By Adam Spinella
After winning five of their last six games, the Los Angeles Clippers remain within striking distance of the playoffs. Now only a game behind the eighth-seeded New Orleand Pelicans in the loss column, the return of Blake Griffin to full strength can be both a blessing and a curse for the franchise based on their current trajectory.
Ever since Doc Rivers assembled this post-Chris Paul roster, it’s been an experiment on mismatched pieces built around a semi-modern Griffin and DeAndre Jordan pairing. The Clippers started the season 5-2 before heading on a disastrous nine-game with Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley all suffering injuries to hold them out of the lineup for extended periods of time. But since that losing streak, Doc and company have found a way to stay afloat, buying time for Griffin to return by going 11-8 and holding their opponent under 100 points seven times over that 19-game span.
They’re still awaiting the return of Gallinari, but nowhave Griffin and Teodosic to anchor the offense while Jordan patrols the paint on the other end. Jordan has been the subject of trade talks throughout the first half of the season, with many pundits assuming he’ll opt out of his contract at the end of the year and become the premier, pricey free agent on the market. With their recent surge, we cannot assume the Clippers are sellers anymore.
Now Doc Rivers, DeAndre Jordan and the whole gang are at the center of the NBA’s most fascinating team over the next five weeks leading up to the trade deadline. A ragtag group of veterans on a team lacking financial flexibility with one of its eldest and most important players a soon-to-be free agent, there are more questions than answers in Los Angeles right now. The biggest question: will there be enough time before the trade deadline for the pieces to come together and point the front office in one clear direction?
It’s legitimately bothersome that we don’t talk about Blake Griffin’s improvements enough. The guy came into the league as a human pogo stick, overpowering forwards on the block and crushing the rim off simple rolls. For as amazing as the highlights he created were, there was a lack of dynamism to his game. Through his first four seasons in the league, he was a 23 percent three-point shooter, took 22 percent of his shots from the long mid-range region (between the three-point line and 16 feet from the rim) while only making roughly one out of every three while averaging 3.7 assists per 36 minutes.
Griffin has matured and expanded his game in each aspect. Most notably has been his three-point shooting, where he’s on pace to finish above 33 percent for the fourth-straight season, but is finally doing so on an incredibly high volume. The 125 he’s attempted this season is already a career high, and he’s reached that mark in only 21 games. Shooting 36 percent from deep on six attempts per 36 minutes is the work of upper echelon stretch shooting bigs.
His mechanics are as smooth as can be, and he’s near lethal with time. Half of his attempts come without a defender within six feet of him, and he’s knocking down 43.5 percent of those jumpers, courtesy of NBA.com’s player tracking data. Blake has added three-pointers off the bounce to his repertoire as well, giving him yet another tool at his disposal in isolations. Bigger defenders that sag off Blake in hopes of protecting against an aggressive drive to the rim are left hanging when he bangs one right in their face:
Griffin has always been a solid isolation player, and the departure of Chris Paul has opened up his role in the offense to play one-on-one. Imagine trying to defend an athlete as dynamic as Griffin one-on-one, worrying about the various posters he’s created by yamming over opponents, and he breaks out a step-back three pointer? Those worries are now a reality for defenders that check Griffin in space.
In turning himself into a legitimate three-point threat, he’s eliminated some of the bloated mid-range attempts from his game. This season, fewer than 10 percent of his shots come in that mid-range area, cutting them in half from the early parts of his career. As the league has gone to a more efficient style of play, Griffin has kept up and ditched the 17-foot attempt in favor of the long ball. He should be lauded for that in the way other bigs like Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez and Kevin Love have been.
The ability Griffin has shown to play in the open court with the ball in his hands has been noted over the last few years. With over five assists per 36 minutes these past few seasons, he’s proven to be an elite playmaker in the frontcourt. Transition and lob city areas are where it began, with coach Doc Rivers sprinkling in a few big-to-big ball screens with Griffin lobs to Jordan.
