Blake Griffin might be the Los Angeles Clippers' best overall player. You may prefer Chris Paul, but he's four years older than Griffin, with a bad knee. When Paul suffered a shoulder injury in 2014, Griffin morphed into a bulldozing point forward and carried the Clips to a 12-6 record in Paul's absence.
The Clippers should not even consider trading Blake Griffin.
Over the past two seasons, the Clippers are 22-9 without Griffin, including a 13-3 mark since Griffin tore his quadriceps muscle in December. They have played better on both ends, at least by the math. They've given his minutes to an extra 3-point shooter in small-ball lineups, proving again that surrounding the Paul-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll with three gunners is an uncomplicated path to points.
Griffin also just punched his friend in the face. Punching people is dumb. Griffin broke his hand, and he'll be out at least four weeks. The Clippers think the healing process might actually take two months, in which case Griffin would return with only two short weeks before the start of the playoffs. That is probably enough to crush Clipper dreams of catching Oklahoma City for the No. 3 spot -- and avoiding a second-round appointment with Golden State. That is not helpful. The Clippers are lucky the police aren't involved. The victim, Matias Testi, a member of the team's equipment staff, has a swollen face. Sources say he also has suffered debilitating headaches since the incident.
Of the Clippers' three foundational stars, Griffin probably would net the highest return in a trade. Several league sources insist that if Doc Rivers, the Clippers coach, general manager, head chef and lead custodian, were forced to pick one of the three to flip, it would likely be Griffin -- in part because he knows Griffin would bring back the most. (He'd prefer to flip none, obviously.) Griffin is entering the late stages of his prime, and unless he learns to shoot 3s, his jumpy game might not age well. Rivers told me in September that another first- or second-round playoff loss might convince him to blow up the team.
Maybe the Clippers should trade Blake Griffin?
Who the hell knows? This promises to be one of the thorniest player-organization situations in the league over the next few months, as Griffin's contract ticks toward expiration at the end of the 2016-17 season. The Clippers have to know they are just not as good as the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, and they will have to beat both of them, eight times combined, to make the Finals. Those two teams have lost 11 times total in 91 games, and one of those losses was Golden State flitting all around the Spurs on Monday. The Clippers are 0-5 against the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder and Cavs.
The Warriors and Spurs have no weak spots on either end of the floor. The Clippers are starting Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. That's cute in the regular season, but in the playoffs, no one will guard him. He's going to be in the way, a safe hiding spot for the weakest defender on the other team. The Clippers know this. They just don't have great alternatives.
They could close with Jamal Crawford in Mbah a Moute's place, but that is chum for Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and the Warriors' passing machine. Austin Rivers? Good luck. Paul Pierce fights for every inch, but he can't hang with elite wings over extended stretches. It's unclear if Doc Rivers remembers that Lance Stephenson is still on the team. Maybe Wesley Johnson is the answer. He's shooting 48 percent on corner 3s, and he looks like he should be a good defender. Regardless, the Clippers bench is a wreck, again, especially because Rivers insists on sitting both Paul and Griffin at the same time.
Maybe the Clips should think about shaking things up? Problem is, Doc Rivers came to Los Angeles precisely to avoid a rebuild, and all indications are, he still thinks these Clippers can win the title if healthy. He won't sign off on a deal that brings back a bunch of future first-round picks. He might be the only decision-maker in the league who cares less about future firsts than Pat Riley.
If you want to poach Griffin, now or in the offseason, you're probably going to have to come with an offer that -- at least in Rivers' view -- maintains the Clippers' spot in the league's hierarchy. The Boston Celtics could build an offer that appears to help the Clippers in both the short and long term: Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, one big man and two first-round picks -- including one of Brooklyn's unprotected picks.
Bradley and Crowder would give the Clippers two 3-and-D guys to space the floor around the Paul/Jordan main course. The Clips could play exactly like they are playing now, only with better players. The Bradley/Crowder combo would equip L.A. with enough quality wings to at least try to match small-ball lineups with Golden State.
Griffin and Jordan -- mostly Griffin, really -- have always made the best of an imperfect match. Both are rim destroyers who thrive within the same real estate. Griffin has adjusted his game to accommodate Jordan and, indirectly, to preserve his body. He moves further out every season, hoisting long 2-point jumpers and flicking passes that keep the ball one step ahead of rotating defenses. Griffin isn't just a good passer. He's one of the best passing big men ever.
He deserves a lot of credit for transforming himself into a workable fit alongside Jordan. Then again: How many power forwards would look great catching passes from Paul, and throwing them to Jordan and J.J. Redick? Paul makes big men look good -- even Cole Aldrich. And since that brilliant stretch in 2014, Griffin has shot much worse when he plays without Paul, per NBA.com research. The Clippers are less talented without Griffin, but their offense has been just as good with a cleaner roster fit.
That may not mean anything. Their schedule has been mostly easy, and even 31 games over two seasons amounts to a nothing sample size. But it's interesting. And the Clippers are thinking about what it means.
Griffin is a tricky piece in the modern NBA: a big man who doesn't shoot 3s or protect the rim. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that you can remove those players, even the ones with killer post-up games, replace them with skilled shooters who make less money, and lose basically nothing.
Griffin is the apex of that sort of player. He is the DeMar DeRozan of power forwards -- the guy who lacks a skill that is normally a prerequisite for his position, but stands as a huge net-plus anyway because he has gotten so damn good at everything else.
