So much for a potentially slow trade deadline. The Los Angeles Clippers traded their assumed franchise player Blake Griffin, along with Brice Johnson and Willie Reed to the Detroit Pistons for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a protected first round pick and a second round pick.
Detroit was in a tough situation, albeit one of their own creation. After re-signing Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson in recent years, the Pistons were effectively capped out. In part, this is what cost them Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this past summer. Detroit was limited to making fringe upgrades around their core of Drummond, Jackson and Harris. Bradley was one of those upgrades, when the Celtics were clearing cap space to sign Gordon Hayward. The Pistons lost Marcus Morris in that trade, but they had Stanley Johnson ready to step in at the forward spot next to Harris.
Fast forward to today and Detroit has lost eight straight games and slipped to three games out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Jackson is injured again, Bradley has been both injured and ineffective, and Johnson has continued to stall in his development for most of the season. Drummond is having the best season of his career, and Harris is averaging career-highs nearly across the board, but the Pistons haven’t had enough production beyond that pair. Luke Kennard is a promising rookie, but the rest of the bench is filled with career role players. And while Drummond is a borderline All-Star, the rest of the roster was devoid of star power.
That can’t be said any longer. Blake Griffin arguably gives the Pistons the first bona fide star since Grant Hill. When Detroit won their most recent championship, they prided themselves on being more team than stars. Since then, the Pistons have been searching for their next true franchise player and they may have found him in Griffin.
Griffin will turn 29 before the season is over and he’s battled injuries for the last four seasons. But he’s a true 20 plus point per game scorer and remains a solid rebounder and passer. No longer the highlight dunker he once was, Griffin is now a far more versatile and varied player. He’s taking a career-high 5.7 three-pointers per game and hitting them at a decent 34 percent clip. He’s also taken on much more of a playmaking burden without Chris Paul and is delivering a career-best 5.4 assists per game.
Most importantly for the Pistons, Griffin is a player you have to account for each night. While Harris was a good scorer, he rarely made impact plays. And he’s one of those guys who can average close to 20 points by going for 30 one night and 10 the next. Griffin isn’t that guy. He’s going to make plays each night and you’re going to know he’s making them.
Griffin and Drummond will make an interesting pairing. It’s one the Pistons better hope will work as they are owed a combined guaranteed amount of $172.5 million over the next three seasons. Griffin has played alongside DeAndre Jordan for years and Drummond possesses a somewhat similar game. With Griffin extending his range to the arc, it should allow the two bigs to play together without much worry. And Drummond’s improvement as a passer makes for some interesting high-low opportunities and interior passing that didn’t exist with the Griffin/Jordan combo in Los Angeles.
Brice Johnson and Willie Reed aren’t anything more than deep bench pieces for the Pistons. Neither is likely to play much of a role. If Detroit can get back on track and in the playoff race, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either player bought out to open up a roster spot during buyout season.
The Pistons made an all-in move, which is what happens when your front office is run by the same person who coaches the team. Stan Van Gundy's tenure with the Pistons will be defined by how this move works out. Detroit is now capped out for at least the next few years. Two of their bigger salary players have injury concerns in Griffin and Jackson, and Drummond has proven incapable of carrying the team by himself. If this doesn’t work, the Pistons could find themselves in the same spot they are in now: on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Grade for the Pistons: C+
After trading Blake Griffin, what’s next is probably more important for the Clippers than what they got in the trade. If Los Angeles moves on from DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams over the next week or so, it signals that they're finally blowing it up after trying for nearly a decade to make it work around a Griffin/Jordan combo.
And if the Clippers blow it up, they won’t consider a long-term rebuild. They’ll hope to clear enough space to get in the LeBron James derby this summer, or at least in the mix for LA native Paul George as a consolation prize. If they can clear Jordan off the books, the Clippers could conceivably open up as much as $46 million in cap space. That is shy of two max deals, but more than enough to attract one max free agent.
On the court, this trade might end up more neutral than you might think for the rest of this season. Tobias Harris is a good, if inconsistent, scorer. He can provide much of what was lost from Griffin in the scoring department. He provides more consistent floor spacing that Griffin does, despite Griffin’s improvement from distance, which will help open the floor for others. Harris is also a better rebounder than he’s given credit for.
Avery Bradley is reunited with Doc Rivers, who coached him in his early years with the Celtics. If Bradley can get on track, he’ll give the Clippers consistent offense from the off guard role, which is something they have lacked for large portions of the year. More importantly, he’s immediately the Clippers best defensive guard as Patrick Beverley is out for the season. With so many good guards in the Western Conference, Bradley will give Rivers someone he can assign to the opposing team's best scoring guard and let him do his thing.
On offense, Bradley struggles to create his own looks, so playing with a creative passer like Milos Teodosic could help him get better shots. G-League find Tyrone Wallace is also a good playmaker, which will help Bradley and even Harris as well.
Boban Marjanovic will give Los Angeles a quality backup behind DeAndre Jordan. He could even end up the team’s starting center if Jordan is eventually traded. Marjanovic still remains somewhat more of a curiosity than a sure thing but there is talent there. Rivers hasn’t been afraid to go with big men in the past, so he might be willing to finally give Marjanovic consistent minutes.
Ultimately, the Clippers have two big takeaways from this trade. First, they get increased cap flexibility with Griffin’s deal off the books. Even if they don’t sign a max free agent this summer, things are considerably cleaner for the years moving forward. Flexibility is key and when you are in a major market, cap space has more value than it does for a small market club.
Second, the Clippers acquired a first round pick from Detroit in the deal. That pick is top four protected for the next three years, before becoming totally unprotected in 2021. Even if the Pistons don’t bottom out, the Clippers could be looking at a mid to late lottery pick. That should get them the young player they’ve been missing for years. Or that pick could be used in trade down the line for win-now help, especially if the Clips know they have a max free agent coming.
Giving up on Griffin has to hurt for long time Clipper fans, but the Clippers were stuck in the middle the Western Conference. Even if they were fully healthy, they weren’t on the level of Golden State, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City or even Minnesota. The middle is the worst place you can be in the NBA. By clearing the decks and pursuing a max free agent, the Clippers could end up more relevant than they’ve ever been.
Grade for the Clippers: B-