Winners, Losers and Takeaways from Pistons-Clippers Trade for Blake Griffin
Maybe the Detroit Pistons were just tired of watching Blake Griffin beat them.
Though they got the better of the star power forward in an October meeting during this season's opening salvo, Griffin is still 11-3 against his new employers throughout his NBA career. And yes, you read that right.
His new employers.
As ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported, the Pistons and Los Angeles Clippers shocked the basketball world by coming out of nowhere to complete a trade well before the February deadline. Griffin is headed to the Motor City along with Brice Johnson and Willie Reed, while Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a first-round pick (only protected for the top four selections this year) and a second-round selection are on their way to the West Coast.
At first, this is a confusing deal. The Pistons are getting the best player, but are they giving up too much? The Clippers are obviously moving into a rebuild by shopping Griffin...except they're getting back two starters and should still have enough firepower to remain competitive.
Don't worry. We'll help you make sense of everything.
Though Avery Bradley may retroactively be viewed as a centerpiece in this blockbuster transaction, he's in the midst of a horrid season. Not only has he been invisible on the defensive end, but he's averaging only 15.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists while shooting 40.9 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from downtown and 76.3 percent at the stripe.
According to ESPN.com's real plus/minus, he's been a decisive negative on both ends, to the point that he sits at No. 91 among the 106 qualified shooting guards. NBA Math's total points added tells a similar story but factors in volume and indicates that only De'Aaron Fox, Tyler Ulis and Josh Jackson have provided more negative value during the 2017-18 season.
What a perfect time for a fresh start. After all, his time with the Clippers (hopefully) can't go worse than his brief tenure in Detroit.
During a Dec. 30 contest against the San Antonio Spurs, Luke Kennard was on the floor for 30 minutes and 23 seconds. That remains the only time in his burgeoning career he's pushed past the 30-minute benchmark, since he's siphoned off minutes to Bradley, Langston Galloway and Detroit's other guards during his rookie go-round.
Bradley is gone, and the Pistons aren't bringing back any guards to replace him. His 31.7 minutes per game are wafting up in a cloud of smoke, and only incumbent options can pick up the proverbial slack. Therefore, Kennard will be the primary beneficiary.
Galloway might see a slight uptick in his role. Ish Smith could be used in some dual-point guard sets. The Pistons could get creative and parse the free-agent market (Monta Ellis, maybe?) or trade block for options at the 2. But for the time being, the sweet-shooting rookie who's knocked down his triples at a 43 percent clip stands to gain the most from this move.
Other Teams Looking to Get Clippers Pieces
The Clippers might put up the front that they're trying to remain competitive. They did, after all, gain access to Tobias Harris, and Bradley has been quite useful in his stops before the Motor City. But they also traded away the best player involved in this deal, and that should be treated as a sign of what's coming next.
"Clippers will continue to pursue packages of young players and picks in talks for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams," ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski reported in the immediate aftermath, though the sounds of his fingers frantically typing to beat his old colleague Shams Charania to the punch were lost in the cacophony of other teams rejoicing.
Why the celebratory noises? Because almost every contender could use Jordan or Williams. Now the Milwaukee Bucks know the former is available for the right price. The Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics might be more inclined to make Williams overtures. Some unknown playoff threat could pick up the phone and call the LAC front office.
A whole world of possibilities just opened up.
At first blush, Andre Drummond appears to be getting a fellow frontcourt star who boasts three-point range. It seems like a solid fit, essentially allowing Detroit to procure a poor man's version of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins fire-and-ice combo.
Except Griffin's presence may be problematic for the breakout big. So many of his strides have come from his willingness to handle the ball all over the half-court set and attack a vacated interior without fear of exposing what used to be a weakness at the charity stripe. Now he has a teammate lining up at the 4 who, unlike Tobias Harris, likes to operate from the blocks.
But even more troubling is the usage inevitability.
Drummond's additional time with the rock is masked by a declining usage rate, falling from 22.4 percent to 21.0 percent this season. But he's assisted on an additional 12.4 percent of his teammates' makes while he's on the floor, and that's a clear-cut indication that the ball is in his mitts more frequently. Indeed, the center's half-court touches and minutes of possession per game stand at 43.9 and 2.1, respectively. Last year? A relatively paltry 38.2 and 1.2—the larger gap in the latter stat serving as a giveaway that his role has shifted drastically.
Growing pains are inevitable as he learns how to function aside another playmaking big who's far more comfortable with the ball in his hands.
