At 23-25, the Charlotte Hornets are currently on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff race. No matter how this season turns out for the Hornets-- be it a lottery trip or postseason appearance -- the team will still be firmly considered second-class citizens in the East as the summer approaches. That’s what happens for a team with no superstar, no prized prospect and a few core contributors slated to enter what promises to be a free agent frenzy this summer.
On the other side of the country, the Los Angeles Clippers have a similar, yet entirely different problem. With Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, L.A. isn’t lacking for star power. Yet the Clippers find themselves in a similar spot as the Hornets out West. That’s because their stars, while talented, don’t seamlessly augment each other’s strengths. And behind those heavy hitters, L.A. lacks the supporting cast needed to have a realistic chance of advancing past the three juggernauts at the top of their conference.
Like two ships passing in the night. the Hornets and Clippers could continue on their current paths and wait until this summer to reassess their course. But with a (mildly) disgraced superstar awaiting an uncertain fate, these two teams could do something way more fun by making a trade before the NBA’s February 18th deadline that drastically changes the future of both franchises.
2016 first round pick (Top 3 protected)
2017 & 2018 second round picks
(Here is how the deal looks.)
A Star Is Born (Why Charlotte Would Do It)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the Hornets would get their hands on a legitimate NBA superstar. For all the hand-wringing over his embarrassing episodes off the court and the endless critiques of his shortcomings on it, Griffin is a really special player. He’s one of the league's best passing big men not named LeBron James (if not the best), possesses an unorthodox but effective post up game and years of sharing the court with Jordan have forced Griffin to fine tune his outside shot. Griffin is an elite finisher in pick-and-rolls, something that always hasn’t been apparent given his awkward fit with Jordan in L.A.
Add it all up and Charlotte would be getting a foundational piece locked into his contract through at least next season (Griffin has a player option for the 2017-18). That 18-month time frame isn’t ideal for a team essentially giving up two lottery picks, but it’s exactly the type of calculated risk a team like the Hornets could take if a the more conservative approach from the past few years has lost appeal with ownership and the front office. And with the coming cap spike, Charlotte will be able to head into this summer with a star in tow and enough financial wiggle room to secure at least one additional piece that will (hopefully) help produce enough success to keep Griffin around for the long term.
As Zach Lowe pointed out last week, slotting help around Griffin is a tricky endeavor given his quirky game. The reason Charlotte is well positioned to take a gamble like this is of all the rosters in the league, their personnel could help unlock the dormant parts of Griffin’s skill set while augment the strengths we see on a nightly basis.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte’s starting point guard for what has seemed like an eternity now, has always hung a tier below the upper echelon of the league’s point guards because of his (inefficient) score-first approach to a position synonymous with playmaking. Sharing the court with the slick-passing Griffin would clearly help subsidize one of the weaker parts of Walker’s game, but such a partnership wouldn’t be totally one-sided. Griffin is great at a lot of things, but he’s never been one of those superstars that, in simple terms, excel when you ask them to go “get you a bucket” when possessions are on the fritz or a defense is locked in during crunch time.
Walker’s reliance on mid-range jumpers -- he currently slots into the league’s top 25 on mid-range attempts with 226, per NBA.com data -- isn’t the most analytics friendly approach, but is helpful in short clock situations. At that point, whether it is out of an isolation or pick-and-roll, defenses happily concede such shots. It’s part of why Griffin playing with Paul, one of the league’s mid-range masters, has been so beneficial, his point guard has shielded from one of the weaker areas of his game.
Another fact that may entice the Hornets to take this gamble (and maybe would convince Griffin to stick around) is the age difference between the two point guards. Walker isn’t on Paul’s level as a mid-range shooter or overall player, but he is in the midst of his best season posting career highs in PER (20.4), Win shares (5.2) and True shooting percentage (53.9). And at 30, Paul, whose knee problems are well documented, is exiting his prime. Walker, at just 25, is only entering his. And by acquiring the 26-year-old Griffin, Charlotte would have two members of their core in the same stage of their careers.
