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LeBron, Paul George, and the Clippers: What Are the Next NBA Questions?

The Blake Griffin trade has reset the NBA chessboard and prompted a number of questions about the future of the Clippers, Pistons, and some of the biggest stars in the league

DeAndre Jordan, Chris Paul, LeBron James, Paul George, and Blake Griffin AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Blake Griffin trade came out of nowhere, rocked the league, and reset the table for the months to come. All we’re left with is questions — about the Clippers, past, present and future; about the Pistons; about LeBron James, Paul George, Jerry West, and stars we might not even be considering. Justin Verrier, Chris Ryan, and Jason Concepcion try to answer the big NBA queries.


1. Are the Clippers Going for LeBron?

Chris Ryan: They are trying to get themselves in the room. Sometimes the room is in the Hamptons, sometimes it’s in Vegas. Sometimes it’s in a conference room in Staples Center and you have to beg LaMarcus Aldridge to come back for a second look. There is always a room, and, come summer, teams want to be in it to make their case. This Blake trade will probably get Jerry West a spot on line to meet with LeBron.

And in some ways, LeBron and the Clippers are the perfect match. It’s going to be a while before L.A. can approach a big-time free agent and say, “We’re going to retire your number here.” But that doesn’t need to be the pitch with James. He’s left teams, and the Clippers have dealt franchise legends. It is what it is. All they have to say is, “We’re the better Los Angeles landing spot. You get all the nice weather and business opportunities, and none of the Buss/Magic/Ball bullshit.”

DeAndre Jordan probably won’t be on the Clippers after the All-Star break, and Lou Williams could go too. The team’s remaining players are, for the most part, affordable and useful, with the exception of Danilo Gallinari, who is expensive and always injured. If getting out from under the Rooster’s deal is all that stands in the way of landing LeBron (or Paul George), then Jerry West now has the picks to take the edge off the poison and send him to a team like Dallas or Brooklyn.

Justin Verrier: In the same way that I am going for a Pulitzer by crafting poignant NBA blog posts.

Jason Concepcion: Yes! Jerry West is one of the most universally respected figures in the game. He is, literally and figuratively, an icon. When the Clippers hired him last June, they did so because of his decades of experience and because LeBron James values his advice. When James was mulling the decision that became The Decision, he called West to talk it over. When the Cavs famously fell behind 3–1 to Golden State in the 2015–16 NBA Finals, West, who worked for Warriors at the time, ferociously defended James’s greatness. “That’s the most ridiculous thing,” he said. “If I were him, frankly I’d probably want to strangle you guys (in the media), OK? No, it’s ridiculous. He carried teams on his shoulders. They’ve been in the Finals six straight times. How many times have they been the favorite? None. Zero, OK? Grossly unfair to him.”

Ironically, during the series, James was reading West by West: My Charmed: Tormented Life, The Logo’s bracingly honest autobiography. James’s calls West “the Godfather.”

If West and the Clips’ front office believe they have a chance to sign LeBron, it’s because they’ve been led to believe they have a chance. Does that mean James is coming to the Clippers? Of course not. LeBron is all about options. If James is intent on moving to Los Angeles to lay the groundwork for his post-playing career as a multimedia tycoon, he and his team are likely leveraging the Clippers to keep the Lakers honest.

2. Can They Land Him?

Ryan: Depends on what they are offering and what he wants. The Lakers offer legacy, history, grandeur, and gloss. They offer magic and Magic. But they are still a mess, and LeBron is not a Big Baller. The Clippers offer one thing: Jerry West. Assuming he stays in this front-office consigliere role, he would be the most accomplished executive LeBron has paired with since Pat Riley. Also, the Clippers have the kind of veteran roster LeBron typically prefers playing with. Though, as currently constituted, they would be the least talented group he’s teamed up with since the Daniel Gibson days. They can land him. I don’t think they will.

Verrier: They don’t have any star players or a clear route to acquiring one before this summer. Jerry West seems to have mystical old-head cachet — which, as we saw in 2010, has a certain appeal — but the teams that James has chosen in similar situations have two things in common: a max contract awaiting him and stars in their primes to extend his title window (or, in Cleveland’s case in 2014, one young star and the means to bring in another). The Clippers are probably better off focusing their attention on the summer of 2019, when several big names could be available, including West favorite Klay Thompson.

Concepcion: What Justin said. Gaze through all the hype and mystery, and James, in the end, is a man of simple tastes: My dude likes max money and Finals-quality stars around him. If the Clips want to woo James, they need to get cracking on both.

3. Can the Clippers Make the Playoffs This Season?

Ryan: How good is Doc Rivers? And how bad will the Pelicans be without DeMarcus Cousins? Let’s assume Jordan gets traded. Doc would be Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen, coaching a bunch of misfits and short-timers. And they’re going to be on the road for most of February. Can he make all these new pieces fit together on the fly?

Concepcion: Last season, a .500 record in the West got you the 8-seed. Assuming that and the Clippers’ ability to win without Blake hold, then sure. Yeah.

