Aldridge: Griffin alone couldn't elevate Clippers

NBA.com Global on Jan 30, 2018 01:02 PM
Aldridge: Griffin alone couldn't elevate Clippers
FILE - LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 4: Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers dunks the ball during the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on November 4, 2017 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

In a seismic trade Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), the Los Angeles Clippers abruptly ended their association with the team’s seminal franchise player, forward Blake Griffin, sending the five-time All-Star to the Detroit Pistons in a package for guard Avery Bradley, forward Tobias Harris, center Boban Marjanovic and a future first-round pick.

The Pistons will also get center Willie Reed and forward Brice Johnson in the deal.

Griffin, second on the Clippers’ all-time scoring list, was the highlight-reel road upon which the Clippers, long the far-behind second team in Los Angeles behind the Lakers, finally became relevant and a sustained winner. In a city that only responds to stars, Griffin became a superstar, with his ability to elevate and dunk giving the franchise a splashy nickname -- “Lob City” -- and a reason for locals to come out of pocket to watch them play.

Even after Chris Paul’s time with the Clippers ended, with Paul engineering a trade to Houston before last June’s Draft, the Clippers moved quickly to retain Griffin, giving him a five-year, $175 million max extension -- after showering him with video tributes and making up t-shirts that compared Griffin with the likes of Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, John F. Kennedy and Albert Einstein as part of their recruiting pitch.

Yet Griffin couldn’t resurrect the Clippers as a legit contender without Paul and other players like guard J.J. Redick, who left for Philadelphia last summer in free agency.

Only a game out of the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Clippers, according to sources, nonetheless felt they had overachieved, having to depend on player like C.J. Williams and Jawun Evans for big minutes and big roles throughout the season after a rash of injuries to players like Patrick Beverley (knee, lost for the season), Danilo Gallinari, Austin Rivers -- and, again, Griffin, who missed a month of the season with a sprained knee. And that latest injury, according to a source, was a red flag to Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, a huge Griffin fan.

As the season went on, the Clippers became convinced that they not only weren’t a real contender this season, but wouldn’t be next season as well with the current roster. So they were amenable when the Pistons came to them in the last couple of weeks with a proposed deal for Griffin.

Nonetheless, the mood Monday afternoon (Tuesday, PHL time) within the team was “terrible," according to a source.

The hope, according to sources, is that the Clippers will remain competitive under Coach Doc Rivers, with Harris and Bradley joining Gallinari, who should return to the lineup Tuesday (Wednesday, PHL time) after missing time with a glute injury. And moving Griffin’s max salary should allow the Clippers to be a player in free agency in the summer of 2019, with as much as $40 million in cap space possibly available.

Whether their current lineup going forward includes center DeAndre Jordan, who is going to opt out of the last year of his deal this summer and is seeking a huge payday, or guard Lou Williams, who’s had a renaissance in L.A. at 31 and is an unrestricted free agent this coming summer, remains uncertain. To stay competitive this year and next, one would think the Clippers have to re-sign at least one of Jordan or Williams, but getting flexibility in the next couple of years was one of the primary reasons the team made the deal for Griffin, so tying up funds in a big deal for Jordan doesn’t seem likely.

The first-round pick Detroit is sending the Clippers is protected for spots 1-4 in the Lottery in each of the next three years through 2020, but is unprotected in 2021.

Detroit had hit its own roadblock in the east. The Pistons were 19th in the league in home attendance this season, despite playing in a brand new building, Little Caesar’s Arena, that they shared with the NHL’s Red Wings and that served as a symbol of a re-emerging, new downtown Detroit. The Pistons have lost eight straight after a strong start to the season and are four games out of the loss column for the final playoff spot in the east.

This was not the direction that Coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy had expected after making a series of deals and giving out huge extensions in the last couple of years. Yet despite a $130 million extension for center Andre Drummond, an $80 million deal for point guard Reggie Jackson and engineering trades for Harris and Bradley, the Pistons were still floundering.

