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Welcome to Trade Season: Making Sense of Blake Griffin’s Deal to Detroit The Pistons are going for it … and in their own way, so are the Clippers

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Just when it seemed like this year’s NBA trade deadline would be a quiet one, a blockbuster falls into our laps. The Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a conditional 2018 first-round pick (protected 1-4 through 2020, before it becomes unprotected in 2021), and a 2019 second-round draft pick. The Pistons will also receive big men Brice Johnson and Willie Reed.

The Clippers and Pistons have discussed the deal for at least one week, according to multiple league sources. A fan tweeted that Griffin yelled “Nine fucking years!”—i.e., how long he’d been with the franchise that drafted him no. 1 overall out of Oklahoma—while running to the locker room before a game on January 22, right around the time trade discussions got serious.

Talks escalated on Monday morning, Bradley’s name was leaked to the media, and now here we are. Griffin is with the Pistons, and Lob City is finally, officially, over.

There’s a lot to unpack. Here are some big takeaways for the Clippers, Pistons, and Griffin:

The Clippers Start Anew

The deal is stunning, but maybe we should’ve seen it coming. The Clippers started fielding calls for Griffin in 2016, after he punched a team equipment manager. That summer, Doc Rivers (then operating as both the head coach and lead front-office decision maker) had casual trade conversations with the Celtics that would’ve sent Griffin to Boston for Bradley and/or Jae Crowder, one of the Nets picks, and more assets, according to league sources. Last season, the Knicks reached out to the Clippers, and Rivers listened. This season, the Clippers (hilariously) offered Griffin for Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s a good reminder going forward: General managers can deny rumors, dish out huge contracts, dub players “lifelong” members of a franchise, but fans should take it all with a grain of salt. The rumors spoke loudly about the team’s true intentions, and with a retooled front office now in place—with Lawrence Frank as vice president and Jerry West running things—the Clippers finally had the guts to make the long-overdue decision to blow it up.

Even though the Clippers dealt their superstar, they aren’t tanking. Harris, 25, is a versatile scorer having the best season of his career. Bradley, 27, is one of the NBA’s best guard defenders in the playoffs. The Clippers get younger (and maybe even better), allowing the team to stay competitive and maintain their postseason push. Most importantly, they gain what could become a valuable draft pick and cap flexibility. While Griffin signed a five-year $171 million contract last summer; Harris and Marjanovic have only one one season left on their deals (worth a combined $21 million); and Bradley’s deal is expiring. With less money on the books, they have the ability to get creative moving forward.

The Clippers aren’t bottoming out, but as one general manager told me, they are “starting over.” According to multiple league sources, the Clippers are angling to create cap space to pursue one, possibly two, max-contract players this summer or next. As it stands, they have only $48.9 million in guaranteed contracts for the 2018-19 season, though multiple players’ options and one non-guaranteed deal can bring that total up to $104 million. To free up more space, the team could make a few more moves before the deadline. League sources indicate the Clippers are still pursuing deals involving DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams. Packaging an unsavory contract (e.g., Austin Rivers or Danilo Gallinari) along with Williams’s bargain of an expiring deal could be a possibility.

Paul George grew up just outside of Los Angeles and could conceivably have interest in going home—though the sense around the league is that he’ll re-up in Oklahoma City. DeMarcus Cousins, despite rupturing his Achilles, could still have appeal to Los Angeles. (One source told me the Clippers and Kings once discussed swapping Griffin for Cousins.) And if West is feeling especially ballsy, there’s always LeBron. The 2018 offseason might be a wash, but there will be enticing options in 2019 and beyond.

Signing big-time free agents is a fantasy for most franchises, but that’s OK. The point of the trade for the Clippers was to maintain a competitive roster while increasing cap flexibility—two tenets of winning sports organizations. No matter how much it might hurt to lose Griffin, the Clippers accomplished a lot with this deal. Whether the stars align in their favor or not, the team now has the ability to pursue opportunities in the market that they never would have dreamed of having access to with Griffin under contract.

The Stan Van Gundy Heat Check

Acquiring Griffin is a desperation move by Pistons president and head coach Stan Van Gundy, who, as I reported this week, is currently under immense pressure to win and make the playoffs. The Pistons are 22-26, three games back from eighth in the East, and they are carrying a $117 million payroll. Griffin’s injury history list is longer than the entire Harry Potter series, and he signed a monster five-year contract last summer. In 2021-22, when he’ll be 32, he’ll earn $39 million; by then, his contract could rival some of the worst contracts in league history. But Van Gundy had to take a big swing to try to make this work.

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Griffin is a versatile defender, an elite rebounder, has added a 3-point shot to his arsenal, and is one of the game’s most dynamic big-man playmakers. It’s fun to imagine Van Gundy unleashing Griffin’s passing ability by having him run more pick-and-roll, something Rivers was reluctant to do. Perhaps we’ll see a new, better version of Griffin in Detroit.

The problem is that he’s a player whose primary skills are reliant on vertical and lateral explosiveness, and his athleticism is declining. Griffin is dunking less, jumping lower, and finishing at a lower rate around the rim. It might only be a matter of time until Griffin looks more like prime David Lee than prime Blake Griffin. And that’s scary.

The Pistons might not be done making moves. Multiple sources indicate that they are after Jazz guard Rodney Hood and could send out forward Stanley Johnson. Hood is another injury-prone player, but these are the types of calculated risks Van Gundy needs to take to save his job. Griffin obviously offers higher upside than both Bradley and Harris, but his arrival suggests short-term rather than long-term planning.

Can Blake Make the Best of His Situation?

Ah, Detroit. The Midwest city certainly has its charms and a rich pro basketball history, but it’s far from being a pop culture and media epicenter. Make no mistake, those things matter to Griffin. The part-time comedian/full-time NBA player called it a “no-brainer” to re-sign with the Clippers last summer and said that the decision was about more than just money: It was about lifestyle and Griffin’s aspirations outside the game.

The deal is a reminder, once again, that loyalty doesn’t exist in sports. Last summer, the Clippers wooed Griffin into re-upping with the franchise by staging a mock jersey-retirement ceremony at the Staples Center. Now he’s moving to Detroit. Griffin has a sense of humor, and reacted to the deal with a Will Smith GIF, but I doubt he was laughing when he heard about the deal. Last summer, he had his choice of where to go. Now, the Clippers made that choice for him.

How he responds to the move will be a defining moment for his career. If he takes the deal as motivation and powers the Pistons into the playoffs, he could write a new chapter for himself. If he sulks his way through the season and clashes with Van Gundy, we’ll think of Blake as the ultimate could-have-been talent, hampered by injuries and rotten situations. It wasn’t Blake’s call to get traded, but it’s up to him to make the best of it.

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