Adding Danilo Gallinari via a three-team sign-and-trade, first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN on Wednesday, shows the Los Angeles Clippers aren't rolling over in the wake of Chris Paul's exit to the Houston Rockets.
Instead, they're doing their best to make it feel like they're running it back—which might not be the best idea for a team that, without Paul, now sits well below the Western Conference elite.
Maybe there's something to 55 wins and relevance. Those aspirations feel almost quaint in comparison to the polarity of superteams and tankers populating the NBA recently. Say what you will about the Clips of the last half-decade or so—they're chokers, they don't like each other, they keep punting on the future for a present that's not worth the trouble—but they've always been interesting and competitive.
And several times during the now concluded CP3-Blake Griffin era, when healthy, they were right there with the league's best. Knocking off the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in a 2015 series stands out as the strongest evidence of how close they were at points.
But they never made it out of the second round, and their former best player is now further elevating a Rockets team that was already above L.A. in the West hierarchy.
Losing Paul put the Clippers in an unfamiliar position. They snagged several young players on good contracts—notably Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Sam Dekker—and added a 2018 first-rounder in the exchange. For a moment, it seemed like L.A. was going to change its approach.
ESPN's Kevin Pelton notes the predictability of what came next:
We'll always remember the six days the Clippers actually possessed an extra draft pick. After briefly operating like a team interested in a future beyond the next 11 months, the Clippers pivoted back to what is for them normalcy by giving up a first-rounder for the right to pay an injury-prone forward approaching his 30s more than $20 million a year.
That injury-prone forward is Gallinari, a player who is almost certainly better than you think...but also one who is precisely good enough to preserve the frustrating status quo in Los Angeles.
Gallo averaged 18.2 points per game last year with a 62.2 true shooting percentage. Only four other players scored with that kind of volume and efficiency: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Isaiah Thomas and Kyle Lowry.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney has more on how impressively Gallinari measures up against several much bigger names:
Gallinari scored about as many points per minute as volume scorers like Derrick Rose and Rudy Gay, albeit with the efficiency of Paul and LeBron James. He turned the ball over as often, proportional to his usage, as catch-and-shoot specialists like Klay Thompson. Gallinari got to the free throw line as often as Kevin Durant and John Wall. He shot better from three than Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
Slot that guy into your power forward spot, where he played 62 percent of his minutes with the Denver Nuggets in 2016-17, and you have a fearsome offensive weapon who'll stretch the floor, create his own looks and draw fouls.
Except...that's where Blake Griffin—freshly blessed with a five-year, $173 million contract, according to Shams Charania of The Vertical—figures to operate.
Head coach Doc Rivers is legendarily poor at staggering rotation minutes, so it's unwise to expect him to juggle playing time effectively. In other words, Gallinari won't see many chances as a second-unit destroyer at the 4, which is probably where he'd be best utilized in relief of Griffin.
That means the two will likely spend most of their time on the court together—with Gallinari as a 6'10" small forward alongside Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the frontcourt. Offensively, this is fine (and I don't mean that in a "this is fine" way).
The Clippers can employ an unusual inverted offense in which Griffin and Gallo do most of the handling and playmaking, while guards Patrick Beverley and Austin Rivers spot up and cut. Without Paul, the Clips offense will inevitably be worse than it was a year ago, but it'll also be a lot stranger and less predictable.
Weird has its merits.
Gallinari is also an average defender, grading out as just below par in 2015-16 and just above in 2016-17, according to ESPN's defensive real plus-minus. The problem, though, is the Clips will ask him to handle opponents' best wing scorers most nights. He wasn't quick enough to do that before an ACL tear in 2013 limited his lateral mobility, and as he moves into his 30s (he'll be 29 in August), that trend's not reversing.
The idea of Gallinari as insurance for Griffin is initially appealing. It's possible L.A.'s starting power forward won't recover quickly from the toe injury that shelved him last year. Or that he'll need reduced minutes because of all the wear and past surgeries. Or that he'll get hurt again in some new and undetermined way.
But Gallo is similarly fragile, having played an average of 48 games per season over the last six years.
Gallinari makes the Clips better than they'd be without him. And dumping Jamal Crawford in the three-team trade, as well as the $17 million he was due to collect over the balance of his contract, is another bonus. With Lou Williams on board, there's no need for a second, less effective scoring sixth man.
But the best thing you can say about this move for L.A. is that it allows it to remain a watered-down version of what it's been for several years now. The worst thing you can say, though, is that this shortsighted commitment to staying relevant is foolish without Paul.
Maybe that's how it has to be with a coach who ditched a rebuild in Boston and would seem to have no interest in one with the Clippers. Maybe this is the only option for Steve Ballmer, an owner who shelled out $2 billion for the franchise. And maybe, in a narrower way, it doesn't make sense to value the 2018 pick from Houston, which certainly won't be worth much anyway.
But sacrificing the future to preserve an imperfect present makes a lot less sense when you don't have Chris Paul around. As long as he was there, the Clippers had a chance to make the most of those 55-win seasons. He made the pursuit of slightly sub-elite status worthwhile because there was always a shot to get a little lucky and push deep into the playoffs.
Now, circumstances have changed.
The Clippers, though, are doing things exactly the same.