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Losing Griffin hurts, but Clippers now better equipped for the future

Trading Blake Griffin was difficult, but the Clippers now have flexibility moving forward.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Brooklyn Nets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

A normal Monday afternoon was turned upside down when Adrian Wojnarowski broke the story that the Clippers were in serious discussions with the Detroit Pistons regarding a trade centered around Blake Griffin. About a half hour after the initial tweet, Woj reported that a deal between the sides had been agreed upon.

We’d been hearing for a while that the Clippers could be active on the trade market, but most expected either Lou Williams or DeAndre Jordan to be the first to go. There were few public indications regarding Griffin’s availability, but, clearly, the team was open to trading the face of their franchise.

When news of the return first came down, it looked rather underwhelming. Griffin, in addition to being a five-time All-Star, was the Clippers. He helped lead the team through the latter stages of the Donald Sterling era, and he and Chris Paul are unquestionably the two best players in the history of the franchise. Losing both in the span of eight months is going to be a tough pill to swallow for some.

Upon doing more digging regarding the deal, it’s looking more and more understandable from the Clips’ perspective. Trading a franchise cornerstone is always going to be a hard sell for an organization, but LAC’s intentions look clear. Griffin is in the first year of a new five-year, $173 million deal. He’s still an elite talent when healthy, but this has been yet another season in which he’s deal with a long-term injury. He was fortunately able to return sooner than expected, but he hasn’t even logged more than 70 games played since the 2013-14 campaign. To give you an idea as to just how long ago that was, Stephen Jackson, Hedo Turkoglu and Danny Granger were Clippers that year.

It’s a shame we never got to see what this year’s team could have accomplished. They were never going to seriously challenge Golden State in the conference, but a core of Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams would’ve been fun to follow. We didn’t even make it to November 10 before some of them started missing games.

Rather than waiting it out and seeing how things could’ve gone at full health, the Clippers’ front office decided it was time to pull the plug. This team was built to win games this year, and they’ve managed to do that at a decent clip despite the rash of injuries. With Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley incoming, the 2017-18 iteration of the team can still stay relevant in the playoff hunt.

Of course, this deal wasn’t made with the 2018 playoffs in mind. Jerry West, Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger (not to mention Steve Ballmer and Doc Rivers) have the long-term big picture in mind. Even with the complementary pieces healthy, there was an apparent hard cap on the ceiling of the Griffin-Jordan core. The Clips could have either let Jordan walk as a free agent this coming summer and continued to build around Griffin. Or, they could’ve signed DJ to a new long-term deal of his own and keep the duo together. Instead, they chose neither option.

Offloading the massive money owed to Griffin was clearly the goal for the Clippers. In getting Harris, Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a couple of draft picks, LAC did well. Bradley’s in the midst of a down year, but he’s been a very solid two-way player in the past with Boston. Even if he’s unable to rediscover his old Boston form with the Clippers, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent this summer. If he stinks, he’ll be gone soon, anyway.

In Harris, the Clippers are getting a low-key excellent offensive player. It feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s still only 25. He’s on the books for a very manageable $14.8 million next season, as well. While it would be nice to see what he can give the Clippers over the next couple of years, his contract is cheap enough to where moving him shouldn’t be an issue if the Clippers need to open up additional cap space. He’s not a superstar, but he does look like an upgrade over Griffin in certain areas.

Harris doesn’t have the do-it-all offensive game Griffin possesses, nor is he as explosive athletically. Griffin is arguably the best passing big man in the game, while Harris isn’t much of a distributor. Even so, Tobias is an excellent scorer that has expanded his range. Harris, who’s listed at 6’9”, is shooting a career-best 40.9 percent from three-point range this season. He’s also averaging 18.1 points, which is the best mark of his career thus far.

He’s capable of playing either forward slot, though he’s likely best suited replacing Griffin at the four. Harris is also an excellent rebounder, which is a skill that he wasn’t really able to display with Andre Drummond sucking up all the rebounds in Detroit. Now that he’ll be playing alongside Jordan, he probably won’t see much of an uptick in the boards department.

Harris will instantly become the Clips’ second-most reliable scorer next to Lou Williams, and we could see him become the go-to guy if Williams is playing elsewhere within the next couple of weeks. Harris is a real talent, but he hasn’t really gotten the opportunity yet to be a team’s unquestioned No. 1 offensive option.

Harris spent a lot of time in the midrange during his formative years with the Magic, but he’s done a better job of staying in the most efficient areas on the floor since playing for Stan Van Gundy. His shot chart so far this season shows that he does the majority of his damage beyond the arc or at the rim (via NBASavant).

Harris drew some All-Star consideration this season. While some of that is due to the fact that he played in the Eastern Conference, he’s quietly been putting together the best year of his career. Doc Rivers is a coach that has gotten the best out of his talent this season, and it’ll be exciting to see how he utilizes a player of Harris’ caliber. He’s far from the flashy, highlight-reel type of player that Griffin is, but Harris does a lot of things well on the floor.

The Clippers will probably try to lure someone like LeBron James or Paul George this summer. Will it work? Who knows? Thinking the Clips are now favorites to land any big fish in the upcoming free agency class is a fool’s errand. There’s a lot of work to be done between now and then. Regardless, the Clippers now seem to have something they haven’t had much of in recent years: flexibility.

The Clippers parted ways with the best player in this deal, but there is still upside in what they got in return for Blake Griffin. With Harris, Bradley and potentially a pair of lottery picks in what looks like a loaded upcoming draft class, this looks like a smart move the Clippers made with their future in mind.