The final chapter on seven years of super-mediocrity in Los Angeles has been written at last. On Monday, the Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Detroit 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. As part of the deal, big men Brice Johnson and Willie Reed are also being sent to Detroit.
Even though the Clippers dealt their superstar, they aren’t tanking – not exactly. 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 its 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 season left on their deals (worth a combined $21 million), and Bradley’s deal is expiring. With less money on the books, the Clippers have the ability to get creative moving forward.
The Clippers aren’t bottoming out so much as they’re “starting over.” The Clippers are clearly working to create cap space to pursue one or 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 nonguaranteed 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. It sounds like the Clippers are still pursuing deals involving DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams. Packaging a burdensome contract (e.g., Austin Rivers or Danilo Gallinari) along with Williams’s bargain of an expiring deal is a possibility as well.
The irony of the trade for the Clippers is that the franchise is now in a much better position to rebuild than they would have found themselves had they simply let Griffin and Paul walk last summer. Thanks to the first-round picks and low-risk contracts they took in return for the trades that sent Paul to Houston and Griffin to Detroit, L.A. finally has some assets sitting in its warchest that could help the franchise rebuild. But is rebuilding the right answer for L.A.? How long is considered “long enough” for a team running back the same core group of players year after year before it feels like the team and its fans are just banging their heads against the proverbial wall? Could a case have been made for keeping Griffin and Jordan and continuing to fight for a playoff spot in the 5-8 range?
Flash-back to last June for a second. The Clippers were coming off a string of disappointing first and second-round playoff exits that, understandably so, had been gradually taking their toll on a locker room that featured Chris Paul – arguably one of the league’s most hyper-competitive players. So you blow it all up when it doesn’t work out like you had planned, right?
Do you have any idea how many franchises would kill to be perennial 50-game winners and bow out unceremoniously in the second round each year? How much do you think Knicks fans would pay to see Lob City instead of the current festering corpses that are Jarrett Jack and Joachim Noah?
It’s no secret that rebuilding in the NBA is difficult. The draft is far from a sure thing. Big name free agents want to go where they can win. And if you’re a middling franchise in a lesser market like Charlotte or Detroit, the best you can really do is over-pay the fringe mid-tier players like Nic Batum or Reggie Jackson just so you can keep fans coming in and meet the salary floor.
So if rebuilding is so difficult, why are so many teams in the business of blowing it all up? The 76ers just put their fans through five years-worth of a mostly unwatchable dumpster fire and for what? A 24-23 record and an 8-seed? It’s not easy, it’s not guaranteed to work, and there’s no telling how long rebuilding from scratch will take. How excited do you think Bulls fans are right now? Sure, playing second fiddle to LeBron for years in the East must have been frustrating, but be sure to ask the next Chicagoan you see how they are enjoying Jimmy Butler-less basketball (also known as the Kris Dunn/Lauri Markkanen era).
Signing big-time free agents is a fantasy for most franchises, and 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 it never would have dreamed of having access to when it still had Griffin under contract.
But there’s no guarantee that L.A. will reach peak Paul/Griffin/Jordan/Redick 2015-era Clippers over the next 5-years – in fact, it’s more than likely that they won’t. They’ll deal Jordan and Williams to contenders for what will become late first-round draft picks. Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley will pursue long-term offers elsewhere once their contracts expire next summer. If L.A. is lucky, they’ll connect on maybe one of the first-round picks they’ve been accumulating since last summer?
The point is that there are no guarantees in the NBA. Not everyone should aspire to be the Warriors. And more importantly, just because your franchise can’t compete with Golden State right now doesn’t mean you have to burn it all down in order to build it back up. Sometimes, sustained mediocrity isn’t the worst thing for an NBA franchise. Don’t believe me? Just ask Clipper fans in three years.