for the Pistons to take on.
There is, however, another way to look at this deal. Bradley has been far below what the Pistons expected he was going to be after trading for him last summer, and he was due to be an unrestricted free agent in July looking for a big raise. Harris has had a nice start, averaging 18 points and shooting 40 percent from three-point range for the season, both career highs. But his shooting cooled in January (he’s at 31 percent in 13 games), and he isn’t much of a creator for others.
Griffin, on the other hand, is still very productive, averaging 22.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 34.7 percent from three — a career high — on 5.7 attempts per game — also a career high and three times as many as he took last season.
If he can give the Pistons similar production, it would give them the second offensive creator they desperately need and also would give them a hub around which to build their team moving forward (though the fit with Griffin and center Andre Drummond will be interesting, to say the least).
The Pistons have been in a difficult spot since Stan Van Gundy was hired to dual titles of coach and president of basketball operations. Working under a mandate of not tearing the franchise down from owner Tom Gores, Detroit has instead worked around the margins with what it’s had, landing Jackson, Bradley and Harris — three-fifths of their starting lineup — in trades with other teams.
It’s still unclear, however, what the long-term future of the franchise holds now. If Griffin can stay healthy, he and Drummond could form an intriguing tandem in the East, and Van Gundy clearly knows what he’s doing on the sidelines. If Griffin doesn’t, though? His contract could become a millstone the Pistons can’t escape from until well into next presidential administration.
2. The Clippers are playing for July 2019
For the Clippers, the biggest takeaway is that the franchise has clearly decided that playing for a playoff spot this year isn’t worth playing for a much bigger prize: striking it rich in free agency 18 months from now.
Confused? I’ll explain.
While getting a first-round pick back in the deal is nice, the clear benefit to the Clippers here was to get out of the final four years of Griffin’s contract. Having that deal on the books basically precluded them from having any shot at getting into free agency in the next couple of seasons.
Now, though? Los Angeles not only shaved off $10 million from its books for this summer, but the Clippers now just have one player — Danilo Gallinari — with a guaranteed contract for the 2019-2020 season. And Gallinari will be on an expiring, $22.6 million deal.
Here is a list of the players who could become free agents in July 2019: Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love and Kemba Walker. And that list doesn’t include a couple of players — LeBron James and Paul George — who both could potentially be part of the mix if they sign one-year deals with their current squads.
It will be awfully intriguing for free agents to look at a team located in Los Angeles with no money on its books — and with Jerry West involved in recruiting — and begin constructing rosters among themselves before hitting free agency. By trading Griffin for this package, the Clippers are all but screaming that this is their intention.
3. Could DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams be following Griffin out the door?
The expectation was that, with the way they played the last month, the Clippers would likely be sticking with their core group moving forward and getting a playoff berth as a result.
Now, though? It’s hard to see that being the goal for the Clippers this season. And if the Clippers are truly planning on being players in 2019 free agency — and it sure appears they will be — then trading Jordan and Williams, assuming they can get anything of value in return, makes far more sense than keeping them until the summer.
The question, though, is what kind of value they can get in return. Williams, perhaps surprisingly, seems like the more attractive player. With a much smaller contract to move (he’s making $7 million), it’s easier to find a home for him, and there are a slew of teams that could use another shot creator like him coming off their bench (the Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Sixers to name three). If Los Angeles can get a first-rounder for Williams, the Clippers should pull the trigger, even if it has to take on some money that spills into next season to do so.
Jordan, though, is more complicated. There just aren’t many teams that need a center, and trying to match the salary he’s making ($22.6 million this season) isn’t easy, either. But, again: If the Clippers can get a pick or some other intriguing asset in exchange — even if it means taking on some money for next season — they should do so.
Trading Griffin showed what their priority is: Moving on from Williams and Jordan would further prove that.
4. The bottom of the West playoff picture is a mess
In the span of 72 hours, we saw:
— DeMarcus Cousins tear his Achilles’ tendon and be lost for the season.
— Andre Roberson rupture his patellar tendon and be lost for the season.
— Blake Griffin be traded from the West to the East.
