Last summer, the Clippers made some big changes.
Chris Paul was traded to the Houston Rockets for a package centered around Patrick Beverley. Blake Griffin was signed to a massive five-year extension. The new front office lured Danilo Gallinari in a three-year, $65 million sign-and-trade deal. European legend Milos Teodosic was lured to the United States as a 30-year-old rookie.
It was a new-look core, built around Griffin and All-NBA Center DeAndre Jordan, supported by a crew of quality reserves and young pieces.
Beyond that, it was the team’s first attempt at being competitive in the post-Chris Paul era. It was a team built to kick off a five-year window with Blake Griffin.
That team never got a chance, as Griffin, Beverley, Teodosic, and Gallinari all missed huge chunks of the first half of their first season together.
And now that window is nonexistent, as the Clippers on Monday moved Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and two picks (a 2018 1st round selection and a 2019 2nd round selection). Little-used Clipper big men Willie Reed and Brice Johnson will join Griffin in Detroit.
Was it a good deal for the Clippers? Who knows? I sure as hell don’t. I’d guess that it will take a long time before we can adequately judge who won and who lost this trade. The Clippers certainly downgraded in talent today, which is less than ideal. The Pistons will be paying a 32-year-old Blake Griffin $44.8 million during the 2022 season, which is also less than ideal. This trade doesn’t do much to change either teams’ status: both were on pace to end up between 7th and 9th in their conference without much long-term prognosis of becoming a contender in the next couple of years. The Pistons gave themselves a fighting chance to rise into the Eastern playoff picture this year. The Clippers severely damaged their chances of rising into the Western playoff picture.
So how do you frame this deal? The Clippers traded a dollar for a collection of smaller coins, which is pretty bad. They also shed long-term salary, got younger, and added a first-round pick without severely impacting their short-term prognosis. That... actually sounds pretty good. Then again, they traded away the face of the franchise 6 months after signing him to a five-year deal where they pitched him as a “Clipper for life,” which isn’t the best look. All three of those perspectives are valid—which means that they need to all be considered in order to evaluate the deal.
What’s more important, though, than whether the trade was “good” or “bad” (a vague, abstract question that can’t really be answered now no matter how much we talk about it) is where this trade leaves the Clippers going forward. There will be plenty of trade-grading in the hours and days to come, but the magnitude of this franchise-trajectory-altering trade is such that we also have to consider what’s next. Before we can adequately gauge how we feel about the new “big picture,” we have to take a step back and figure out what the hell the big picture actually is.
The Clippers were already engaged in serious discussions to move Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan ahead of the February 8th trade deadline, and it logically follows that the decision to trade Griffin makes the departure of those two almost inevitable. It also seems to follow that Austin Rivers and newcomer Avery Bradley will at least be available in trade talks, if not actively shopped as Jordan and Williams will be. And if there was ever a time for the Clippers to rid themselves of the cumbersome contracts of Marjanovic and Wesley Johnson, it would be during a flurry of deadline trades. Marjanovic is owed $7 million next season, while Johnson has a player option for $6.1 million.
Without knowing which of those players will leave the team, and furthermore, what the return will be in any potential trades, it’s hard to determine what the Clippers are working with going forward. But we can, with relative safety, assume the following:
- Tobias Harris is a core piece going forward. The first-round pick that the Clippers got will be a nice tool for Jerry West, but nothing in the package is going to have the impact of Harris. He’s having the best season of his career, averaging 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists per game while shooting 45% from the field, 41% from deep, and 85% from the free throw line. It’s a nice step forward for a guy who has consistently grown during his time in the league, and he’s just 25 years old with a good value contract ($14.8 million next season). He’s really more of a PF than a SF, but he’s more of a hybrid than Blake Griffin was which makes the fit with Gallinari more palatable.
- Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley are staying put. These are two more core pieces going forward. Their ages might suggest that they are candidates to be moved, with Beverley turning 30 this summer and Teodosic coming up on 31 years old. However, neither figures to have much trade value. Patrick is out for the season following knee surgery, meaning you probably won’t get much for him at this deadline, and his $5 million contract for next season is an insane asset for team-building. Teodosic has just 22 NBA games under his belt, and while his strengths have been on display this season, his overall results have been mixed enough that he shouldn’t have much of a market. His $6.3 million dollar salary is another good price for next season. Both of these players have more value to the Clippers than they do on the trade market.
- Danilo Gallinari won’t be shopped at the deadline. The Clippers also won’t be moving Gallinari—but for different reasons. After signing a three-year, $65 million contract last summer, Danilo has barely played this season with a series of butt injuries (seriously). While Gallo could make his return to the lineup as soon as tomorrow night, nobody is touching that contract this season for a guy who has only played 11 games.
- The Clippers will hang on to their young players. This is a shift in focus to the future. The Clippers, led by Jerry West, will insist that they’re “re-tooling” rather than “re-building,” and they’ll try to avoid the term “tanking.” Whether they can pull it off is yet to be determined, but it’s certain that West has a long-term view. He’ll be certain to hang on to his collection of prospects (Jawun Evans, Sindarius Thornwell, Tyrone Wallace, Sam Dekker, and Montrezl Harrell).
- Jerry West likes the 2018 NBA Draft. The Clippers have their own pick (currently 14th) and the Pistons’ pick (currently 13th). Both of those positions will likely change between now and seasons’ end, but neither will shift drastically. Trades for Jordan and Williams seem probable to return two more decent first-round picks (unless Jordan is moved for an established player). And Avery Bradley’s expiring deal could get a very late first-rounder from a contending team (Cleveland perhaps). The Clippers can package these picks to move up, or keep them and acquire a host of rookies, or do some combination of the two, but one thing is for certain: they’re going to be involved in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft in a way that we haven’t seen in years.
There are ten days left before the NBA trade deadline. The Clippers will probably make at least two more deals. Their starting lineup moving forward, changed significantly by tonight’s deal, will change again and likely feature at least one face that isn’t currently on the roster (aside from Bradley and Harris, who could both become starters immediately). We won’t be able to gauge the Clippers’ playoff outlook until we see the results of those deals—and even then, where they finish this season will be much less intriguing than what happens next summer, when Jerry West will have a multitude of draft picks and serious free agency cap flexibility to work with.