The player that would be integral to making this all work, however, is probably the player on the Hornets roster already under the most scrutiny, rookie Frank Kaminsky. Charlotte already has turned down a deal with Boston that would have netted them multiple first round picks in order to retain the right to draft the big man from Wisconsin. But if this fictional trade would come through, the Hornets would have secured the perfect type of player that can mesh while with Griffin’s unique skill set -- a stretch 5.
In a nutshell, this is Griffin’s who positional paradox. He’s a pick-and-roll dive man who lacks the size and basket-protection skills of a traditional center. If Griffin was 6-foot-11, the Clippers would have moved him to 5, surrounded him with a floor-spacing power forward and fulfilled his destiny as a new-age Amar’e Stoudamire. But given Griffin’s height and length, putting him at the 5 for long stretches would make a team’s defense suffer an ugly death.
What Griffin needs to be paired with a player who can flip-flop the standard relationship between a center and stretch 4. There are a handful of players in the league that can do currently do this -- Serge Ibaka and (sort of) Anthony Davis are the headliners of this select group -- but none play for teams with the willingness or capacity to make a deal. This is where Kaminsky, and to a lesser extent, Griffin’s former teammate, Spencer Hawes come in.
Both players are facsimiles of the “stretch 5” that would unlock every facet of Griffin’s game. Yet there are clear issues with both of Hornets bigs. Hawes and Griffin struggled together during their time in L.A., as opponents outscored the duo by 4.7 points per 48 in the 256 minutes those two shared the floor. Now there are reasons to disregard that data, starting with the small sample size and ending with the fact that Hawes’ brief run out west was an unmitigated nightmare, but it’s certainly can’t be counted on as a reason for optimism.
For this dream scenario to work, however, Kaminsky and head coach Steve Clifford would be the key reasons. After struggling through his rookie season (so far, at least) Kaminsky would have to take a huge step forward next year, at least in terms of his outside shooting. Clifford, meanwhile, would need to work his magic on defense, because neither Hawes nor Kaminsky are (and won’t ever be) anywhere near someone like Ibaka. But somehow, someway, Clifford get a team anchored by the statuesque Al Jefferson to finish 6th in defensive efficiency their first year together so there’s reason to believe the Hornets could cobble together passable defense with Griffin and one of these stretch 5’s on the court.
The final step for making this deal worthwhile for Charlotte is using this summer to identify and secure a third piece of their core. Whether that means doing whatever it takes to re-sign Nic Batum or using the allure of playing with Griffin to land a bigger name, The Hornets should, like almost every other team, have enough cap space for a max contract (Kidd-Gilchrist’s extension would be set to kick in next season, so adding Griffin’s salary only raises their total cap number by about $6 million). Unlike every other team, Charlotte would have Griffin and the appeal of playing in a conference with only one true powerhouse to use as a recruitment tool.
With so many factors contingent on making Griffin stick around once he (hypothetically, of course) is brought into the fold, this isn’t a risk-free deal for the Hornets. But it’s still one worth considering.
The Old and the Depth-Less (Why the Clippers Would Do It)
Trading a star is a dicey proposition. The league doesn’t have that many and not much of a precedent for team’s getting markedly better when doing so, at least when it comes to the short term. And for perception purposes, it would be a lot easier for those running the Clippers to go down swinging with a Griffin-Paul-Jordan core that has it’s flaws then go another direction and get the same results.
But barring a cascade of injuries to their opponents, this L.A. team doesn’t have the juice to get past two of the OKC, San Antonio or Golden State triumvent, not mention what will likely be a very good Cleveland team awaiting them in the Finals. If you’re grading on a championship curve, this Clipper team is unlikely to receive a passing grade. So why not shake things up? Especially when there there is at least some evidence that this L.A. team can survive just fine without Griffin.
If you were going to put together a shopping list for things this Clipper team would want in a Griffin deal it would be wing depth, youth/athleticism and financial flexibility. Probably in exactly that order. This deal with Charlotte checks all those boxes.
