This Blake Griffin trade might be a trap for 'super-mediocrity'

ByZach Lowe ESPN logo
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Blake Griffin is an exquisitely skilled player in his prime. When you read that the LA Clippers traded him for (mainly) a lightly protected first-round pick and a younger power forward they might have some interest in re-signing in July 2019, your reaction was probably: That's it? That's all they get for Blake freaking Griffin?

And if the Clippers don't re-signAvery Bradley this summer orTobias Harris in two summers, then they flipped Griffin -- the greatest homegrown player in the franchise's (mostly pathetic) modern history -- for one first-round pick and one second-rounder.

But right now, this is probably the very best deal the Clippers could have gotten for Griffin. He is in the first year of an absolutely ginormous five-year contract that will pay him about $35 million per season -- and almost $39 million in 2020-21. He has a scary injury history. The Detroit Pistons could end up paying Griffin and Andre Drummond almost $70 million combined that season. Considering they have literally zero bankable long-term talent around them, and fewer avenues to find any after this trade, that scenario doesn't seem great.

The Clippers saw their own version of that hard ceiling, and bailed out -- kicking off a potential rebuild that could go in a bunch of different directions.

The Pistons got the best player in this trade. Griffin has played his entire NBA career with a Drummond-esque rim-running center, though Drummond is a way better passer (and worse defender) than DeAndre Jordan. They can fit. But Detroit risks paying a ton of money to mimic the Chris Paul-Griffin-Jordan triptych, though with Reggie Jackson in the role of Chris Paul. Gulp. There is more to this for Detroit -- we'll get there -- but it is almost impossible to see any path to anything above a kind of "super-mediocrity" topping out around 50 wins.

And it's important to remember: maybe super-mediocrity, with multiple playoff appearances in the middle of the Eastern Conference, is OK for the Pistons. They have obviously considered that endgame. They are struggling to fill a new arena, at risk of missing the playoffs for a second straight season. Being the Joe Johnson-era Hawks might be a great outcome for them.

For the Clippers, it's tempting to compare this deal to the trades for Paul George and Jimmy Butler over the summer. The Bulls got more for Butler, and that was clear at the time, before Kris Dunn blossomed and Lauri Markkanen started cramming all over fools. The Pacers probably got more for George on an expiring contract, though no one -- not even the Pacers -- knew it then. Butler and George are barely younger than Griffin, who turns 29 in March. So the Clippers sold low on Griffin, right?

Not really. That contract is locked in. A lot of Griffin's injuries have been flukes, but flukes add up as a player ages. Recurring knee issues preceded some of those flukes. Griffin's athleticism has already declined some.

Griffin is a power forward who can't protect the rim, and only began really shooting 3s this season. Without that 3-pointer, he's an antique in the modern NBA -- a casualty of math. George and Butler are multi-positional wings who can shoot, pass and defend at a high level. They are the modern NBA. The Griffin trade almost reminds less of those deals, and more of the Hawks foisting Joe Johnson's albatross on the Nets in return for draft assets (and a bunch of players the Hawks didn't care about).

That's not fair to Griffin. He's better now than Johnson was then, and almost three years younger. But the downside risk for Detroit is similar to what happened with Johnson in Brooklyn.

There just wasn't a lot of demand for Griffin, according to sources around the league. Some good teams with big dreams were turned off by his contract. Most good teams are already too expensive to absorb it without sending out their best or second-best players.

The half-dozen or so worst teams are so far away from contention that flipping their best picks and young players for an almost 29-year-old doesn't make any sense. The Lakers loom as a possible exception, only because they have clear and immediate free agency ambitions. We all know they need cap space to sign two max-level free agents, and Griffin would obviously cannibalize that. But there has long been another avenue: Get one star in the door now, and use him as bait for the second.

The Lakers even have Brook Lopez's $22 million expiring contract to help match salaries. But they don't appear to have taken a serious look at Griffin, per league sources. Maybe it wouldn't have been workable; the Lakers already traded their 2018 first-round pick.

The veteran max contract, worth 35 percent of the salary cap, is one of the trickiest pieces to move -- and one of the most potentially damaging contract types in the league. It is a massive commitment that takes players beyond their primes. The Bulls and Kings traded Butler and DeMarcus Cousins to avoid dealing with it. We all celebrated when the Wizards inked John Wall to a deal that will start at that level in 2019-20. How will we feel when Wall is making $44 million in 2021-22 -- when he's going on 32?

It took a franchise like Detroit: middling, desperate to win, desperate for relevance, content with being a pretty good playoff team as long as Griffin and Drummond stay together.

The Clippers could have gotten more for Griffin at times before last season, but teams rarely get to control the timing of superstar trades. Griffin's trade value probably crested in the 2015-16 season, when he still had that season and one more on his prior contract. The Clippers spent a lot of that season winning without him, as they usually did provided Paul and Jordan were also healthy, and thought about trading him then.

But he spent most of that season, including the months before and after the trade deadline, injured after punching a Clippers staffer. Before that season, the Clippers were too good to consider trading him. After it, he became an expiring contract, deflating his trade value. Now, he's on a mega-deal. The Clippers decided not to risk the possibility that general decline or another injury eroded his value going forward.

A word on loyalty: The Clippers went out of their way to label Griffin a "Clipper for life." As I first revealed here, the preamble to their free agency pitch meeting involved walking Griffin through a makeshift museum of his life and then retiring his number -- literally raising it to the rafters as music played in an empty Staples Center -- in a staged "ceremony." (They obviously took the banner down and stored it somewhere.)

