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A Year Later, Did the Clippers Win the Blake Griffin Trade?

Ask again next year.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Clippers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

We’re quick in the sports media business to talk about winners and losers. Every draft pick needs to be graded by the next morning, judgement rendered well in advance of a mountain of new data coming to inform that decision in the next decade. Each trade has a winner and a loser before the players involved have even completed their physicals. The competence of front offices is decided in July, months before their newly-assembled teams take the floor.

It would be like looking at my class roster tonight and assigning final grades before I meet my students next week.

Of course, I’m guilty of these reactions too. At Clips Nation, we have long run immediate reaction “grade” roundtables on each minor transaction made by the organization. It’s the nature of the business. You guys don’t want to read about whether or not Paul Davis was a good pick for the Clippers at #34 in the 2006 draft (it’s a tough call: while P.J. Tucker and Paul Millsap were both still on the board, Paul Davis was part of a Clippers lineup that featured 3 Davii, along with Baron and Ricky). Even talking about whether or not the Blake Griffin trade, finalized almost a year ago on January 29th, 2018, is pushing it. I’m sure you’d rather hear about potential future targets—things that I think the Clippers could do at next month’s deadline or in next summer’s free agency period.

To say that sports media is quick to react is not a criticism of individual outlets or writers—it’s simply an observation that sometimes, maybe we could benefit from having in-depth conversations about the ramifications of moves once we’ve had a little bit of time to see how subsequent events have played out.

It probably won’t surprise you, then, to learn that I don’t have a clear answer to the question asked in the title. Sorry. Last year, when we asked our staff to grade the Blake Griffin trade, we got answers that ranged from F to A. I didn’t submit an answer—I was too caught up writing an emotional goodbye column to mark the end of the era—but I recall begrudgingly accepting that the trade was probably a good thing for the team long-term. A year later, while we have some new data to work with, some of the larger trends have stayed intact. Rather than taking on the impossible task of declaring definitively that either team (or both) won or lost the deal, I’ll briefly tackle each of the four arguments.

Why the Clippers won the trade

Blake Griffin is good. That ain’t news. But with him at the helm, the Clippers were going nowhere fast. They’d never gotten out of the second round with both Griffin and Chris Paul, and with Paul gone to Houston, the team hit last January unlikely to even make the playoffs with no clear way to improve long-term other than “stay healthier”—a solution particularly problematic for a team built around the injury-prone Danilo Gallinari and Griffin, who missed 92 games across the three prior seasons and had already sat out 16 of the Clippers’ 49 games before being traded last season.

And while Griffin has been phenomenal in Detroit this year, it’s not particularly clear that his resurgence would have been possible in LAC. The emotional baggage that followed the Lob City Clippers makes itself visible at every turn, from DeAndre Jordan’s tortured 2015 free agency, to Chris Paul’s ambush of LAC’s locker room in his first return to STAPLES Center, to Blake himself snubbing a Steve Ballmer handshake ahead of today’s game. Doc Rivers revealed that he and Blake have not spoken since the trade. I don’t think that the Blake the Pistons are getting in 2019 would have been possible if he still wore a Clippers jersey.

Then there’s the money. Blake makes $32 million this year—more than any player on the Clippers’ roster. He’ll make $34 million next year, $36.5 million the year after, and finally $39 million during the 2021-22 season, at 32 years old. Can you build a championship team around a 39-million-dollar, 32-year-old Blake Griffin? It seems unlikely. Add in the fact that he almost certainly would have tried to strong-arm the franchise into spending to keep DeAndre Jordan, and holding on to Blake could have capped the Clippers’ ceiling for a half-decade. Now, they have a super flexible roster with the potential to open two max salary slots next summer and lure stars like Kawhi Leonard and/or Kevin Durant.

Why the Pistons won the trade

Acquiring a player of Blake Griffin’s caliber is never cheap, but the Pistons needed to do it. Andre Drummond is good, and Tobias Harris is pretty good too, but Detroit knew they needed a real star to lead their team. Now they have one. Blake is averaging 25 points, a career high, having his best season from deep (36.2% on 6.4 attempts per game), and even shooting 53.7% from inside the arc, returning to heights he hadn’t reached since 2014. He also leads the Pistons in assists at 5.3 per game. The team might not be playing as well collectively as Blake is individually, but in this case, it’s not his fault. He gives the Pistons a legit star to put pieces around—they just need to do a better job finding those pieces.

Compare that production to Tobias Harris, who averaged 18 points and 2 assists per game last season as a Piston, and it’s clear: Blake is a tier above, a dynamic offensive superstar who can be the creative centerpiece of your offense. Tobias isn’t quite there, and in order to make the upgrade the Pistons had to give up a late lottery pick while shedding Boban Marjanovic’s large contract and getting rid of Avery Bradley in an addition-by-subtraction move.

Some folks will tell you that whichever team receives the best player in the trade won that trade. A dollar is better than four quarters, right? Well, the Pistons clearly got the best player in this deal. Everything else be damned, they can feel good about that.