A partial tear in his right glute has limited Danilo Gallinari to only 11 games for the Los Angeles Clippers, and he wasn't particularly impressive while he was on the floor with his new teammates. Before succumbing to the injury imp, he averaged a meager 13.4 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists while forgetting how to shoot a basketball. Seriously, his slash line stands at—avert your eyes if you have a squeamish stomach—34.5/25.8/97.2.
Now, to what kind of role will he return?
Let's first turn to what Erik Olsgaard wrote for Clips Nation immediately after Gallinari came to terms with Los Angeles:
"Despite what certain news outlets felt was a "same old Clippers" move, the fact is the 2017 Clippers, now extremely deep but far less top-heavy, needed a versatile scorer who could be counted on in crunch-time. Though he's always been injury prone, Gallinari fits the bill and is entering his prime years. Yes, he gives up a lot on defense (particularly as his injuries have piled up), but last year he had his most efficient season since his rookie campaign, and that's not nothing. He's a guy who can play both forward positions, legitimately stretches the floor, and figures to fit well next to the rest of the Clippers front-court."
Hmm...doesn't that sound awfully similar to how you might describe Tobias Harris? Versatile scorer? Counted on in crunch time? Gives up a lot on defense? Starting to play his best basketball? Plays both forward positions? Stretches the floor?
Checkmarks all around, which could be troubling for the Italian forward as he works his way back from injury and finds a younger version of himself already filling his role.
Detroit Pistons, Despite Getting the Best Player
Frequently in NBA swaps, the team that gets the best player wins. And the Pistons unequivocally acquired the premier contributor in this particular deal, landing the only established star who's still in the midst of his prime.
Blake Griffin is only 28 years old, and he's under contract for another four seasons (assuming he picks up a player option for a staggering $39 million in 2021-22). Though injuries have slowed him in 2017-18, he's been an offensive force with a developing defensive game whenever his body is in working order, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.
And yet, the Pistons gave up so much.
Trading Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic and a second-round pick for Griffin, Brice Johnson and Willie Reed would be just fine. So too would including a heavily protected first-round pick. But the selection is only covered for the first four slots, which means Detroit will almost assuredly be conveying a late lottery pick (or one just outside the top 14) in what's expected to be a star-studded 2018 NBA draft.
Maybe you're still willing to pay that premium just for access to Griffin over the duration of his current contract. But depleting the team's depth isn't a good way to kick things off.
With Bradley and Harris leaving, the Pistons could be looking at a starting five of Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Reggie Bullock, Griffin and Drummond. That's fine. But the leading backups would be Ish Smith, Langston Galloway, Stanley Johnson, Anthony Tolliver and Eric Moreland.
That's where things get more troubling, particularly if any key pieces twist an ankle and need a few days off. And with Griffin and Drummond combining to make—pulls out the calculator—a metric boatload of money throughout the next few calendars, building up the supporting cast could make for quite the challenge.
What It Means for the Detroit Pistons' Playoff Push
Losers of eight consecutive games before pulling the trigger on this marquee swap, the Detroit Pistons have fallen out of the postseason portion of the Eastern Conference standings. They're three games behind the Philadelphia 76ers for the No. 8 seed and narrowly ahead of the New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets.
To change this and guarantee a chance to play beyond 82 games, Blake Griffin has to prove a seamless fit next to Andre Drummond. And as previously addressed, that's a bit troubling. At the least, the oversized duo will undergo some growing pains while establishing chemistry alongside one another.
Harris, thanks to the development of a deadly three-point shot, proved a strong complement to Drummond's interior excellence. He forced defenses to respect him around the three-point arc and was capable of either nailing spot-up jumpers or bursting by foes after they charged at him to close out on a potential trey.
But whereas Harris is knocking down 40.9 percent of his deep balls and taking 5.8 per game, Griffin is sitting at 34.2 percent and 5.7, respectively. That's a massive downward swing, which is particularly troubling for a team that has to place capable shooters around Drummond. This new duo doesn't fit the traditional mold for a Stan Van Gundy squad—a bruising center adjoined to a floor-spacing stretch 4. Griffin can fill that role; it's just not how you want to use his talents in an ideal situation.
Could the two stars alone be enough to push Detroit into the postseason? Without a doubt. They're two of the premier talents in the Eastern Conference, and they could bully their way past quite a few teams.
But the Pistons depleted some of their depth by giving away two key rotation members for one, and that's a troubling development. What if Luke Kennard can't handle the extra responsibilities? What if Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson can't pick up the slack at small forward—a position, per Cleaning the Glass, at which Harris played for 19 percent of his time on the floor?