In fact, the arrival of Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist means Doc Rivers can mercifully put the Paul Pierce-Luc Mbah-Moute starting forward tandem out to pasture. Williams isn’t a world-beater, but he’d step right in and be a massive upgrade over this age-diminished version of Pierce we’re currently being subjected to watching. The Charlotte forward is currently shooting 37.5 percent on 4.4 attempts from 3 and could easily slot in at power forward next to Jordan -- a player more than capable of subsidizing Williams rebounding shortcomings.
Williams can’t come close to matching the other valuable contributions Griffin makes in terms of his passing and post up play, but the draw of opening up the lane consistently around Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls is very enticing. Williams also has the versatility to swap assignments defensively, at least with other wings, which is important especially against Golden State’s off-ball screening madness. On top of that, he’s a short-term fix whose contract expires after this season.
The same story goes for the free-agent-to-be Jefferson, who is currently on the mend after knee surgery but expected to be back after the All-Star break. With the surprising play of Cole Aldrich, who has provided solid minutes for the Clippers so far this season, the inclusion of Jefferson in this deal seems like overkill, especially since he and Jordan can’t play together. But there’s nothing Aldrich does, at least on the offensive end, that will tilt defensives come playoff time. And with the Hack-a-DeAndre looming over every playoff game, having a backup 5 capable of playing extended minutes and chipping in on offense will be vital for this L.A. team.
Bringing Jefferson off the bench behind Jordan has a lot of potential benefits. For starters, it gives a team that is very pick-and-roll based a change of pace in their offensive approach. Even in the playoffs, Jefferson should be able to feast in the post against bench or hybrid units used by opponents. He also provides an interesting tactical adjustment for Rivers to use should a team like Golden State snuff out Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls by switching and daring L.A. to beat a mismatch with Jordan down low.
Kidd-Gilchrist is obviously the crown jewel of this trade. At 22, Kidd-Gilchrist is already one of the league’s elite defenders. If he ever becomes a competent outside shooter -- an area he’s already much improved -- the young wing will be a two-way monster with the potential to be one of the league’s top 15 or 20 most valuable players. And even without looking ahead, getting him on the Clippers roster helps them right now.
To make the Finals this season, L.A. will have to beat opponents that employ Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. Kidd-Gilchrist has the chops to match up with all those players, something that’s a huge necessity given Paul’s heavy lifting on offense and J.J. Redick’s limitations as a defender. Mbah Moute, who is approaching 30 and has a long history of knee problems, is currently the Clipper slated for that duty.
But while Mbah Moute is still near the same level as MKG defensively, he will create a 4-on-5 handicap for the team’s offense come playoff time. It’s true that Kidd-Gilchrist will receive the same treatment as Mbah Moute with his outside shot, but the difference between the two players is that youngster can score effectively in transition and has enough off the dribble punch in the halfcourt to beat sagging defenders, providing at least some offensive value.
Looking ahead, however, is where the true value of Kidd-Gilchrist and the future first round pick -- one that may very well be in the lottery this summer -- really lies. Because of his age and new contract, Kidd-Gilchrist represents a generational bridge for the Clippers should Paul’s powers fade sooner rather than later. And despite having an extension that kicks in this summer, Kidd-Gilchrist cap figure is about seven million less than Griffin’s deal would be. Depending on which cap holds the team hangs onto, that difference could create enough money under the cap for the Clippers to lure a coveted stretch 4 (Hi Ryan Anderson) in free agency, essentially throwing another player into the trade.
At the very least, the additional cap space and pick give Rivers some additional flexibility in revamping his roster this summer. The Clippers could keep the pick, get their Spurs on and look to develop young players for roles in the post-Paul era. Or Rivers (being Rivers), could dangle that pick to nab a veteran ready to provide value in the next season or two. Even re-packaging the pick with Kidd-Gilchrist to go after someone like say, the Knicks Carmelo Anthony or Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, may be an option that team can explore.
The fact that there are options is perhaps the biggest appeal for the Clippers making this trade. With Griffin in tow, L.A. is stuck under a glass ceiling it’s unlikely they break. Dealing their star forward runs the risk of dropping the Clippers down a couple floors, but it could also propel them to smash through that ceiling en route to a brighter future.