For the past five years, the Clippers have been on the brink of something special, but now, with three of their best players on the verge of free agency, they’re teetering on the edge of an excruciating rebuild. If the Clippers fall short in the postseason again, do they move on from the Blake Griffin–Chris Paul axis? If one departs, do others follow? Head coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers needs to do something. He’s made annual minor tweaks around his core, adding retreads like Jeff Green and Josh Smith, but it’s never been enough.
When the Clippers got caught up in the Carmelo Anthony trade rumor mill, it seemed as if Rivers might finally be coming around to the idea of making a big move. The team was reportedly aiming to add Melo for bench pieces and retain its core. But that kind of deal won’t push the Clippers over the top either.
It’s time to try something extreme: They should give more to get more, dealing Blake for Melo and additional depth. Here’s the three-way deal that could accomplish that:
Los Angeles gets: Carmelo Anthony, Avery Bradley
New York gets: Amir Johnson, Jamal Crawford, 2018 unprotected Celtics first-round pick, 2018 protected Grizzlies first (via Boston), 2019 unprotected Clippers first
Boston gets: Blake Griffin, Paul Pierce
(Consider this a structure. Anthony and Griffin have trade kickers, which could impact the pieces required to make a deal work.)
Doc reportedly played with the idea of trading Griffin prior to last season’s deadline, and then, as previously reported by The Ringer, last summer, Rivers had casual trade talks with the Celtics involving Griffin. It’s unclear which pieces were discussed, but the demand would not be matched due to his lengthy injury history and upcoming unrestricted free-agent status.
The Clippers are still the most logical destination for Anthony. They are a title-contending team in a big market, and Anthony has a preexisting, boat-based relationship with Chris Paul. Multiple outlets reported the Knicks contacted the Clippers about an Anthony deal, but L.A. reportedly doesn’t want to part with one of its Big Three (Paul, Griffin, or DeAndre Jordan).
A commonly proposed non–Big Three trade package would send the Knicks Jamal Crawford and Austin Rivers, plus a filler salary and/or whatever assets the Clippers can add. I’m not trying to be vague, but seriously, what else can they add? A 2021 first? Oh, boy! Brice Johnson or Diamond Stone? Those are computer-generated names to casual fans and Phil Jackson.
Adding Melo to the existing Clippers trio of stars is an intoxicating thought; L.A. would have a formidable starting five, one that could go toe-to-toe with Houston, Golden State, and San Antonio, as well as the Cavaliers in a possible Finals matchup.
The problem is what that Anthony deal would do to the Clippers franchise. A Crawford-Rivers-assets deal would decimate L.A.’s already thin bench and deplete the organization of tradable assets and cap flexibility. Rivers is a valuable spark plug and competitive defender. Crawford still has explosive nights. If the Clippers were to give up J.J. Redick, they’d lose a high-end defender and the league’s most lethal shooter off the catch. The Clippers would have an electric starting lineup and an almost-nonexistent bench. Chances are they’d fall short once again in the playoffs. Then they’d find themselves locked into an aging, injury-prone core, with Paul and Griffin able to hit free agency this summer.
Any deal involving Carmelo is challenging due to the 15 percent trade kicker in his contract, but there are various scenarios (detailed in full by Clips Nation’s Lucas Hann) that make it work. Including Griffin and his large contract in the deal might get the Melo trade rolling. However, any deal involving Griffin would also have to include a third team due to a rule under the current CBA preventing the Knicks from acquiring him. That just means we Cézannes of the Trade Machine have to get a little creative.
Swapping Griffin for Melo would be an upgrade for Los Angeles. When healthy, Griffin is a Hall of Fame talent, but the Clippers historically aren’t much better with him and Paul than they are with just Paul. Since 2013–14, the Clippers have outscored teams by 13.1 points per 100 possessions when Griffin and Paul are on the floor and by 10.9 with just Paul, per NBA Wowy. By comparison, the Clippers get outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions when Griffin plays without Paul.
When the Clippers run a pick-and-roll with Jordan, regardless of whether Griffin, Paul, or Rivers is handling, the team is basically unguardable. Jordan shoots 87.5 percent on rolls to the rim, per Synergy. Now imagine Anthony spacing the floor as a 41.5 percent 3-point shooter off the catch, per SportVU, or as the ball handler. Griffin is a superior playmaker, but Anthony is a better shooter from long range. Improving floor spacing would create more room for Paul to probe and Jordan to roll.
Melo wouldn’t solve the Clippers’ biggest issue: defense. After a fast start, they’ve been thoroughly dismantled, allowing more than 120 points to the Nets, Nuggets, and Sixers, 140 points to the Rockets, and 144 and 133 points to the Warriors. Trading Griffin for an elite 3-and-D style player sounds like a dumb idea, but they need a defensive stopper to have any hope of containing the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, James Harden and Eric Gordon, or Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.
