Nobody saw this trade coming. Not even the teams involved a week prior, and certainly not people around the league. The conventional wisdom was the Clippers didn’t want to trade Griffin — they just maxed him out in July — and couldn’t have if they had even wanted to because he’s a massive salary for a player with a long injury history.
Even Griffin was caught unaware.
The obstacles didn’t stop the deal. Blake Griffin has been traded to the Detroit Pistons. As a reminder, this is how this shakes out:
I usually like to break down trades in the theme of the classic Clint Eastwood film of “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly,” but we’re throwing in a new category, the Desperate, in this one. Because it fits.
THE GOOD: The Los Angeles Clippers. Rarely does the team giving up the best player in the trade “win” it, but in this case the trade represents a shift the Clippers frankly should have started last summer. When Chris Paul forced a trade last June, the then brain trust of owner Steve Ballmer and GM/President Doc Rivers decided not to rebuild, rather they signed Blake Griffin to a max five-year deal, signed Danilo Gallinari, and put together a team that if healthy could well be a bottom-half playoff team in the West. Of course, they weren’t healthy, and that should have been expected. Now after months of the new brain trust — Lawrence Frank and Jerry West — in Ballmer’s ear, he has agreed to the rebuild and clearing out cap space. (There is talk about the Clippers having the room to go after LeBron James/Paul George next summer, but I have heard LeBron has zero interest in joining the Clippers.)
Los Angeles also did well in what they got back for Griffin, considering there was almost no interest around the league in him and his contract (too expensive, too often injured). Tobias Harris is a good wing player who can hit the three and score on the drive, Avery Bradley can defend and is going to play hard going into a contract year, and they get a first-round pick this season (unless the Pistons miss the playoffs then win the lottery). That’s not a bad haul, all things considered. The Clippers did well.
THE GOOD: Tobias Harris. Want a good litmus test for who watches the NBA regularly and who doesn’t? If when they heard about the trade they said: “who is Tobias Harris?” He is a good player — a guy just missing the All-Star team in the East this season — who is averaging 18.1 points per game this season, gets traded a lot, but gets a little better every year. He’s a wing who is an excellent spot-up shooter, is hitting 40.9 percent from three, has good handles and can get to the rim, can effectively run the pick-and-roll, knows how to pass and does everything well.
With Griffin gone the Clippers will be in need of shot creation (especially if Lou Williams gets traded as well), Harris is going to get the chance to show just how good he is in a bigger market. He will have freedom from Doc Rivers he should thrive in.
THE GOOD: Avery Bradley. You want another good litmus test for who watches the NBA regularly? If someone starts telling you how good Avery Bradley is they’re not watching — he’s been awful this season. He still is a good on-ball defender (although that has regressed), and he can hit spot-up threes (38.1 percent from deep this season). But he’s not scoring well at all inside the arc (just 57.1 percent at the rim and not good from anywhere else), isn’t strong on hand-offs or cuts, and can’t create shots for himself. He’s been hampered by a groin injury this season, which is part of the issue.
Bradley also is a free agent this summer — this trade is a chance to redeem himself and make himself some money this summer. Play well with the Clippers and his stock rises.
THE BAD: Blake Griffin. I think he will like Detroit, once he gets there and gets settled on the team and in the city, this is not about disrespecting the Motor City. This is about where Griffin sees himself and where he is now. Two seasons ago he was on a team that thought it could contend for a title, and while they never lived up to that goal — or got out of the second round — they were consistently a top-5 or at least top-7 NBA team that played meaningful games. Then this summer, when Chris Paul forced his way to Houston, the Clippers wooed Griffin with a dog-and-pony show about his life up until now, then showed what it would look like when they raised his jersey to the ceiling. They said he was a Clipper for life and the most important person in franchise history, Griffin said he wanted to retire a Clipper. Eight months later he’s off to Detroit. Griffin loved the Los Angeles lifestyle, he was active in comedy clubs and in the city’s entertainment network, and now that is just an off-season pursuit. It’s a blow. He’ll adapt, but it’s a blow.
THE DESPERATE: The Detroit Pistons. I’m not ready to call the Pistons losers here — they got the best player in the trade, and Griffin and Andre Drummond form an interesting front line that could play well off each other. However, this move reeks of desperation. The Pistons had lost eight in a row, they had fallen out of the playoffs, they were desperate for wins, and so Stan Van Gundy felt he had to do something bold. He went and got a superstar. However, this move comes with a ton of risk. Griffin is 28 (29 in March) and in his prime, but he’s got a long injury history and has averaged 54 games a year over the last three and is going to make an average of more than $35 million a year over the course of this contract (he can opt into $39 million in 2021-22). Combine that with the Drummond contract, and the Pistons will owe those two stars around $65 million the final years of their deals, which will make putting a good team around the stars difficult.
Also, it’s fair to ask if Drummond and Griffin can play together. In theory, Griffin can run the offense out at the elbow (and make some high-low passes to Drummond), keeping Drummond on the block where he is at his best. Griffin can also run the pick-and-pop with point guard Reggie Jackson, and Griffin has hit his threes this season. But the move left the thin guard/wing possessions in Detroit even worse off, allowing teams to pack the paint and take away options. This may be a front-line to be reckoned with, maybe Griffin/Drummond can be a better passing version of Griffin/DeAndre Jordan, but the Clippers had Chris Paul running the show. Reggie Jackson, when healthy, is no Chris Paul.
THE UGLY: Pistons’ floor spacing. The Pistons floor spacing was already an issue. Sure, Detroit is fifth in the NBA in the number of three-pointers attempted, but the team lacks a depth of good three-point shooters (the team is middle of the pack in shooting percentage), there are limited guys on the roster they trust to hit threes consistently and most of them now come off the bench. Now the Pistons have shipped out two of their better three-point shooters in the form of Harris and Bradley. The Pistons still have Luke Kennard and Henry Ellison off the bench, but they lack shot creators for their spot-up guys and shooting among the starters.
Griffin has an outside shot and this season has shown he can hit threes, but he’s a guy who needs to benefit from good floor spacing, not be the guy who has to create it for others. Stan Van Gundy likes his teams to play inside out, but now opponents can just pack the paint and then challenge jump shooters as best they can. Detroit also doesn’t have the cap space to add players to solve this problem.