Admit it: You were worried.
You watched 51 days elapse with no transactional movement in the wake of the Brooklyn Nets’ acquisition of Jahlil Okafor from the Philadelphia 76ers on Dec. 7, and inevitably feared that the N.B.A.’s 2018 trade deadline would be a snoozer.
And then, without warning, the N.B.A. did what it does best.
The Los Angeles Clippers roused the basketball world out of its personnel slumber Monday night, with slightly more than a week to go before the Feb. 8 trade buzzer, by coming to terms on a blockbuster swap with the Detroit Pistons that sends their rugged big man and marketing darling Blake Griffin to Motown.
It’s a monstrous midseason gamble for the Pistons’ coach and team president Stan Van Gundy, who is trying to arrest Detroit’s ongoing 8-20 swoon and keep hold of his job. Yet it might actually be an even bigger deal for the Clippers, who just followed up last June’s breakup with Chris Paul by dealing away their other face of the franchise only seven months after bestowing a five-year contract worth nearly $175 million upon Griffin.
And here’s what it really means: L.A.’s new front-office voices, most notably the legendary Jerry West, convinced the Clippers’ ring-hungry owner, Steve Ballmer, that they have a real shot to force their way into the free-agent mix this summer for Paul George and (gasp) even LeBron James — if they could jettison Griffin and then create some more salary-cap flexibility.
Multiple league insiders said Monday night that the Clippers aim to keep trying to create salary-cap space for July — enough for multiple maximum contracts if everything falls just right — through potential trades headlined by DeAndre Jordan and Lou Williams, both of whom (as we recently reported) are coveted by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
But the Clippers’ worst-case scenario isn’t bad, either, thanks to Griffin’s sudden departure. In the event that they can’t create sufficient salary-cap space to make credible bids for James and/or George in July, they’ll still be on course to have major cap space in the summer of 2019 to go with the two quality assets acquired from Detroit in this trade: Tobias Harris and the Pistons’ increasingly attractive first-round pick in June.
It’s the sort of the league-shaking trade that doesn’t sound quite so surprising once it sinks in that West, at age 80, works in Clipperland nowadays. He has always been a dice-roller prone to advocating for the biggest swings possible when it comes to talent acquisition and will now have the opportunity to put his vaunted recruiting skills to use far sooner than most of us had ever anticipated.
With Griffin’s monster contract on the books, free agency realistically wasn’t in the Clippers’ immediate future. They’ve decided to take the unavoidable ethics hit that comes with telling Griffin he was a “a lifelong Clipper” last summer, and then trading him away a half-season later for the opportunity to start over.
One warning, in closing, if we may: Don’t ignore the Detroit side of all this, which is plenty fascinating, too. All the Pistons’ recent losing (seven consecutive Ls at the start of December and an 0-8 launch in January) is merely one alarming trend for Van Gundy. All the empty seats routinely seen at their new downtown arena is arguably even more troubling. Year 1, after all, is rather early for an attendance crisis in a new building. Griffin will presumably sell tickets to address that issue immediately, but he’ll have to figure out how to fit alongside Andre Drummond — while trading Hollywood for a Rust Belt address.
Not that Van Gundy is likely to be terribly concerned about the down-the-road financial implications of this trade for the Pistons should the Griffin/Drummond tag team fail to flourish. The deal comes with Van Gundy running out of time to deliver some certifiable progress in the fourth season of a lucrative five-year deal to serve as Detroit’s coach and team president.
It also comes at a time when rival team executives have been buzzing about the prospect of longtime player agent Arn Tellem, who has been heading up the Pistons’ business side as vice chairman of Palace Sports & Entertainment since June 2015, succeeding Van Gundy as the head of Detroit’s basketball operations.
You can’t help but wonder, then, if taking on Griffin’s mega-money contract, as well as his daunting injury history, is the gambit that saves Van Gundy … or paves the way for a Tellem takeover.