Who won the Blake Griffin deal? Depends on what you think about Blake Griffin.
If you’re pro-Griffin, it’s the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons picked up the best player in the six-player, two draft-pick trade — and it’s not close. Griffin is a five-time All-Star who is on track for his fifth straight 21-plus-point-per-game season. He’s 28, just entering his prime and is a threat from beyond the 3-point line for the first time in his career.
If you’re anti-Griffin — and membership in that club is sizable — you like the deal for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers’ decision to deal Griffin was cold. It was just six months ago L.A. held an elaborate free-agent recruiting meeting for Griffin, complete with a raising of his jersey to the rafters and a P.A. announcer declaring that the team was honoring “a Clipper for life.” But in trading him, L.A. shed the final four years and $141 million on the oft-injured forward’s contract while pushing a team in a dogfight just to make the playoffs (L.A. is 25-24, good for ninth in the West) closer to hitting the reset button.
[Related: Is Blake Griffin enough to save the Pistons?]
Ask around the NBA and you get a recurring sentiment: Clippers won, and big. “Great deal for L.A.,” an Eastern Conference GM told Yahoo Sports. “They were never going to win with Blake.” Added a Western Conference personnel scout, “Blake and DeAndre [Jordan] were a good frontcourt — [for] 2005. It’s a new game. And the way Griffin plays, he is hard to build a team around.”
Still, it’s easy to declare a team a winner when it sheds a big salary, replaces it with a few useful parts (Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris) and picks up a first-round pick along with it. Think about it: How many teams are excoriated for tearing down a middling roster and selling a fan base on future stars and cap flexibility? Boston and Philadelphia have given way to Atlanta and Sacramento. A rebuild is easier to sell than Girl Scout cookies. The Clippers could have two lottery picks in the talent-rich 2018 draft and clean books in 2019 — when Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler and others could hit the free-agent market.
There’s a price for that, though. Ownership has no interest in a Sixers-like rebuild, a team source told Yahoo Sports, but it’s hard to see L.A. as anything but middle of the pack. The Clippers were 8-8 without Griffin this season. Bradley is one of the NBA’s most underrated players, and Harris, at 25, is having his best season. Sure, if things break right — the season-ending injury to DeMarcus Cousins will likely clear one team from the field in front of them — the Clips could make the playoffs … where a first-round butt-kicking awaits them.
And that’s this season. What happens this summer, when Bradley — who has been anticipating a big payday for years — signs with the highest bidder? Or if (when?) DeAndre Jordan opts out? Or Lou Williams seeks a big deal? Will the Clippers blow up future cap flexibility to bring a fringe playoff team back together? Unlikely. More likely is the Clippers let everyone walk, bottom out and hope a bunch of lottery-level rookies and a SoCal address will be enough for a free agent or two to relocate in 2019.
And what about the coach? Doc Rivers made it clear in Boston — he isn’t interested in rebuilding. The Clippers stripped him of his personnel power last summer, naming Lawrence Frank vice president and paying Jerry West a reported $4 million-5 million per year to operate as the man behind the curtain. Rivers has one year left on his contract after this season. And with L.A. tearing it down and a handful of enticing coaching jobs opening up (looking at you, Milwaukee; or maybe you, New York) the time could be right for a mutual parting of the ways.
The Clippers can dream of being competitive while rebuilding all they want, but by dumping Griffin, they all but ensured a painful rebuild that will take years to recover from.
Detroit? It’s a pretty big gamble by coach and president of basketball operations Stan Van Gundy, too. If Griffin can stay healthy, if he creates the kind of chemistry with Andre Drummond that Griffin enjoyed during his best days in Los Angeles, and if Reggie Jackson develops into Chris Paul Lite, the Pistons might win a round or two in the coming years before running into a Boston/Toronto/Milwaukee meat grinder. Griffin and Drummond will have their moments (Lob City — Midwest!), while Jackson was experiencing a resurgence this season — Detroit is 19-14 with him as a starter — before an ankle injury sidelined him.
But there seems to be a ceiling here. Years of doling out bad contracts limited Detroit’s cap flexibility — seriously, was anyone else giving the now-traded Boban Marjanovic a three-year, $21 million deal in 2016? — so this was probably the only way to add a legit franchise player into the mix. But the Pistons just moved a spacey, 3-point shooting big (Harris) off Drummond’s wing in favor of a mid-range shooter (Griffin) whom teams still don’t give more than a token effort to defend beyond the arc. If L.A. couldn’t win with that type of frontcourt, can Detroit?
Who knows? This was a franchise player moved in a deal that doesn’t seem certain to really help either franchise. The Clippers have a thumb on the demo button, with teams already in a vulture-like circle around Jordan and Williams. There’s incentive to bottom out — L.A.’s first round pick in either ’19 or ’20 is earmarked for Boston, but it’s lottery protected — and with Griffin gone, little reason to resist it. Detroit should improve, but not enough to be considered a serious contender without further wheeling and dealing. Blake Griffin is a big deal. This trade doesn’t feel like one.
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