The Clippers should attempt to swap Griffin for such a player, one who can play lockdown one-on-one and comfortably switch screens. The team that provides a stopper could also provide assets or picks to the Knicks and possibly extra goodies to the Clippers. That’s easier said than done because potential destinations for Griffin are extremely limited. As previously stated, the Knicks are disallowed from acquiring him. Logic would suggest Western Conference contenders — including the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets — are off the table.
Rivers would need to target desperate teams, or at least savvy teams that might bite for the right price. Sometimes teams are reckless when they think they’re being shrewd. The Knicks crippled their franchise by trading for Melo in 2011, rather than waiting to sign him outright in free agency. Other teams might feel the same way about a potential Griffin deal, but it’s worth exploring.
You’re probably tired of hearing me say this, but every superstar trade starts with the Celtics. Rivers has familiarity with Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, and an established relationship is important for making big deals. The Celtics happen to have two elite perimeter defenders — Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart — and facilitating pieces like their draft picks (plus draft-and-stash prospects) and expiring contracts (Amir Johnson or Tyler Zeller). Smart is a more versatile defender, but Bradley would also serve as insurance for Redick in case he leaves in free agency.
Brad Stevens would likely use Griffin in a heavier playmaking role — which the Clippers should do more often, despite having the league’s best facilitator in Paul. I asked Stevens on Sunday before the Celtics took on the Clippers about Griffin’s ballhandling. “The shooting around gives him a ton of space to work. He’s terrific at the elbows. He’s terrific on the block. He’s terrific at the top of the key,” Stevens said. “He’s a terrific passer, so he picks out the right spots. ”
Stevens obviously thinks Griffin is terrific, but does Ainge? Trading away Bradley (or Smart) and non-Nets picks in a deal for Griffin would make some sense. If Griffin bolts in free agency, the worst-case scenario for the Celtics is losing one year of a core player, since Bradley will be an unrestricted free agent in 2018. The best-case scenario is that Boston helps Griffin reach another gear, and he gives the team a versatile big man tandem alongside Al Horford. It might be a risk worth taking, though Melo himself would be my primary target if he comes at a lower cost, not Griffin.
The Celtics can afford to bide their time, but a team like the Magic are desperate for a playoff push. They are just five games back from the 8-seed and reportedly made a pass at Griffin at last season’s deadline, per various outlets. The Orlando Sentinel reported in November that Magic general manager Rob Hennigan’s seat “couldn’t be any hotter,” which supports what I heard last month. The Magic must take steps toward making the playoffs, or heads could roll. Basketball Insiders reported they’d like to “land a major player.”
Aaron Gordon is like Young Blake: a high-flying dunking machine with an aptitude for playmaking. He’s already a better defender than Griffin; he can switch and defend every position, making him a valued commodity in a series against the Warriors. If the Magic are willing to gamble, they could always give expiring salaries (like Jeff Green, Jodie Meeks, and others) to take on Jamal Crawford’s contract to facilitate a deal.
If I’m the Magic, I wouldn’t deal for Griffin, but that’s easy for me to say. I’m not the one on the hot seat. Orlando owns all of its future draft picks, as well as a potential unprotected 2019 Lakers first-round selection (that could turn into second-rounders in 2017 and 2018). If the Magic decide to bet on Blake, they have the pieces to send to New York to make this work. Gordon alone might not be enough, either, so the Clippers could always demand future picks in return (that they could later use as valued trade assets).
It’s difficult to find any other fits for Griffin in the Eastern Conference. It’s even harder out West. If the Suns are interested in DeMarcus Cousins, as reported by Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro, it’s plausible they’d be willing to gamble on Griffin. Eric Bledsoe would aid the Clippers’ perimeter defense, though losing him might be too high of a cost for gaining Griffin. The same is true for the Pelicans and Jrue Holiday. The Nuggets reportedly reached out to the Clippers for a Griffin deal last year. Wilson Chandler or Danilo Gallinari would presumably be going the other way, though they aren’t true lockdown defenders. No other team in the West makes any sense for myriad reasons, ranging from from current roster personnel to available assets.
Golden State’s construction of a seemingly indestructible superteam has impacted the Clippers more than any organization (other than the Thunder). The Cavaliers are defending champions. The Spurs have stability. The Rockets and Jazz are ascending. The Clippers have stagnated. They have a talented core, but even if they were to add Melo without giving up any of their Big Three, they’d still be missing something. They’re stagnant. These proposed trade ideas involving the Celtics and Magic aren’t perfect for the Clippers, but they’re alternative approaches to a problem that might not have any solution.
There’s an existential crisis facing the Clippers: They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the goal is to compete, maintain continuity, and win 50–60 games each season without much of a chance at a title, then they have the perfect roster for that, as long as they can re-sign Paul and Griffin. They don’t need Melo to keep fans happy, and trading Griffin months ahead of free agency could be a PR disaster for a team that has been competitive for only six years after decades of failure and embarrassment.