The Griffin fight saga has teams around the league imagining how they might construct their roster around Griffin, and they are coming away both confused and intrigued. He can clearly be the No. 1 option in a good NBA offense. He's a dunk machine if you clear the lane and unleash him in the pick-and-roll. He's a bully in the post, and his passing separates him from back-it-down types who don't actually help their teams score efficiently. Defenses double-team some post scorers because they know those players can't pass, and that they might throw the ball away. They double Griffin because they're afraid he will score or draw fouls, and he punishes them with surgical passing.
He can facilitate from the high post, pull opposing big men away from the rim, drive to the basket and run the break in transition. That is all very exciting. But what kind of frontcourt player do you need alongside him? If it's Kelly Olynyk or Paul Millsap, your offense is going to be dynamite, but opponents will feast at the basket. If it's a shot-blocking center who lives near the rim, you'll run into the same spacing problems the Clippers get around -- only you probably don't have anyone as good as Paul or Jordan, or a shooter lighting it up like Redick.
Some teams imagine Griffin as a small-ball center, a post-heavy version of Draymond Green, and Griffin would kill it on offense playing Green's role in Golden State. But then you remember defense. Griffin is fast and alert, fine switching onto smaller players, but he's not in Green's league. Opponents are shooting 56 percent at the rim when Griffin is around, per SportVU data, a hideous number. Griffin is taller than Green, but his wingspan is two inches shorter, and he doesn't have the kind of bottom-heavy gravity center that helps Green dislodge heavier post scorers. The basketball gods genetically engineered Green as a one-of-a-kind positionless monster.
The ideal partner for Griffin is a shot-blocking big man with 3-point range. Bad news: There are, like, half a dozen of those dudes on earth. Serge Ibaka is the current prototype, and if Durant ever decided to force his way to the Clippers, some sort of Durant-Griffin sign-and-trade would make all kinds of sense. Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh and DeMarcus Cousins fit the ball on the right nights, but they need the ball more -- not necessarily a bad thing -- and their teams can't put together real offers.
Another such monster rises in Gotham: Kristaps Porzingis. Someone in the Knicks front office should be calling Rivers, sweet-talking him about how a Griffin-Carmelo Anthony swap would help both teams. Paul and Anthony once toasted the prospect of playing together, and Anthony could channel the Team USA version of himself as a supercharged stretch power forward in L.A.
New York probably doesn't want to hear this, and that's fine. Star-for-star deals almost never happen; inertia is too powerful. The Knicks are (kind of) winning again, the Garden rocks, Melo is happy and passing, and he's an appealing franchise face safely under contract for at least two seasons after this one. Swapping Melo for Griffin would leave the Knicks bereft of wing players.
The swap also would give New York a legit star who's closer to Porzingis in age -- a triangle post-up type who should appeal to prospective free agents as much as Melo does. The 2015-16 Knicks are a fun story, but they're not going anywhere real, and they don't have their draft pick. The future should still be the first priority.
Imagining Melo in Griffin's spot with the Clippers actually highlights Griffin's value -- both as what he is, and what he could be. For all the squawking about his selfishness, Melo gets you buckets against elite defenses with the shot clocking winding away. Replacing Griffin with small-ball shooters sounds great in theory, and might even work in the regular season. But it probably wouldn't work as well in the playoffs.
Teams would switch more, including on the Paul-Jordan pick-and-roll. They'd dare the Clippers to throw the ball to Jordan in the post against a smaller guy, and live with Paul jitterbugging his way to elbow jumpers against bigger defenders. That burden might prove too much for Paul, especially as he ages. He gets hurt in the postseason every year as it is.
Griffin's post-up game has been a safe landing spot against top defenses, a place they can go to manufacture buckets. It's hard to imagine the Clippers eliminating the Spurs last season without it. It's not pretty, but it works.
Griffin also could start shooting 3s, especially if he sticks alongside a traditional center like Jordan. He shot more 2-point shots longer than 20 feet last season than anyone in the league, and hit 41 percent of them. That is literally a step away from 3-point range. Other teams would turn Griffin into a 3-point shooter the minute he walked in the door. The Clippers should try it too. He could become a supercharged version of Millsap, and no team should be trading that sort of player without a no-brainer package coming in return.
You could look at Griffin and see a dinosaur who doesn't play defense -- a glorified David Lee. Squint harder, and the image will shift into an evolving one-man offense who would flourish on the right roster, attract free agents and make the next five All-Star teams.
The Clippers need to be careful here. Griffin might be the last one of the big three they should trade, in the event Rivers opts for a shake-up. Finding equal value may be impossible. The Clippers are a notch below Golden State and San Antonio, but the gap isn't massive. They are confident against the Spurs, and even though the Warriors beat them every time, no one else plays Golden State to the hilt.
There is a tendency right now in front offices to look at the Warriors and write off the next three or four years as hopeless. Why try to win today when this juggernaut is slaughtering everyone, and preparing to pitch Durant in the offseason?
That's silly, especially for a team as competitive as the Clippers. Things change so fast in sports. Klay Thompson might tweak his knee one game before the conference semifinals and, boom, you're in business. Maybe Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli leave in free agency, Andrew Bogut's body falls apart or Stephen Curry's ankle flares up at the wrong time.
Everything happening now feels as though it's going to happen forever. The Thunder were going to make the Finals every year. The Warriors probably will be the team to beat over the next half-decade, but that doesn't mean a 55-win team should willingly take a step back.
Blake Griffin is suddenly an odd player. He's a weird fit in some places. He's not a plug-and-play guy like Horford. He's also not Al Jefferson. If Rivers decides to blow it up in July, he should investigate deals that send out Paul or Jordan instead.