Detroit had been rumored to be in hot pursuit of Chicago forward Nikola Mirotic, whom the Bulls have had on the block since he got into a fight with teammate Bobby Portis. But the Pistons had a bigger prize in sight.

Harris was Detroit’s leading scorer this season (18.1 points per game) and most consistent three-point threat, shooting 41 percent behind the arc. Bradley had been a high-profile acquisition from Boston last summer, which received forward Marcus Morris in the deal. An unrestricted free agent at season’s end, the Pistons gambled that he’d play well and that they’d re-sign him, letting their incumbent two guard, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, go to the Lakers for nothing in free agency.

But Bradley has struggled -- more on twos than threes, actually -- shooting just 41 percent overall from the floor. As NBA.com’s John Schuhmann noted Monday (Tuesday, PHL time), Detroit is 3-17 in the last 20 games in which Bradley has played. ESPN reported earlier Monday (Tuesday, PHL time) that the Pistons, who still have high hopes for their first-round pick, guard Luke Kennard, had made Bradley available via trade.

So, Detroit was more than willing to gamble that the 28-year-old Griffin will stay healthy and productive enough to pay for his max contract.

The Clippers were painfully irrelevant when they took Griffin out of the University of Oklahoma with the first pick overall in the 2009 Draft. In a harbinger of his star-crossed turns to come, he missed what would have been his rookie season when he suffered a fractured left kneecap just before the start of the regular season.

But he returned with a vengeance in 2010, winning NBA Rookie of the Year honors and getting to the first of his five All-Star games, averaging 22.5 points and 12.1 rebounds. He became a wildly popular player, winning the 2011 Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star Weekend in L.A. by jumping over a car,  and a sought-after pitchman nationally.

Griffin had whole ad campaigns developed around his quirky personality, and developed his own comedy bits on his YouTube Channel and for the website Funny or Die. And his presence sold tickets, suites and other amenities for the Clippers at Staples Center, where their games soon began selling out more regularly than the Lakers.

And in 2011, the Clippers engineered a blockbuster trade for Paul -- who had originally been included in a deal from New Orleans to the Clippers’ L.A. rivals and behemoths, the Lakers.

But then-Commissioner David Stern, acting as the chief decision maker for the then-Hornets franchise after the NBA bought the team in 2010 to keep it in New Orleans until a permanent owner could be found, vetoed the proposed Paul trade to the Lakers. That allowed the Clippers to step in and get Paul, and promptly become a championship caliber team with the nine-time All-Star joining Griffin and an emerging star in the middle in Jordan.

The Clippers won at least 56 regular season games from 2012 through 2015. But they couldn’t break through in the postseason. Most egregiously, they blew a 3-1 lead to Houston in the Western Conference semifinals in 2015, losing that series in seven games after blowing a 19-point lead at home to the Rockets in Game 6, who won with the likes of Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry leading the rally rather than All-Star guard James Harden.

And through those years of promise, Griffin suffered through both injuries and poor choices of his own making.

He missed time with a staph infection in his elbow, and with a quad injury that hampered him throughout the 2015-16 season, culminating in a tear in Game 4 of the Clippers’ first-round series that year with Portland -- the same game in which Paul was lost for the postseason after breaking his hand. Last year, Griffin missed the final three games of the Clippers’ first-round loss to Utah with a plantar plate injury to his right big toe.

Most discouraging for Griffin was missing six weeks in 2016 after breaking his hand in a fight with his friend and a then-Clippers stafffer, Matias Testi, outside a restaurant in Toronto during a road trip. Griffin apologized to Testi, but the team didn’t retain Testi’s services.

Even after all that, though, the Clippers still were Griffin’s team, and he was still relevant in the City of Angels. That came to a sudden end Monday. “It was a (bleeping) hard decision,” one league source said Monday night (Tuesday, PHL time), but one that puts the franchise on a new course, its destination uncertain.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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