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NBA Daily: Blake Griffin Trade Proving To Be A Win-Win

The narrative on the Blake Griffin trade has flipped the script, as both the Clippers and the Pistons have reaped the rewards since last season’s blockbuster.

Matt John

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When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin to the Pistons back in January, the motives were obvious for both sides.

For Los Angeles, they knew that with the roster as it was, they weren’t going anywhere with Blake leading the way. While Blake was capable of putting up good numbers on a nightly basis, the roster built around him wasn’t anywhere near as good as it was during the Chris Paul days. It was time for a change.

For Detroit, acquiring a star like Blake was a desperation move to attain relevance. With the team firmly stuck in no man’s land and the limited trade assets that they had, getting someone like Blake at a lowered price seemed obvious even if he’d be getting paid $38+ million at 32 years old.

The returns following the trade were not all that great for either team. Neither team was terrible, as the Clippers finished with 42 wins and the Pistons finished with 39, but both failed to make the playoffs, and both seemed to have very uncertain futures at the time.

The Pistons had a nice trio locked up in Griffin, Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson, but outside of them, the Pistons’ roster was filled with question marks.

The Clippers had a roster filled with decent talent with no distinguished star to lead them, which is a red flag in the Western Conference.

Judging by how both teams did in the half-seasons with their changed squads, it seemed as though neither team won this trade, leaving minimal impact on the NBA going forward. Since then, the times have definitely changed.

With the first month and a half of the season in the books, it’s fair to say that the Blake trade has played a role in how the 2018-2019 season has transpired so far, with both the Clippers and the Pistons greatly benefiting from the big mid-season transaction.

The Clippers have caught everyone’s eye since the season began, boasting a 15-7 record, which has them tied for the top seed in the West. The Pistons have gone a little back and forth, but they’ve stayed the course with a 13-7 record, good enough for the fourth seed in the East.

And all of it comes back to the Blake Griffin trade. With the Pistons and the Clippers off to impressive starts, it’s only fair to analyze how the players involved in the deal have panned out since.

Detroit Pistons

There aren’t that many storylines that are better than the “Prove ‘em wrong!” for individual players, and that’s what Blake Griffin’s season has all been about so far.

Coming into the season, many believed that Blake was on the decline. At 29 years old, his reputation for being injury-prone and his athletic prowess not what it once was, the doubters believed he could not maintain his status as one of the league’s best players.

Well, the old Blake is dead. What we have now is a reinvention of one of the league’s best power forwards.

Blake is not the high-flyer he once was, but his game does not rely on his athleticism as much as it once did. Instead, the All-Star forward has adapted his game to fit the modern NBA. He now has a respectable three-point shot, a skill that’s been three years in the making for the Oklahoma native.

Adding a three-point shot to his game has hurt his field goal percentage compared to his earlier days, but that’s to be expected when you add shooting from distance to your repertoire. In his younger days, almost all of Blake’s shots were from inside the arc, as the percentage of two-point shots he attempted from 2010-2016 ranged from 97 to 98 percent of his shots total. This current season, that percentage has gone down to 66.

Even if his field goal percentage has dipped, looks can be deceiving. Blake has a true shooting percentage of 57.6 percent and an effective field goal percentage of 52.6, both of which are the best percentages he’s had since 2013-2014, the year he finished third in MVP voting.

As it turns out, a fair amount of Blake’s numbers have been the best he’s had since that one season. His scoring average (24.9), his rebounding average (9.5), his rebounding percentage (14) and his usage rate (29.3) have all been the highest since his MVP bid five years ago.

That’s why it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Blake is getting MVP buzz all-around the league, as his efforts have been the most vital to Motown’s success.

The Pistons are all too familiar with good starts. This time last year, the boys of Motor City had a 14-6 record before a seven-game losing streak put them in a funk that they never grew out of. Things are different this time though. Besides Blake’s rejuvenation, the Pistons have the reigning Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey, Reggie Jackson back at full health and improvements across the board from everyone. That includes Drummond, Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock.

If the Pistons sustain this, then Blake Griffin will solidify his MVP candidacy and will be worth every penny to Detroit.

Los Angeles Clippers

When teams trade their star players, they usually opt either for rebuilding or re-tooling. In the Clippers’ case, they went for both.

By acquiring both Tobias Harris and Avery Bradley, the Clippers replaced Blake’s star power with versatility on both sides of the floor that the team had lacked. By acquiring the rights to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the Clippers have started a promising youth movement that they ironically haven’t had since Blake.

Let’s start with Harris. Harris’ evolution into one of the league’s most well-respected scorers is a great story when you think about how his previous teams handled him. Milwaukee gave him away to Orlando, who then gave him away to Detroit after giving him a big contract. He had him come off the bench for a good chunk of his tenure there.

Now, Harris is the top scorer on the fourth-highest offensively rated team in the league, averaging a career-high 21.4 points on 51.6 percent shooting from the field, including almost 43 percent from three. Some feared that Harris could only put up good numbers on bad teams. We now know from his success with the Clippers that that isn’t the case.

In fact, should he keep this up, then he should be a shoo-in for the All-Star game this season.

Then there’s Gilgeous-Alexander. His stats won’t jump out at you – 10.8 points and three assists on 46.5 percent shooting including 33 percent from three – but anyone who’s watched Shai will tell you that the rook plays with amazing poise. A quick look at the Clippers’ five-man lineups will show you that Doc Rivers, a coach notorious for not playing rookies, trusts Gilgeous-Alexander, as he’s been put in five of the six most used lineups for the Clippers.

This is most evident by the fact that the Canadian hotshot starts for one of the top-seeded teams in the West and averages 27.8 minutes a game. If that’s what we’re getting from this guy when he’s just 20, imagine what he’ll be like when he enters his prime.

Finally, there’s Bradley. Bradley hasn’t exactly been the player he was in Boston and Detroit with all his injury issues, but he has shown signs of life over the past two games, as he’s averaged 14 points on 52 percent shooting including 60 percent from three. If that’s a sign of things to come, then he becomes another valuable cog for the Clips.

The one positive from Avery is that what he’s best known for – elite on-the-ball defense – is proving to help LA, as the Clippers’ defensive rating is +4.9 with him on the floor. That’s impressive since, despite his reputation, advanced metrics haven’t exactly supported Bradley.

Those three alone are not why the Clippers have played as great as they have, but they’ve played a huge part in forming the team’s new identity. Time will tell whether or not these Clippers can keep up their excellent play. At the very least, they’ve proven themselves as one of the most fun teams in the league, which seemed blasphemous after they blew Lob City up.

As of right now, the Blake Griffin trade turned out to be an even deal and beneficiary one for both parties involved. The Pistons have more star power, while the Clippers have a more well-rounded roster. As you can tell from their performance so far, neither has much reason to complain.

Both could be in different places when the season ends, but let’s enjoy the fact that a blockbuster trade has worked out well for both sides when no one really expected it to.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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