The pair have developed great chemistry on a series of high-lows into lobs built on the premise of how dangerous Griffin is at the three-point line on pick-and-pops. Griffin routinely will catch the ball on the wing after setting an alley screen (one that leads the ball handler to the baseline) and throw a lob to Jordan, who is completely unimpeded. They’ve been running this action for years now, and it hasn’t lost it’s effectiveness even without Paul:
Griffin is an incredibly skilled passer who picks apart defenses in the half-court and finishes the fast breaks he starts with accurate and timely kicks. This type of playmaking improvement should vault Blake into the top tier of players in the league. There are no holes left in his game offensively, and he’s carrying an even greater load of the Clippers offense with a great deal of success thus far.
Yet Giffin, despite his insane averages of 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists over the past three seasons, hasn’t made an All-Star appearance during any of them. Partially that speaks to his injury prone nature these last couple of years, and partially to the depth of the Western Conference. It also screams volumes about the flaws of All-Star voting and why that’s a poor metric to rate improvements or successes.
Griffin has also removed himself from being the poster-boy of the NBA’s next generation after being a less-than-model citizen within the Clippers organization. The incident with the member of the training staff isn’t too far in the past, and he broke his hand out of frustration not too long ago either. There are still some fits of immaturity from Griffin, including this incredibly petty decision to run away from the play instead of take the ball from a rookie and be credited with a turnover for the 24-second violation:
I cannot get over this.
Blake Griffin waves off Jawun Evans twice when asked if he wants ball in final seconds
Jawun gets ready to pass to him anyway
BLAKE GRIFFIN RUNS AWAY!! 😂
Evans ends up passing L to teammate regardless pic.twitter.com/0okPbJjRA1
— Rob Perez (@World_Wide_Wob) December 30, 2017
The play and the statistics speak for themselves. Blake is still performing at an incredibly high caliber, and his offense alone is enough to give hope that he can carry the organization forward. As we know with today’s NBA landscape, teams need more than one star to make a title push, and while Griffin can sit comfortable in the lead chair, the Clippers still have some work to do in filling the voids that may exist in flanking Blake.
Regardless, these Clippers are fun with upstart and overlooked rookies, likable rotation guys like Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, and the point guard play of Milos Teodosic.
Just as a public service announcement… there may be no more exciting player to watch than Teodosic. He’s everything fans hoped Ricky Rubio would be a decade ago and shoots a sturdy 30 percent from three. Bending the ball like Beckham through tight windows that only he sees, Teodosic sets up his teammates for baskets in ways Chris Paul never did. He’s had a great deal of hit-aheads in transition that combine amazing court vision with a flair for the dramatic. The no-look hit aheads perfectly in stride are a delight:
Younger teams generally rely on transition and easy baskets to stay in games andm with a dwindled down roster due to injuries, those fast break buckets are more important than ever. He’s always been a maestro of the pick-and-roll, manipulating defenders to play him a certain way and delivering a gift-wrapped Spalding to dunkers’ hands or a shooter in their shot pocket. He and Jamil Wilson have already developed a chemistry on the pick-and-pop; Wilson is shooting 43 percent from three in his rookie campaign on roughly four attempts per game.
Teodosic is always a step ahead of the defense mentally, and even the most experienced basketball minds cannot explain how he does it. Watch this simple roll and replace action with Willie Reed and Blake Griffin that evolves around Teodosic. Blake’s defender, Rudy Gay, bumps into Reed on his roll. At the time of making the pass, Milos cannot see Gay or Reed, but anticipates that Rudy will fight to get around Reed and catch up to Griffin. He anticipates right and passes the ball to Reed before Gay disengages from him:
We’re at the point where we have a good deal of players who can read cross-court passes out of the pick-and-roll, but even fewer that deliver them on time and on target in the way Teodosic does. Plays like this may not go down as assists, but the scramble on the weak side is entirely created by his vision and instinct to pass the ball right away. Credit Sam Dekker, and many of the Clippers, who willingly make the extra pass and zip the ball around the perimeter before the defense can catch up:
Los Angeles is 8-3 in games in which Teodosic plays, buying the team time while Doc Rivers plugs inexperienced players into the lineup. Sindarius Thornwell, CJ Williams and Jamil Wilson have all performed above their head, and Milos has his hand in setting them up for easy baskets to help them do so. Rivers has been wise to play him with reserve units, allowing his magic to permeate through the offense while the starters load up on firepower.