As Kevin Pelton wrote while grading this swap for ESPN.com, "The first big question about this trade is whether the upgrade from Harris to Griffin at power forward can offset the loss of depth on the wing, one exacerbated by the fact that Harris could swing to small forward and Griffin cannot."
Detroit ostensibly improved its ceiling for the present campaign. It just has to be prepared for the possibility of the big-man gambit backfiring and the floor falling out from under Little Caesars Arena.
What It Means for the Los Angeles Clippers' Direction
If you feel like shrugging and throwing your hands up in the air, I don't blame you. Confusion should reign supreme for the time being, because the Los Angeles Clippers are now precipitously navigating the knife's edge between remaining competitive and playing for the future.
As Wojnarowski tweeted, "For Clippers, three objectives with the trade were these: Stay competitive on the floor (two starters, Harris and Bradley). Get young players/draft picks and create some payroll flexibility. Organization isn't interested in bottoming out and tanking."
So, let's evaluate.
Did they stay competitive? Well, they should now have a starting five comprised of Milos Teodosic, Avery Bradley, Wesley Johnson, Tobias Harris and DeAndre Jordan while Lou Williams, Austin Rivers and (eventually) Danilo Gallinari come off the pine. That's a lineup with a significant amount of talent on both ends of the floor—a far cry from the meager collections of on-court efficacy boasted by truly tanking teams.
Did they get young players and draft picks? A 27-year-old Bradley doesn't qualify. A 25-year-old Harris should. A first-round pick protected for only the top four choices certainly does, and bonus points for it likely falling during the loaded 2018 prospect pageant.
Did they get payroll flexibility? Awwwwww(deep breath)wwwwww yeah.
While Griffin is an All-Star-caliber talent, his contract—a five-year, $171.2 million pact that kicked in this year—is monstrous. Getting rid of that deal (along with expiring contracts for Brice Johnson and Willie Reed) is hugely beneficial as this organization looks to usher in a new era.
But the best part is what's coming back. Boban Marjanovic and Harris make a combined $21.8 million next season (just over $10 million less than Griffin alone), while Bradley is on another expiring agreement. This cap sheet is about to be all sorts of freed up, clearing the stage for the Clippers to pursue big-name free agents throughout the foreseeable future.
Los Angeles' immediate prospects are still mired in a cloud of uncertainty. It could remain competitive enough to sneak into the Western Conference playoffs at No. 8 if Harris and Bradley prove strong fits, but it could also sink into the morass of mediocrity and wind up in NBA purgatory: the back end of the lottery.
Either way, they're now staring down the barrel of innumerable possibilities created by max-contract space and have another first-round pick for their efforts. Whether they're looking for the addition of a big piece to remain competitive or expedite a new rebuild, however, remains to be seen.
What It Means for Blake Griffin
The last time Blake Griffin put on a different uniform for a basketball game that actually counted, he was a sophomore for the Oklahoma Sooners. The Los Angeles Clippers are the only NBA team he's ever known.
Griffin has already lived through multiple eras with the Clippers. His presence in Tinseltown predated Chris Paul's, and he outlasted the Point God, as well. He's proved capable of thriving in multiple systems and playing cohesively alongside myriad teammates.
But this is a different challenge.
Though Drummond isn't too far removed from DeAndre Jordan in terms of playing styles—they're both uber-athletic bigs who thrive when rolling to the hoop, and they can both play quality interior defense—they aren't the same centers. Jordan is more athletic and limited, but he's even better at his designated role. Drummond is far more skilled, which is the troubling part for this new convergence of basketball titans.
Griffin was able to operate with complete autonomy in his old home, but the Pistons could ask him to fill a floor-spacing role more frequently. Given Drummond's development as an assist-happy 5, the incoming power forward could need to sacrifice touches and lay off some of his own facilitating proclivities.
Of course, doing so successfully could help him remind NBA onlookers of the dunk machine he'd become during his early years with the Clippers. Imagine the possibilities of a two-man game between these two behemoths, then think about what could happen if Griffin were sometimes able to conserve more energy and unleash it in a whirlwind of fury on takeover possessions coming fewer and further between than in previous campaigns.
Also working in his favor? The 28-year-old might be especially motivated to propel the Pistons into the playoffs because of how his LAC time ended. The loyalty he showed signing an extension in the wake of the CP3 departure wasn't rewarded, and no one could blame him for wanting to show up his previous employers.
Griffin didn't need a fresh start. He's still getting one.