There’s a thrillingly inconsequential junkiness to this Pistons-Clippers trade. The stuff involved isn’t junk at all. Blake Griffin is a pretty great if diminished player. Tobias Harris has been doing good work in obscurity his entire career. Avery Bradley can guard and shoot and move off the ball. First-rounders from desperate teams can always turn into something. But this isn’t a complete teardown, not by itself, for the Clippers and the Pistons aren’t doing anything like putting the finishing touches on a contender—it’s up for interpretation whether they’ve even improved themselves in aggregate. These are two teams shaking things up if not only for the sake of it, then certainly for no great purpose.
The buzz from sourced-up reporters like Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski is that the Clips don’t believe they’re headed for a drastic rebuild. They’ll field offers for DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, but they’re not overeager to ship out either one of them. There’s a chance this is posturing. Jerry West and Lawrence Frank don’t want to operate from a position of weakness. But if they truly aren’t dead-set on bottoming out, they’re not going to be able to do it by accident. It’s extremely unlikely that some rube-run franchise is about to arrive at their doorstep with some exceedingly appetizing package of picks and/or young talent for a 31-year-old scoring guard or a 29-year-old center on a contract he can opt out of in the summer. And absolutely nobody is going to be interested in two-and-a-half years of Danilo Gallinari, who’s owed $21.6 million next season and $22.6 the season after that—not without something of value attached.
The Pistons paid two useful starters and a possible lottery pick to create their own version of the Clippers' frontcourt. Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan aren’t the same player, but they’re both centers who are most comfortable two feet from the rim. Drummond is a more skilled offensive player who has become a pleasingly clever elbow facilitator this year, but Jordan is the superior paint protector. Blake Griffin will fit next to Drummond like he did alongside Jordan, which is to say slightly clumsily. They’ll have Reggie Jackson getting them the ball. This is less than optimal in the first place, without considering that Jackson just recently stopped clomping around in a walking boot and won’t be back in the starting lineup for at least another week or two. The Pistons haven’t firmly booked their playoff spot with this trade. Plus they have to pay Griffin the rest of a five-year, $173 million contract he signed this past summer. With his injury history, that’s a dicey proposition.
And yet I wish this sort of thing happened five times per season. We’re up to our eyebrows, on the Sports Internet, in rumors and fake trades and speculation, and as much as all that calorie-free nattering can grate, there’s too much of it because it’s interesting to think about what a team could become with a little imagination and a dubiously healthy disregard for continuity, especially at this point in the calendar, when the trade deadline is coming up and the league has settled into a kind of stasis after some offseason ripples. We knew the Pistons were an improving but underpowered team bound either for the lottery or a first-round playoff exit, and we knew the Clippers were admirably struggling for respectability after losing Chris Paul. And now there’s a bunch of stuff we’re not so sure about. It’s possible, if not probable, that a pissed off Blake Griffin lifts the Pistons to unforeseen heights. (So, a second-round playoff exit.) It’s possible that the Clippers blow things up in earnest, or that they qualify for the postseason with one of the more strangely mish-moshy rosters in recent memory. At the very least, there’s some novelty for us to enjoy for the next few months. Blake in a Pistons jersey was thought to be, as recently as Monday afternoon, something only a peculiarly dedicated Michigan-based 2K player could make happen.
Of course, franchises don’t maneuver purely for our entertainment. They want to win more games or better set themselves up to achieve some long-term aim. It’s difficult to know if either of these teams have done that. It’s not like they’re now in the championship hunt or have nabbed a top-three draft pick. Griffin leaving Los Angeles unexpectedly, after they pitched him on being a lifelong Clipper last summer, perhaps makes the deal feel more significant than it is, but the NBA’s grander scheme isn’t affected much by this move. The Warriors aren’t worried about it, though they will notice that one of their favorite punching bags has left their division.
If you’re in the League Pass subscriber tier of NBA fandom, you may have a favorite team, but especially in the middle of the season, you mostly want every team to be as good—or, failing that, as experimental or dysfunctional—as they can be. You want the Bucks to get their defense sorted out, the Timberwolves to close games more assuredly, and the Rockets to put up increasingly absurd scoring numbers. You want the Knicks to shape up or continue to fail as avant gardely as possible. Because it’s gratifying to check the schedule on a Wednesday and realize there are three or four worthwhile contests. You stay on one game because it’s great, or you flip over to another when the score gets close. You luxuriate in there being too much rewarding basketball to keep up with it all. It’s about as much fun as you can have sitting on your couch by yourself dead sober on a weeknight, and this NBA season has been particularly generous, in terms of providing that feeling.
But monotony inevitably sets in. We get used to the rhythms at which teams play. Rotations begin to resemble well-trodden footpaths. Nettlesome problems recur: this team doesn’t have enough outside shooting; that one’s second unit is a disaster. A splashy, broadly inconsequential move like Blake Griffin to the Pistons for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, and (the previously unmentioned but obviously legendary) Boban Marjanović is a tonic in the doldrums-ish winter months because it’s as if two NBA front offices are responding to our restlessness with some fresh intrigue. If that’s not exactly best practice, it does give us a reason to check in with teams we might have mentally mothballed a while back. Let’s see how this works out is a welcome thought in January, when everything is getting a little too familiar. We’re happy to be jarred, unsettled. Sports is one of the few arenas in which ignorance is genuinely blissful.