Shout out to Austin Rivers and Lou Williams for both knocking down more than 40 percent of their treys, literally the only outside shooting to keep the Clippers offense properly spaced over these last few weeks. Williams has some stones too, taking (and making) some shots most wouldn’t have the gumption to. He’ll drive and shoot a floater one-on-three in the lane, or pull up from deep in transition during close games. Look at the time, score and other teammates running the floor here when he lets one fly:
Williams’ offense has been legitimately perfect for Los Angeles in the midst of their rash of injuries. They’ve need an irrational confidence guy to keep the offense going, and his 20 points per game are just what the doctor ordered. Before the ball dropped on Jan. 1, Lou Williams had scored or assisted on 28.7 percent of the Clippers points. That’s a larger share of their team’s offense than players like Jimmy Butler, LaMarcus Aldridge or Devin Booker have contributed.
Playing on an expiring contract, Williams has parlayed his skills into giving the Clippers the absolutely perfect asset moving forward. They can keep him through the season, retain him next year thanks to owning his Bird Rights, and keep a high-quality scorer in their backcourt. If they decide to tear down a bit this year, Williams will be a highly sought after trade acquisition, and his play may net the team a greater return than they expected.
That brings us to the biggest decision the Clippers have to make at the trade deadline revolving around DeAndre Jordan. It reminds me of an old debate about preemptive and preventive war. While the stakes are far less dangerous than those of violent destruction, the questions around reasons for trading Jordan are similar. Should the Clippers trade him as a way of preventing the team from losing him for nothing? Or are they trading him now to preempt a decision he might make to sign a long-term deal with the Clippers that hamstrings the organization?
In this case, Los Angeles has both situations to fear. Franchises that let their cornerstone players go for next to nothing have a difficult time recovering. With over $53 million tied up in Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari next season, the Clippers won’t have a ton of cap maneuverability to find a suitable replacement for Jordan if he does bolt.
But are the Clippers better served to have Jordan over the long-term? DeAndre will be 30 before the next season tips off, and as a long-time ironman in the league, he’s logged a great deal of milage during his 10-year career. Retaining Jordan at the cost of hamstringing the team’s efforts to add more star power or a more general overhaul is a frightening premise.
So what would the rationale be behind a Clippers potential trade? Are they trying to get the most out of Jordan before he bolts, or are they saving themselves from a situation where they reluctantly pay him and bog down their cap situation for years to come? Both would seem justified.
The unbelievably durable veteran might be a prime candidate for some teams looking to make a jump in the Eastern Conference and would do a lot to bolster a team like the Milwaukee Bucks or Washington Wizards.
The most likely option is the Clippers hang onto DeAndre and call Jordan’s bluff this summer. High-end centers face a dwindling market, and only a select few teams boast both the starting spot and cap space to chase him come July. Perhaps none can do so while offering an environment that is guaranteed to be as competitive as the one Jordan finds himself in now. It’s that realization that should submerge the front office’s urge to trade him, and ultimately why they should keep him through this trade deadline.
So what option is the best course of action for the Clips to take? Much of that will be gleamed through the next few weeks though, as the Gallinari-Jordan-Griffin frontcourt gets another shot to gel and perhaps propel this Clippers team to the cusp of the playoffs and, dare I say it, contention in a postseason series. Injuries rob many teams and players of opportunities – the Clippers are not strangers to that truth.
Now the opposite may prove to be true. The Clips are at home for 12 of their next 17 games and could surge a bit out West. Los Angeles may finally get healthy and play over their head, steering the front office away from a rebuild an convincing them DeAndre is worth re-signing. If they can’t complete an improbable turnaround and get themselves squarely back in the playoff race with the easy schedule they have, it’ll be a clear sign to tear down. Any positive play over these next few weeks complicate matters.
There’s no way to know which course really is best for the Clippers. The best we can do is hope they play well enough or poor enough to ensure there’s no second-guessing.
Somehow it seems unlikely fate will be that kind to the Clips.