Lob City to Motor City: A Tale of a Couple of Ninth Seeds

The Blake Griffin trade kicked off this Trade Deadline season with a bang. While the insiders have been saying that Griffin trade talks have been swirling for weeks now, the move was an absolute shock to most hoops fans. The Clippers had been rumoured to start selling off their assets, but almost nobody expected LA to move the face of their franchise not even a full season after signing him to a five-year, $173 million contract. Even though the Pistons and Clippers are both in ninth place of their respective conferences, this trade is a franchise defining move for two teams going in different directions.

Stan Van swings for the fences

In 2014 the Pistons brought Van Gundy back into NBA coaching ranks and gave him  full autonomy over the team as head coach and president of basketball operations. From the get-go Stan began to mold this Detroit team to model of his successful Magic teams of the mid-2000’s. The parallels were similar with promising young big man Andre Drummond expected to fill the role of the Dwight Howard anchor with the rest of the roster filled with 3-and-D forwards and shooters.

After a mediocre 32-50 first season at the helm in 2014-15, Van Gundy would work to purge the roster of the old regime and begin to put his stamp on the Pistons. The 2015 offseason saw them push bulky center Greg Munroe out the door, re-sign mid-season acquisition  Reggie Jackson to an eye-popping five-year, $80 million contract, draft University of Arizona phenom Stanley Johnson with the eighth overall pick and fill out the rest of the roster with the likes of  Ersan İlyasova, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and Steve Blake.

The changes yielded immediate results seeing the young Pistons squad jump to the eighth seed in the East due in no small part to 22 year-old Andre Drummond emerging as an All Star and 16 ppg, 14 rpg beast. Even though they got swept in the first round by Cleveland, the overwhelming sentiment was that was a team on the rise.

Fast forward to today and Detroit has since gone a combined 60-71 missing the playoffs altogether last year and sitting just 2 games outside of the playoffs this year. Even though Drummond has rebounded into All-Star form after a step back last year, this once promising roster had flatlined hard. With the volatile Reggie Jackson chucking up shots and soaking up a huge part of their payroll and various draft misses like Stanley Johnson, Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard, there were understandable doubts about the upside of this roster.

But, amid the rumors of the team potentially hitting the reset button both on the court and in management structure, Stan Van threw a Hail Mary. There are various reasons to be skeptical of this trade. Blake is very expensive, injury prone and has never led far more superior Clippers squad beyond the second round of the playoffs. But the flip side of that is that Blake is one of the best playmaking big men in the league who should compliment Drummond as nicely as he did over the years with Deandre Jordan. The Pistons did jettison some depth in the short-term and some draft picks in the long-term, but players of Griffin’s calibre don’t become available too often.

Van Gundy is clearly trying to save his own neck here and is reportedly looking to move even more picks and prospects for veteran talent. But, given all of the doubts surrounding him, a healthy Blake would exponentially improve this team’s upside in the weak Eastern Conference. That being said I don’t think this Pistons team is a realistic contender will have fun bringing Griffin and his also-ran playoff status over to the East.

Clippers hit the reset button

I actually was looking forward to seeing how this Chris Paul-less Clippers squad would fare this year. After watching LA in a couple of preseason games I was optimistic that the additions of Patrick Beverly, Danillo Gallinari, Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic added to star big men like Griffin and Deandre Jordan would make for a fast-paced team with a deep bench that could make a bit of noise in the West.

Unfortunately for the Clippers, significant injuries to Beverly, Gallinari and Griffin almost completely derailed their season. They miraculously sit in ninth place at 25-25 because Lou Williams has become a supernova of buckets and has single-handedly kept the team within striking distance. Unfortunately for the team, management had seen enough to know that this roster wasn’t good enough to contend and effectively pulled the plug on the 2017-18 season.

Moving on from Blake and the potential trade of expiring contracts of  Avery Bradley, Lou and Deandre would result in a potential tank job of Sam Hinkian proportions. A scorched earth fire sale might be just what this franchise needs to eventually get off of the Western Conference participation ribbon treadmill. But the way that they treated Blake leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

While it might be tough to feel sorry for a supremely wealthy athlete living the dream, Griffin’s free agent experience is definitely a cautionary tale on loyalty in professional sport:

When Griffin arrived at Staples Center for his free-agency pitch meeting on July 1, he found the Clippers had erected something of a maze for him with temporary walls. Griffin walked his 3-year-old son, Ford, through the art gallery-style corridors, and found photos hanging at each turn: Griffin on his green Huffy bike with his brother, Taylor, when they were kids; Griffin playing in college; Griffin as a Clipper.

The maze spit Griffin out onto a couch overlooking the Staples Center court, above the lower bowl. Crowd noise pumped in. The team’s public address announcer declared the Clippers were retiring Griffin’s number. Team employees raised an actual banner into the rafters — a vision of the future they wanted.

“It was a cool feeling,” Griffin says. “It was very thoughtful.”

Quoted from Zach Lowe’s piece on ESPN.com from October 30, 2017 “Clips keep winning without CP3 and start work on ‘unfinished business’ “

While many see the Blake Griffin trade as the groundwork for a mega-tank, there’s also the theory that this move was to clear the decks to clear enough cap space to chase the marquee free agents this summer and next. The roster should remain relatively competitive this season if they were to retain Lou, Deandre, Bradley, Gallinari and Tobias Harris. A semi-competitive roster with tonnes of cap space and a promise of the LA lifestyle should make them a big time destination in theory. But I think it would be foolish to overlook the fact that players around the league notice and care about how the Clippers treated one of the best players in franchise history.

All in all this was just a weird, weird trade. But this stuff is what makes the NBA so much fun. No other league has this much behind-the-scenes drama. Hopefully the silliness only escalates as the trade deadline approaches.

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