With a little more than a week to go before the trade deadline, we’ve likely already seen the best player to switch teams this season.
In a move that few saw coming, the Los Angeles Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, a 2018 first-round pick (protected 1-4 through 2020, unprotected in 2021) and a 2019 second-round pick. Detroit also receive Brice Johnson and Willie Reed from Los Angeles.
The transaction has positive and negative aspects for each side, which makes it a difficult trade to judge through a binary lens – at least in the immediate aftermath.
Let’s parse the move to make sense of it for both franchises.
End of Lob City
In the span of seven months, the Clippers have lost the two best, and most iconic, players in the team’s history, with Chris Paul traded to Houston in the summer and now Griffin shipped to Detroit.
It feels like just yesterday when Paul was tossing alleys to Griffin and the Clippers were the most entreating basketball show in Los Angeles. But things can change in the blink of an eye in the NBA and the Clippers are now primed for a new era.
There’s zero doubt that LA are surrendering the best player in the deal, with Griffin’s star power, talent and production unmatched by any player in Detroit’s package. And unlike past stars who were traded because they were considered flight risks, Griffin is locked into a five-year, $171 million (Dh628m) contract he just signed this past July.
That contract, however, is what ultimately spooked the Clippers as they quickly realised this season their ceiling for the future. The silver lining in Paul’s departure was Griffin taking on more playmaking responsibility and while he’s averaging a career-high in assists (5.4), his game – outside of his 3-point shooting – hasn’t expanded to the extent that the Clippers likely envisioned.
Griffin hasn’t been good enough to be an All-Star in the Western Conference this season and it’s hard to have $171m owed to a great, but not top player. Especially when it looks like your team is going to be no better than a fringe playoff contender for the foreseeable future.
Which is why the Clippers decided to pivot. Not only do they get out of Griffin’s contract, they also picked up a potential lottery pick, a young, smooth-stroking small-ball four in Harris and an expiring contract in Bradley, whose $8.8m (Dh32.3m) will come off the books in the summer.
Bradley can be rerouted for another pick, giving the Clippers another tradeable asset to go with Lou Williams and DeAndre Jordan.
Ultimately, the Clippers made the trade with future cap space to chase bigger fish in mind and by shedding Griffin, that dream becomes a more feasible reality.
The Clippers gave Blake Griffin a crazy-elaborate free agent pitch, even mock-retiring his jersey to the rafters...six months later he's shipped off to Detroit, a team he'd never have even taken a meeting with. Expect every big free agent this summer to demand a no-trade clause.— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) January 30, 2018
Pistons get their star
Before unpacking all the other factors involved, let’s acknowledge that Detroit got a star, in his prime, and locked into a long-term contract. Those types of players are hard to find and often harder to keep, especially if you’re a middling team that is far from being a free agent destination, like the Pistons are.
It came at a cost, of course, but the price becomes more palatable when you consider that Bradley was all but gone in free agency this summer and Harris will command big money when his current contract ends in 2019. Essentially, Detroit paid a fringe lottery pick to upgrade from a good player in Harris, to a great player in Griffin, with the assurance that they can benefit from the upsize for the coming years.
Griffin and Andre Drummond should work well together, not too dissimilar to the Griffin-Jordan pairing in LA. What Griffin loses in rim protection in going from Jordan to Drummond, he gains in playmaking as two of the best passing big men in the league join forces.
The problem, however, is there’s little else surrounding those two right now. Reggie Jackson, at his best, is an average point guard, while the rest of the roster leaves a lot to be desired in terms of depth and talent.
This move may end up locking the Pistons into the dreaded no man’s land as something more than a good team and something less than a contender, but even before this trade, there were few avenues at a bright future for Detroit.
Acquiring Griffin at least shakes up their landscape and gives them someone to attempt to build around.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the Eastern Conference team most capable of giving the Golden State Warriors a run for their money isn’t the one with the world’s best player.
Styles make fights and in the Boston Celtics, the Warriors have an adversary worthy of pushing them in the NBA Finals and in turn, delivering an entertaining series.
Boston don’t have LeBron James and their arsenal may not be as loaded as other contenders, but they challenge the defending champions in ways few teams can.
Even though the Celtics couldn’t pull off a second victory in as many chances this season against Golden State, falling short in a 109-105 loss on Sunday, they proved two things that should excite all NBA fans: Boston pose a threat to the Warriors dynasty, and even if they can’t topple the league rulers in June, the potential for a fun, competitive Finals would be high if the teams were to meet.