Verrier: As currently constructed? Sure. They’ll miss Griffin’s ability to create for others, especially if Milos Teodosic can’t stay on the court, but they’ll probably be a little feistier on defense and deeper overall. Alas, it doesn’t sound like DeAndre Jordan will be getting his jersey retired either, and the Pelicans still have a first-round pick to burn.

4. Are the Clippers a Contender in the Paul George Sweepstakes?

Ryan: The defense nerd in me is salivating at the idea of Paul George patrolling the perimeter with Patrick Beverley and a re-signed Avery Bradley next season. Just kidding, I don’t care about defense.

Paul George has lived life as a Scottie, and life is good. As a self-described “Lakers and Clippers fan,” (such a millennial), George is adaptable, but I doubt he’d want to be the best player on either of the L.A. teams. He needs his Michael.

Verrier: They should be. If the Lakers don’t land LeBron, what do they have to sell him after five seasons of not not tanking? None of the Lakers Kids look like future stars (shouts to Kuz, but his ceiling is probably closer to a modern Robert Horry), and the only path to obtaining one relies almost entirely on a firm belief in Lakers exceptionalism. The Clippers may not rate in their own market, but with West and a well-regarded front office behind him, they are, improbably, the more stable franchise.

5. Did the Clippers Get a Fair Return on Blake and CP3?

Ryan: They could have lost both for nothing! This is an incredible return on two declining superstars who were not going to bring a title to the franchise.

Verrier: Kind of, considering (a) Paul could have walked in free agency and left them with nothing, and (b) the haul for a star is usually not what you’d expect it to be. The Clips got a good young player on a manageable contract and a pick that will most likely land in the lottery for Griffin, a player whose value may already be worth less than what he’s being paid.

Concepcion: In the straight talent-for-talent sense, fuck no. Chris Paul is one of the greatest players of all-time. Blake Griffin, [extremely caveat voice] WHEN HEALTHY, is a top-15 player. He finished third in MVP voting in 2013–14, and his ability to engage with the Los Angeles comedy scene cannot be captured by traditional or advanced metrics. That said, Paul could have split town in free agency and Blake is 28, probably can’t push a team above 50-wins as the lone star, and that third-place MVP finish four years ago was the last time he played 80 or more games.

6. What Happens to DeAndre and Lou Will?

Concepcion: DeAndre gets traded to a team that needs defense, rebounding, and someone to build Lob Cities in the sky.

Lou Williams gets traded to a team that accepts polyamorous relationships.

Ryan: The DeAndre market mystifies me. I’m looking for competitive playoff teams that have some pieces to deal and some room for a center. If Boston is going to unload its assets, it’s going to be for Anthony Davis, not Jordan. Portland has a center. Would Jabari Parker and John Henson be enough? Could Minnesota get him for a package of Taj Gibson, Tyus Jones, Justin Patton, and Oklahoma City’s first-rounder? And could any of these teams keep DeAndre next season?

Verrier: All signs point to a trade(s). (I still think the Cavs would be better off clearing the decks and building an almost entirely new lineup around LeBron, starting with these two Clips.) Pour one out for the Nobody Believes In Us/We Will Fight You Clippers. It was a fun two weeks.

7. Who Is Running the Clippers?

Concepcion:

Ryan: As long as Austin is there, Doc has some power, but Jerry West is calling the shots.

Verrier:

8. What’s a Good Enough Season to Save SVG’s Job?

Ryan: He absolutely must make the playoffs, and put up a fight in the first round. Seeding is going to be important, because the better the Pistons do, the more likely it is they will face the nobody-believes-in-us Cavs in the first round.

Verrier: Making the playoffs, but I’m not sure they’ll clear even that low bar. The Pistons have to integrate a high-usage player on the fly, and then do the same thing all over again when Reggie Jackson returns. This team also just gave up 121 points twice in a row before losing Avery Bradley (a plus defender, despite his slumping metrics) and adding Griffin (a … fine defender, with waning athleticism).

Concepcion: Making the postseason and not getting trucked therein. A .500 record got you the eighth seed in the East last season and the Pistons are currently 22–26 with the All-Star break looming. Stan, my guy, begin planning your extended sabbatical.

9. Would You Trade Drummond and Build Solely Around Blake?

Concepcion: Would you drink your own urine if you were lost at sea? Sure. It makes sense to do that, from the perspective of staying alive. But you’re still drinking pee.

Verrier: I can see the case for it, but Stan Van’s rebuild has been Hennigan-esque. Despite having two top-12 picks under his watch, and five straight years in the lottery before his arrival, Drummond is the only player able to keep Griffin from bumping his head on this team’s low ceiling. I don’t know how you get close to equal value, considering Drummond’s free throw concerns and the diminished value of traditional centers.

Ryan: It’s hard to address this, because my job doesn’t depend on the answer. Many people think Van Gundy made this deal from a position of weakness — that he needed to do something to save his job in Detroit.

10. Who Is the Next Blake Griffin–Type to Get Dealt?

Ryan: John Wall. An All-Star, a human highlight reel, the face of the franchise. Also expensive and injury prone.

Verrier: Marc Gasol. Did you know that Gasol hasn’t played in two months?

Actually, that’s not true. But there’s no way you would know that without looking it up.