Can the LA Clippers (again) survive without Blake Griffin -- for the playoffs, or beyond?
Losing Griffin for the remainder of the playoffs with a plantar plate injury to his right big toe is the latest misfortune to strike both the five-time All-Star and the franchise, currently locked in a 2-2 battle with fifth-seeded Utah Jazz in the first round.
And given the precarious state of the current team -- with both Griffin and point guard Chris Paul almost certain to become free agents after the playoffs and guard J.J. Redick an unrestricted free agent -- Griffin’s absence and impact on the Clippers’ window of contention couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Few around the league expect Paul to leave the Clippers. Many more expect Redick to walk in search of a big payday and a team closer to his family. Griffin is the unknown.
On the one hand, he fits hand-in-glove with the Southern California lifestyle -- he’s done work with Will Ferrell’s FunnyOrDie.com comedy web site, along with numerous other comedy projects. He has all manner of off-court endorsements. His kids are in L.A. And he is a superstar in the No. 2 media market in the country.
But there are several teams that will have the means to go after him. Many suspect the Boston Celtics, who could potentially clear enough cap space to be able to go after two max players this summer, will be first in line.
When the Miami Heat (who finished a game out of the playoffs) resolve their contractual situation with Chris Bosh, there’s no reason they couldn’t come hard after Griffin. They’d be offering a chance to play with a very good point guard in Goran Dragic, an near All-Star level center in Hassan Whiteside and lots of shooters and role players. (And, Prime 112.) The Heat could use its cap room to re-sign most of its existing players, to be sure, but one would have to think they could comprise the nucleus of a championship team for that to make much sense.
There is, of course, Oklahoma City. It’s Griffin’s hometown, which also happens to have an available spot at power forward -- though the Thunder currently has no cap space for 2017-18, with its extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo kicking in, along with the second year of Russell Westbrook’s extension. Those four players alone total more than $89 million.
The Thunder could conceivably acquire Griffin in a sign-and-trade deal, but it would have to be no more than $6 million above the luxury tax “apron” under the rules of the newly ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement after making the trade. As he would no doubt command a max salary, getting 30 percent of next year’s total cap as a player with between seven and nine years of experience, it’s hard to see how OKC could pull that off.
And even though Chicago hasn’t been as aggressive in free agency as other teams recently, with Michael Reinsdorf now handling almost all of the team’s big decisions instead of his father -- the team’s chairman, Jerry Reinsdorf -- the Bulls could be more inclined to make a big move next summer. They looked like a teardown for sure at the trade deadline, but the team’s surprisingly strong first-round showing against Boston may have changed the team’s calculus.
Griffin is still one of the league’s premier power forwards, capable of dominating a game with his passing from the elbows now as much as his formerly high-flying jaunts to the hoop. He’s averaged about five assists a game three straight seasons and he’s never shot less than this season’s .493 from the field.
Griffin can opt out of the final year of his deal with the Clippers by the end of June. If he opts in for 2017-18, he’ll make $21.3 million next season. But no one expects him to do that when he can get another max deal either from the Clips or someone else. Los Angeles can offer him a five-year deal for almost $180 million. If he were to sign with someone else, they could only offer him four years, with smaller raises each season than if he re-signed with the Clippers.
If the injury requires surgery, Griffin could still be rehabbing when he hits free agency. Noted trainer Tim Grover, who worked with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade during his career, sent a Tweet Saturday saying the recovery period following surgery for a plantar plate could be between four and five months. But even if that turns out to be the case it won’t impact teams’ pursuit of Griffin.
“We don’t have money,” one team executive said Sunday, “but, no -- he’ll get the max.”
Recent history suggests that that will indeed be the case. Players coming off of very serious injuries in recent years -- guard Wesley Matthews (torn Achilles’), and forwards Amar’e Stoudemire and Chandler Parsons (both returning from microfracture knee surgery) -- have all nonetheless gotten max deals. The New York Knicks, after striking out on LeBron James in 2010, gave Stoudemire $100 million over five years, even though the team couldn’t get insurance on him because of his knees.