Five months later, he's gone without a say. Look, teams and players say stuff all the time just to say it, because they need to say the right thing at the right moment. But the Clippers went the extra mile with the "for life" line. (They have said the same about Jordan, by the way. Stay tuned on that.) They could have just said, "We love Blake and we're thrilled he's back." They didn't have to make a big show about Griffin being a lifelong Clipper. This will cost them a little credibility in the very, very short-term, but those stains rarely stick. Everyone knows this is a business. But the "for life" declarations seemed over the top then, and almost absurd now.

Regardless, this is a good deal for the Clippers. The pick from Detroit is top-four protected. I'd still bet on Detroit missing the playoffs this season -- they are four games back in the loss column, a big margin at the 50-game mark -- so the Clippers have a good shot at snagging a lottery pick.

They are just so far behind in starting a proper rebuild, having gagged away first-round picks in laughable deals involving Jeff Green (coming in) and Jared Dudley (going out). They snared one from Houston in the Paul trade, but flipped it almost instantly to the Hawks so that they could offload Jamal Crawford's deal -- and sign Danilo Gallinari. That move makes much less sense today.

I'm not sure this trade makes it any more likely they deal Jordan and Lou Williams, by the way. The Clippers are happy to get off Griffin's contract and recoup a good draft pick in a vacuum. They are still going to take and make offers on Jordan and Williams, and hold out for something good. But there is no more urgency to deal them now then there was 48 hours ago, per league sources.

The Clippers can also flip Bradley for another pick, as long as they don't attach other salaries with him. If they re-sign Jordan and let Bradley and Harris walk, they could still be major players for one superstar free agent in 2019 and 2020. If they don't re-sign any of them, they could get in the game for two. The Clippers, under Steve Ballmer, are confident they can be a free-agent destination. Bad teams are rarely free-agent destinations. The Lakers are on a four-summer losing streak.

Harris can help with that. He's still just 25, and he gets a little better every season. The Clippers won't be able to open cap space in the summer of 2019 if Jordan, Gallinari and Harris are all still on their books -- let alone Bradley. But there are always ways to move money in a pinch if they emerge as any kind of destination. (The Clippers surely hope to pitch/beg LeBron this summer, even though they still aren't slated -- at least as of this moment -- to have nearly enough cap room for him.)

The Pistons are not a destination under any circumstance. That's why they made this deal, and almost every deal of the Stan Van Gundy regime. Bradley was out the door once they faded from playoff contention. They faced the possibility of paying Harris big money after next season. They could have let both walk and freed up cap space, but that space has less value to the Pistons than it does for at least 20 of 30 NBA teams.

Through that lens, Detroit traded a first-round pick and some cap space that wouldn't net anything better for a star. They are starved for playmaking with Jackson out, and they acquired one of the greatest passing big men ever. Drummond is dishing about four assists per 36 minutes -- a monster number for a center. They will work some big-to-big magic in the half court. Griffin will catch the ball on the move at the foul line, spot Drummond's defender inching up to help, and toss soft lobs -- the same dance he mastered with Jordan to the point that he could (almost literally) go through it with his eyes closed.

Griffin will bring the ball up after rebounds, adding a needed dash of unpredictability. Detroit will run some funky Griffin-Drummond pick-and-rolls. They'll play Griffin at center so they don't have to play Eric Moreland. A Griffin-Jon Leuer frontcourt could be interesting against opposing backups, once Leuer gets healthy.

Drummond and Griffin are very good players. They are probably not good enough in the aggregate to justify between $60-70 million in salary. Drummond is a borderline All-Star in the East. Griffin would not have made it this season in the West even had he stayed healthy. Building a top-10 defense around them will be a challenge.

The talent flanking them is uninspiring. The Pistons are starting their own new project from behind. They drafted Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard instead of Devin Booker and Donovan Mitchell. That's not a purely hypothetical what-if, either; they debated between Booker and Johnson almost up until their pick in 2015, according to league sources.

They have $28 million in combined 2018-19 salary invested in Leuer, Langston Galloway, Ish Smith and Josh Smith. (Yes, that Josh Smith. He hasn't played for the Pistons since December 2014, but they are paying him $5.3 million per season through 2019-20 anyway.)

Jackson looked close to peak physical form again this season before suffering an ankle injury, but even at his apex, he's a league-average starting point guard. At 85 percent of his apex, he's a little worse than that. They likely won't have a pick in this year's draft.

Johnson has untapped potential -- I'd buy low -- and Kennard is a heady sort already shooting 43 percent from deep. Reggie Bullock is a useful backup, though he was overmatched as a starter while Bradley was injured.

All of those guys will get better, as young guys do. Detroit needs one of them to get really good, because it's unclear how else they are going to come close to putting enough perimeter talent around Griffin and Drummond. You can paper over only so much by running the offense through two great big man passers picking out cutters from the elbows.

Griffin's journey beyond the arc likely buoyed the Pistons in envisioning his fit with Drummond. Griffin deserves a ton of credit for hitting 34 percent from deep on almost six attempts per game -- by far a career high in attempts. If he stays healthy, he will have launched more 3s this season than he did in all his prior seasons combined.

Some defenders even rush to close out on him now, which unlocks Griffin's lethal pump-and-drive game.

But that evolution still feels almost unnatural -- like it runs against what Griffin really is and should be (and would be in another universe). He needs time and space to release his jumper; defenders still drop away from him to clog the paint, and sometimes recover in time to deter him from shooting. And 34 percent, a tidy and encouraging mark, is still a hair below league average. Van Gundy can't just roll the ball out and run spread pick-and-rolls. The Pistons won't have enough spread.

Griffin made all of those changes to accommodate Jordan. He was a square peg who jammed himself into a round hole so hard he got stuck halfway deep.

He'll have to do it again now. He is good enough to do it -- a legit star. This is high-wattage news. It could also trap both teams in long-term mediocrity.

Related Video