As a result, the teams at the bottom of the West playoff picture — the Oklahoma City Thunder, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, Clippers and Utah Jazz — find themselves thrown into chaos.
The biggest winners here have to be the Trail Blazers and Nuggets by default, simply because they haven’t seen their hopes of making the playoffs this season take a hit in the last 72 hours. The Jazz could be seen as beneficiaries, as well, as Utah is finally starting to get healthy while the teams in front of them are either selling off pieces or suffering devastating injuries.
Oklahoma City really doesn’t deserve to be in that group, but it will be interesting over the next week or two to see how they respond without Roberson, one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, and if they can replace him at the trade deadline. Same for the Pelicans in trying to make moves to replace Cousins, and if the Clippers make any further moves aimed at the future beyond trading Griffin.
The last three days could lead to one of the other teams being more aggressive about a potential move of its own, thinking that a path to a playoff spot suddenly got easier. The one obvious thought there is for Utah, which has at times discussed a potential deal for Nikola Mirotic. Perhaps Griffin’s trade will push the Jazz toward thinking giving up an asset for Mirotic would make more sense now than a few days ago, given all that’s happened to the teams in front of them.
5. What’s next for Doc Rivers?
Rumors of the future job status of Rivers have been swirling for months — and really ever since the summer, when he relinquished control of basketball operations. That is usually the first step out the door for people in Rivers’s position.
But a funny thing has happened: Rivers has done the best coaching job of his tenure in Los Angeles this season, dealing with myriad injuries and trade rumors and keeping the Clippers afloat.
So what happens now? It still feels like this relationship is destined to end in a divorce at some point — likely after the season ends. It’s hard to see him wanting to stay on for 18 months with a team that’s waiting for free agency, if that is, in fact, where the Clippers are going to go. And there is a lucrative television job waiting for Rivers, one of the most charismatic coaches in the league, if he ever decides to stop.
That will be a story line worth watching over the next few months, to be sure — though if Rivers is willing to stick it out, he could be a very useful recruiter in 2019 if he is still in charge.
6. No-trade clauses are going to become bigger sticking points for free agents
Think about how the two biggest stars traded in the last several months had their deals go down.
Carmelo Anthony had a no-trade clause. He stayed in New York until the moment he decided he wasn’t ready to do so anymore and then gave the Knicks a list of teams that he’d be willing to play for, ensuring he would be happy with the destination.
Blake Griffin did not have a no-trade clause. He spent the first nine years of his career playing in Los Angeles, was re-signed to a max contract by the Clippers last summer and seemed destined to finish his career there and be the best player in franchise history.
He was then traded to Detroit on a Monday afternoon in January in a deal no one saw coming.
Think players won’t be pushing for no-trades in the future? Think again. Not everyone is eligible for them in the NBA — players are only eligible when they have been in the NBA for eight seasons, and with the same team for four of them.
Griffin, though, was eligible for one last summer. He didn’t get one.
Maybe he’s happy about the trade and the chance to play somewhere new. But he’d have likely been happier to determine his own future, and he could’ve done that had he had a no-trade clause.
Expect players in this position in the future to look at how the Anthony and Griffin situations played out, and try to push for no-trade clauses in their contracts to avoid being blindsided like Griffin was Monday.
7. Could this be the end of the basketball “emperor?”
One of the many interesting wrinkles of this trade is that it was made between two teams that, until the summer, were both run by their coaches. Rivers no longer runs basketball operations for the Clippers, and there have been rumblings Van Gundy is in some level of trouble in Detroit. Atlanta Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer stepped down from his basketball operations post this summer, as well.
While Tom Thibodeau was hired in 2016 to a dual-role job with the Minnesota Timberwolves, there are now only three teams in the league that operate under that model — the Timberwolves, Pistons and San Antonio Spurs, who also happen to have one of the league’s best general managers in R.C. Buford.
Teams have been consistently trending in the direction of having a coach work in tandem with a general manager, rather than being in charge of him, for several years now. That will be something to monitor this summer, in particular because Van Gundy’s brother, Jeff — who could potentially be in the running for some of the jobs coming open — has been said to seek the same level of control as his brother has had in Detroit.
If that’s the case, he may be staying in the broadcast booth.
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