Clippers, Pistons stake future on results of Griffin trade
DETROIT, MI - FEBRUARY 1: Blake Griffin #23 and Andre Drummond #0 of the Detroit Pistons head to the locker room after the game against the Memphis Grizzlies on February 1, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)
By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst
If you’re scared, buy a dog.
The Detroit Pistons and LA Clippers, for different reasons, went out on a ledge last Monday (last Tuesday, PHL time), then jumped, taking the proverbial leap of faith that what they’d just done would ultimately work out. But both, stuck in NBA limbo, are gambling -- gambling the jobs of those who worked out the deal, gambling the futures of the players that remain on their respective teams after.
The only person who was sitting pretty after it was all done was the centerpiece of the deal.
Blake Griffin will get the $140 million coming to him through 2022 regardless. Now it’s just coming out of Pistons owner Tom Gores’ pocket, rather than Steve Ballmer’s. (And, Griffin will have to have some clothes sent to Detroit. Other than that … he’s good.)
But for the Pistons, who got Griffin, Willie Reed, Brice Johnson and a second-round pick last Monday from the Clippers for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic and a 2018 first-round pick, the decision to bring in the extremely skilled yet oft-injured five-time All-Star, and to pick up his price tag, wasn’t a hard one at all.
“How many chances do you get to acquire elite level talent?,” Pistons Coach and President of Basketball Operations Stan Van Gundy said Sunday (Monday, PHL time) via text. “And how often would we be able to get that talent if there wasn’t some risk involved?”
Griffin has been laid low by significant injury in each of the last three regular seasons, and couldn’t finish either of the Clippers’ last two postseasons. Injuries have also cost him All-Star and Olympic team appearances the last few years.
In the NBA, there tend to be two types of guys when it comes to injuries: those that return from them in a few days, and those that return in a few weeks. Griffin has been the latter. It’s not his fault, any more than it’s someone’s fault when they develop an allergy to something. You don’t ask to break out in hives when you eat peanuts; Griffin isn’t looking to get hurt. It just happens.
But where were the Pistons going?
They had lost eight straight just before they made the deal, falling out of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Their great start the first fortnight of the season had been long forgotten. Reggie Jackson, their starting point guard, was hurt again and out for a long time with an ankle sprain.
Van Gundy reached the decision a couple of years ago that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to get free agents to sign with Detroit. So he brought Jackson in from Oklahoma City, Harris from Orlando and Marcus Morris from Phoenix. Griffin was a logical extension of that philosophy.
If he’d been a free agent in 2017 and it would have cost the Pistons Harris and Bradley to sign him, no one would have thought twice about it. He’s a superstar, and the Pistons, as much as they try to promote All-Star Andre Drummond, don’t have one.
“We’re serious about winning and we’re not afraid to make a bold move and seize the opportunity,” Gores said via e-mail Sunday night (Monday, PHL time). “Chances like this don’t come along very often. The move is not without risk and we gave up a lot to get him. We know that basketball is a game full of risk, but it was really clear that he is worth it.”
(They insist that they got Griffin for his talent alone, but the Pistons haven’t drawn well at all in their first year in their new building, Little Caesars Arena, which they share with the NHL’s Red Wings. Getting a high-flying, crowd-pleasing player like Griffin can’t possibly hurt with ticket and sponsorship sales. Detroit drew announced crowds of 17,841 in Griffin’s debut against the Memphis Grizzlies and 18,747 against the Miami Heat.)
People throughout the league had indicated just after the New Year that the Clippers were making Griffin available in potential trade scenarios. But this specific deal didn’t come to fruition until near the end of the month. And Gores didn’t hesitate when the proposed deal was put on his table.
“Don’t really want to get into internal discussions,” Van Gundy said, “but it didn’t take much selling. Tom was all for it.”
Said Gores: “I was involved from the beginning of the discussions. Once we realized this was a real deal, that it was a real opportunity, I told our guys we should get it done. Keep our young guys, keep some flexibility, but get it done.”
The Clippers had sold Griffin that he’d get his jersey retired in Staples Center someday, and that he’d be a Clipper for life, when they got him to sign a five-year, $173 million deal in July. Yes, Chris Paul was gone, but the team was going to build again around Griffin, just as it had after making him the first pick of the 2009 Draft.
That notion lasted about as long as Griffin did before spraining the MCL in his left knee just after Thanksgiving, costing him another month on the shelf.
That injury, coming so soon into the season, “scared the (bleep) out of Steve when it happened,” one league source said. Suddenly, Ballmer’s team wasn’t as tied to Griffin as it purported to be in the summer.
Those ties were coming loose even before Griffin’s injury. Ballmer had hired Hall of Famer Jerry West from the Golden State Warriors in June as a consultant, and at a not-inconsiderable cost. You don’t bring “The Logo” in to say ‘everything looks great here; carry on.’ And, changes were made quickly.
Doc Rivers lost his title as president of basketball operations last August, with Lawrence Frank taking over as the team’s chief decision maker, and L.A. hiring highly regarded Michael Winger from Oklahoma City to further bolster the front office as general manager.
The Clippers were heading toward a teardown anyway, and especially after suffering a rasher of injuries early in the season. They lost guard Patrick Beverley, who was supposed to take over for Paul at the point, for the season to a knee injury in November, and key acqusitions like forward Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic have each missed weeks of action with various injuries.
It left Los Angeles on the periphery of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, depending on G-League talents and players on two-way contracts to keep the Clippers afloat. So … why are we on the hook to Blake for 34 large for five years, again?
By getting Griffin off the books, at least the Clips would be able to take a real shot at the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and others who could be available in the summer of 2019. And that’s the world where Jerry West, like Bumpy Johnson in the Cotton Club, likes to dance.
“Let’s say the Clippers team would have made the playoffs,” West told host Suzy Shuster on the “Not Just Sports” podcast last week. “There’s no guarantee, because we’ve had so many injuries, period. There was no guarantee, even with Blake here, that we were going to make the playoffs. But I think the one thing that I would say to you and to everyone is, would you rather this Clipper team, the way it was presently constructed, let’s say play the Warriors (in the first round) and lose every game by 20, 25 points. That’s what was going to be. I don’t think anyone who’s competitive, and cares about winning, wants that. No one. And certainly not, our fans don’t.”
With Harris, just 25 and on a very good by today’s standards deal, along with a healthy Gallinari, Teodosic and Austin Rivers, the Clippers expect to at least be competitive for the next year, whether or not they keep or re-sign DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, or trade them by Thursday’s deadline. At least they hope so: “free agents don’t want to join a (bleep) team,” another source said. And, they expect the L.A. market to work for them in 2019.
It worked for Griffin, on and off the court. But not well enough to keep him in town.
The Pistons don’t care. All they know is their game with the Clippers this Friday (Saturday, PHL time) is suddenly on national television.
“More than a great basketball player, he’s a natural leader,” Gores e-mailed Sunday. “I spent several hours with him after we finished the deal. He has great character, believes in hard work and competing to the highest standard. He’s such a competitor, he wants to win, and you can see it in the way he plays.”
If Detroit was ebullient, the mood among Clippers folks as they heard the news last Monday was “terrible,” one source said. A team that had competed on the highest levels in the West for the last four seasons was suddenly back in the middle of the pack, betting on hope rather than what they actually had in the building. It was discomfiting. But it was reality.
“In this business,” West told Shuster, “the biggest risk takers do the best. Not the biggest gamblers. I don’t think we took a gamble. Period. And I think we’re gonna do just fine with what we have.”
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