By Bryan Toporek
Six-and-a-half months ago, the Los Angeles Clippers went all-out to re-sign Blake Griffin. They held a mock jersey retirement in his honor, according to ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe, before getting him to put pen to paper on a five-year, $171 million maximum contract.
On Monday, they shipped Griffin to the Detroit Pistons along with Brice Johnson and Willie Reed for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 second-rounder, per ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
Kevin Durant’s “ain’t no such thing” comment about loyalty in the NBA suddenly sounds more prescient than ever.
In theory, the decision to trade Griffin sends the clearest signal yet of the Clippers’ intention to begin a full-scale rebuild. However, L.A. fans may want to pump the brakes before starting their own “Trust the Process!” chants, as the franchise still appears to be waffling on its future direction.
Once Chris Paul left the Clippers this offseason, they attempted to stay afloat by re-upping Griffin and handing oft-injured forward Danilo Gallinari a three-year, $64.8 million deal. Both decisions backfired almost immediately. Griffin sprained his left MCL in late November and missed a month of action, during which the Clippers plunged in the Western Conference standings. Gallinari, meanwhile, has played only 11 games this season due to a lingering glute injury, and he’s shooting a career-worst 34.5 percent from the floor in those outings.
When Griffin went down with his knee injury, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times opined it was “time for them to crater their club with TNT,” aka “Trade ‘N’ Tank.” He suggested DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams could each likely fetch first-round picks on the trade market, while shipping both out would help boost the Clippers’ chances of landing a high lottery pick of their own.
According to Wojnarowski, however, the Clippers have no interest in embracing an all-out tank in the wake of their Griffin trade.
For Clippers, three objectives with the trade were these: Stay competitive on the floor (two starters, Harris and Bradley). Get young players/draft picks and create some payroll flexibility. Organization isn't interested in bottoming out and tanking.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 30, 2018
Clippers will continue to discuss contracts extensions at the right price, while engaging teams in trade talks on DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams. They'll try to do a hard thing in the NBA: Rebuild on the fly with younger players/picks, without gutting roster. https://t.co/YyuXMFR9Mg
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 30, 2018
In Harris and Bradley, L.A. did potentially acquire enough talent to stay afloat in the Western Conference playoff race, particularly with the New Orleans Pelicans looking vulnerable after DeMarcus Cousins’ season-ending injury. Harris averaged a career-high 18.1 points per game with Detroit this year, while Bradley was widely regarded as one of the league’s better 2-guards prior to his dismal performance this season. If the Clippers stand pat with Williams and Jordan, they’ll put pressure on the Pelicans, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers to seek out upgrades heading into the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline.
There isn’t much sense in the Clippers dipping one toe into the rebuilding waters, though.
Williams will be an unrestricted free agent in July, and Jordan can join him if he declines his $24.1 million player option. Even if Jordan, Austin Rivers, Milos Teodosic and Wesley Johnson all decline their player options, the Clippers already have nearly $50 million in guaranteed salary on their books for the 2018-19 season, and that isn’t counting Patrick Beverley’s nonguaranteed $5.0 million. Unless they’re able to find a taker for the two years and roughly $44 million remaining on Gallinari’s contract, they may be limited in their ability to make upgrades in free agency.
Flipping Williams and/or Jordan for draft picks and young prospects would drive the final nail in L.A.’s playoff chances this season, but that may be a necessary evil to help restore the long-term future of the franchise.
The Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets successfully juggled the rebuild-without-tanking model in recent years, but both relied on years of asset accumulation to strike at the right moments. The Clippers, meanwhile, have pissed away first-round picks left and right over the past few seasons, leaving them woefully short of promising young talent with which to build around.
Paul’s decision to accept his 2017-18 player option—thus enabling the Clippers to trade him to the Houston Rockets for Williams, Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, a top-three-protected 2018 first-round pick and salary filler—helped give L.A. a few complementary young pieces, but neither Dekker or Harrell profile as franchise cornerstones. Barring an unexpected collapse, the Pistons will convey a late lottery pick to the Clippers this season, where it’s far more rare to find difference-makers compared to the top of the first round. And as is tradition, the Clippers promptly flipped that top-three-protected Houston first-rounder to Atlanta to free up the cap space they needed to sign Gallinari this past offseason.
As of now, that leaves the Clippers with two likely mid-first-rounders and exactly zero young prospects who look like long-term building blocks. The 27-year-old Bradley will be an unrestricted free agent this July, while the 25-year-old Harris will hit the free-agent market next summer. There’s a non-zero chance the Clippers will wind up netting a few short-term rentals and a mid-first- and second-round pick for one of their best players in franchise history.
So long as L.A. remains patient and avoids panic moves to accelerate its retooling timetable, that’s OK.
The salary-cap flexibility the Clippers carved out with this deal cannot be overstated. They no longer have to worry about allocating 60 percent or more of their cap space to a throwback frontcourt that stood little chance of ever dethroning the Golden State Warriors. That isn’t to say they’ll suddenly become a destination for marquee free agents—their LeBron James pipedream should die a swift and painful death—but they’ll have the ability to pivot directions at a moment’s notice since they won’t be locked into the Griffin-Jordan duo.
Say, for instance, Jordan declines his player option and L.A. decides not to re-sign him. It could instead turn its eyes to a far cheaper alternative on the free-agent market such as Nerlens Noel, who better fits a developmental timeline of a squad looking to make its mark a few years down the line. In turn, the Clippers could use their available cap space as a conduit for salary dumps, giving them additional swings at future draft picks or young prospects who haven’t panned out as anticipated.
Cap flexibility tends to get fetishized in the NBA, as the promise it carries rarely lines up with the outcomes. When a cap-flush team strikes out on its top-tier free-agent targets, it often winds up overpaying middling players and regretting that decision for years to come. (See: Just about every non-Warriors team that made big moves in the summer of 2016.)
The Clippers don’t have to go full Sam Hinkie and field multiple years’ worth of G League-caliber rosters, but they’d be wise to continue shopping Williams and Jordan given their respective contract statuses. L.A. sorely needs to replenish its young talent pipeline, even if it comes at the expense of a late-season playoff push. Finding a new franchise cornerstone either via the draft or a trade should be the Clippers’ top priority from now until July 1, as they can’t begin retooling their roster in earnest until they have such a player.
The Clippers’ Big Three era—the most successful period in franchise history by far—began when they drafted Griffin with the No. 1 overall pick in 2009. Without Griffin, the Clippers never would have soared to the heights they reached in the mid-2010s.
Considering his age, injury history and contract, the Clippers correctly concluded Griffin wasn’t capable of carrying this team any further. Though this trade was an anticlimactic end to his nearly decade-long tenure in L.A., the franchise removed emotion from its decision-making and recognized its best path forward was without him.
Nailing what comes next is the tricky part.