All of that is true in a vacuum, but when you put it in the context of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ downward spiral, it becomes clear that the NBA needs a Warriors-Celtics Finals.
We already saw how the Cavaliers fare in a series against this iteration of the Warriors last summer, when they were little more than sacrificial lambs. And what’s been made obvious this season is that Cleveland have only gotten worse since, through a combination of personnel changes and the inexplicable decline of key players.
When you have LeBron, you always have a chance. But to test the greatest team maybe ever assembled, you need a collective effort and these Cavaliers, at least right now, are very much a one-man army. Unless they get their act together or make a significant move before the trade deadline, no one outside of Ohio should be rooting for the fourth chapter of a Finals rematch that has become all too stale.
The Celtics, on the other hand, are in many ways the antithesis of Cleveland: fresh, young, defensively-minded and greater than the sum of their parts. And most importantly, they’ve shown this season that they can give the Warriors a hard time.
Both meetings between the sides have been decided by four points and each time Boston have done well to control the pace of the game, turning them into rock fights rather than allowing the free-flowing style Golden State prefer.
The Celtics boast the top defence in the league with exactly 100 points allowed per 100 possessions, so it’s not as if the ability they’ve shown to counter the Warriors has been a fluke. They possess length, athleticism and a penchant for playing hard all the time.
But all of that would be wasted if not for the brilliance of Kyrie Irving on the other side of the floor.
No player on Boston evens the playing field against the Warriors more than Irving, who – as he showed on Sunday – can carry the offence and get buckets when his team need it the most.
Irving was unconscious in a losing effort, hitting 13-of-18 shots to score 37 points with what looked like ease. If not for Stephen Curry’s equally amazing performance in which he dropped 49 points, including 13 over the final 1:42, Irving would have added another signature moment at Oracle Arena.
“We try to bring the best out of each other and tonight, was kind of one of those nights,” Curry said of his duel with Irving. “Just a fun way to play.”
Other Warriors players were just as complimentary of Irving and the Celtics, sounding almost excited at the thought of seeing them again in the Finals for the opportunity to get a real challenge.
Of course, the playoffs, as the Celtics have learned the past few years, are a different animal and Boston may not even be the most well-rounded team in the East – hello, Toronto – but there’s no doubt at this point what Finals match-up would be best for practically everyone.
The show put on by Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving on Sunday, when they combined for 86 points in the Golden State Warriors’ 109-105 win over the Boston Celtics, brought back memories of some of the greatest guard duels in NBA history.
Isaiah Thomas v John Wall, 2017
Thomas etched his name in Boston Celtics lore when he scored 53 points to beat the Washington Wizards 129-119 in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last year, hot on the heels of losing his sister to a fatal car crash and one of his front teeth.
His performance was made more impressive by the fact he had to out-duel Wall, who had 40 points himself in a thrilling overtime result.
Chris Paul v Steve Nash, 2008
It took two overtime periods for Paul’s New Orleans Hornets to beat Nash’s Phoenix Suns 132-130, with the former filling up the stat line with 42 points, nine assists and eight steals, while the latter had 32 points and 12 helpers.
Kobe Bryant v Gilbert Arenas, 2006
NBA fans were treated to an unforgettable showing by two stars near the height of their powers on December 17, 2006, when the Washington Wizards clashed with the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Staples Centre was accustomed to seeing Bryant top everyone, but on this night they witnessed Gilbert Arenas torch the Lakers for 60 points to edge Bryant’s 45, with Agent Zero dominating overtime for the 147-141 win.
Allen Iverson v Vince Carter, 2001
There were some incredible single-game duels between the two explosive scorers in the 2000-01 season, but their greatest back-and-forth came across multiple contests in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Iverson delivered 54 points in Game 2, followed by Carter answering with 50 in Game 3 and Iverson again going over the half-century mark with 52 in Game 5. Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers also got the last laugh by beating Carter and the Toronto Raptors in Game 7.
Bernard King v Isiah Thomas, 1984
In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round series between the Detroit Pistons and the New York Knicks, King dropped 44 points while Thomas responded with 31 and 12 assists.
For Thomas, 16 of those points came in the final 90 seconds as he helped bring the Pistons back from a deficit to send the game to overtime. However, King took control in the extra period to lead the Knicks to a 127-123 win.