Why the Clippers lost the trade

The Clippers got worse, but they may have not gotten bad enough. Somehow, the team managed to hold together their roster with scotch tape last season and finish in 10th place in the West, an admirable performance that suppressed the value of the team’s first-round pick. Now, against all odds, they’re 24-18 at the (just past) halfway mark of the season, seemingly headed for a low playoff berth—a finish that will cost them their lottery-protected first rounder while still likely sending them into the off-season with a quick first-round loss.

They’re right within striking distance where you might be able to say that without the trade, they could actually be legitimately good this season. After all, we bought the hype last year, and most of their failings were due to crippling injuries. Their starting backcourt of Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic both went down early in the season, with Beverley missing 71 games and Teodosic missing 37. Danilo Gallinari struggled with injuries all year and only played 21 games, while Griffin missed the aforementioned 16 before being traded. Now, the pieces that are still in place are winning games even with the downgrades at PF and C. If the Clippers could undo the Griffin trade, giving up Jerome Robinson (who doesn’t play), Boban (who doesn’t play), and Bradley (likely the largest net negative on the team) to upgrade from Tobias to Blake, they’d be even better than they are, and would almost definitely be sitting in the top 4 in the conference right now. The caveat is that the Clippers drafted Robinson with the 13th pick (their own) and traded the 12th pick (Detroit’s) along with two future 2nd rounders to draft Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Do the Clippers and Charlotte pull off a similar 11 for 13/2nd/2nd deal if the Clippers don’t have 12 to offer? Maybe Charlotte just takes Miles Bridges instead of risking it to squeeze some assets from LAC, or maybe Detroit likes someone else at 12 and it doesn’t matter. It’s a hypothetical series of questions that we just don’t have any concrete answers to.

As it is, the Clippers will be within spitting distance of a max slot for a free agent this summer, and will need to trade Lou Williams as well as either trade Danilo Gallinari or let Tobias Harris walk if they want to open up a second one. If the Clippers had never traded Blake, they’d already have one max superstar and be a Danilo Gallinari trade away from having the cap space for a second one. The flexibility gained by trading Blake may not mean much at all if the Clippers only add one star and then spend upwards of $25 million a year on downgrade at power forward.

Why the Pistons lost the trade

If the Detroit Pistons won this trade because they got a superstar, they lost the trade because they weren’t ready for one—or perhaps because they could have been, but wasted their shot. While Blake has had plenty of individual success in Detroit, the same can’t be said for the team. They were 22-26 before Blake’s debut last year, and finished the season 39-43, in the lottery and having just traded their first-round pick. They went exactly .500 with Blake on the roster.

This season, it’s been even worse. In an Eastern Conference that is as underwhelming as ever, the Pistons are 18-23 at the midpoint of the season and outside of the playoff picture in a conference where going .500 guarantees you a berth. Even if the Pistons do make the post-season, they have practically no hope of competing against any of the East’s actual good teams. Toronto, Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee are all head and shoulders above Detroit, and the Pistons don’t have much room for improvement.

Aside from big contracts for Griffin and Drummond, the Pistons have $35 million total sunk into Reggie Jackson, Jon Leuer, and Langston Galloway in 2019-20. Even if they renounce all of their own free agents next summer, they’d still be $10 million over the cap—and to even tread water as a team, they’ll have to give raises to Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock, going deeper into the red. They’re good enough that they won’t get a top-10 pick that they could use to either select or trade for an impact player, but bad enough to desperately need that sort of help. That leaves them seemingly doomed for another throwaway season next year, and the best they can be hoping for is to build something new around Griffin and Drummond in the summer of 2020, heading into a season when Blake will be 31 years old. It’s very hard to see them winning a playoff series in any of their first three years with Blake—what does landing a star mean for them if they live out the very real possibility of having him for five years without winning a playoff series?

It’s hard to say at this moment if the Clippers or Pistons won the trade. I think the general opinion is that the deal was a win-win, if only because both fanbases desperately need to have won the trade to keep hope in their franchises. But I think the deal could also be framed as a lose-lose: the Clippers getting worse and trading their homegrown superstar for cap flexibility that they won’t use and the Pistons taking on an expensive and aging injury-prone star to tread water as a fringe playoff team in a weak conference.

For the Clippers, this deal’s legacy will be much clearer after July 2019. If the Clippers land one or more major free agents, the flexibility will have clearly been worth it. Even if a scenario unfolds that technically could have happened without trading Blake, acquiring a max player would gloss over that fact and the Clippers would be surrounding their new star with a younger, cheaper complimentary forward in Tobias and a developing shooter in Jerome. It’s a little harder to see how this turns into a clear lost trade for LAC—even if they strike out in 2019, they’ll have additional flexibility in 2020 and 2021 to build a team that has a higher ceiling than they thought the Blake-led team could have. The real loss comes if they accept non-Blake mediocrity: paying Tobias a few million less than they would have paid Blake to keep a non-contending roster together.

On Detroit’s side, a clear win seems a little harder to obtain, but the deal hardly looks like it will be a catastrophic loss either. It’s hard to be optimistic that the Pistons will ever be a great team during the Blake Griffin era—the issues with their roster and cap sheet seem to be too great to overcome in what will likely be a relatively short window of peak Blake. But it wasn’t exactly easy to envision how they would have ever taken a jump without him, either.