In 2015, after DeAndre Jordan walked away from a verbal deal with the Mavericks to stay with the Clippers, Dallas actually bumped up its offer to Matthews, and gave him a four-year deal for $70 million. And last summer, the Memphis Grizzlies gave Parsons $92 million over four.
There is, though, the case of Joakim Noah, who got $72 million from the Knicks last summer. He was a shell of himself through 46 games this season before being shut down for good in February to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery.
In the post-cap spike NBA, every new contract, especially for the game’s superstars, with their enormous price tags, is going to be scrutinized much more than before.
And prospective teams will have to thoroughly examine Griffin’s history of injuries, dating back to what should have been his rookie season, 2009-10. But Griffin missed the whole year after suffering a stress fracture of his left kneecap late in the preseason. He got through his next three seasons quite healthy, missing a total of just four games during that stretch, and only had one significant injury during the 2014-15 season -- surgery for a staph infection in his elbow that cost him 15 games and kept him out of the All-Star Game.
But the last two seasons have been nightmares. Griffin missed 45 games in 2015-16, starting with a torn left quad, but which also included a broken hand suffered during a fight with his friend and a Clippers’ equipment manager, Matias Testi. The Clippers suspended Griffin for four games without pay upon his return later in the season. His hand healed, but Griffin’s playoffs last season were terminated after just four first-round games against Portland, when he aggravated the quad injury and missed the rest of the series.
The Clippers revamped their entire basketball operations department during the offseason, bringing in a small army of development specialists who sought to maximize their players’ performance with regularly mandated rest during the regular season at the first hint of overload or fatigue. And they dictated days off for Griffin during the regular season, even when he chafed at the directives.
Griffin still missed 18 regular-season games this season after undergoing right knee surgery just before last Christmas, but he and the Clippers had gotten to the end of the regular season healthy, and were playing some of their best ball of the season entering the playoffs. And, now, this, on a seemingly innocuous first-half drive in Game 3 Friday.
All the injuries “would give me pause,” another team exec texted Sunday. “But I think someone will give (the max) to him.”
Another long-time team executive used almost the exact same phrase. “It will make people pause,” the executive texted Sunday. “Especially after Noah in New York.”
Several high-profile athletes have suffered plantar plate injuries in recent years.
Albert Pujols of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was reduced to designated hitter duties down the stretch of the 2015 season after tearing the plantar plate in his right big toe, and underwent surgery in November of that year. He had to wear a boot on his foot for seven weeks after the surgery. But Pujols was able to return and play in 152 games the following season for the Angels, hitting 31 homers and driving in 119 runs.
NFL players Pierre Garcon, Sean Lee and DeMarco Murray have also suffered plantar plate injuries in recent years that dramatically slowed or stopped their production. Garcon missed four games for the Washington Redskins after suffering the injury on opening day of the 2012 season, though he returned later in the season, and played in 62 of Washington’s 64 games over the last four seasons.
“For me, it was my second toe,” Garcon, who signed a deal in March with the San Francisco 49ers, said by telephone Sunday evening. “Planting, pushing off was the hard part. The sprinting. That’s what we need to play football, to sprint off your toes, the balls of your feet … when you’re playing and you have that tear, it feels like a needle’s going through there.”
Garcon modified his shoes when he came back, putting more padding in both cleats to make them softer. He tried wider shoes so they weren’t as tight on his feet. He taped his toes differently and got ice and foot massages.
“Just staying on top of it,” he said. “You can definitely bounce back from it. But you have to play with your shoes, you have to do a lot of rehab … the next year, I kind of felt more comfortable, because I kept doing (the same) rehab, the same treatment and stuff that kept me out for a while. I just stayed on top of it. For him, I’d say next season he’d be back feeling normal. But everybody’s different. He probably weighs a lot more, so there’s a lot more pain on his feet.”
For the short term, the Clippers will try to survive with Marreese Speights at power forward, and lean on Paul even more for his scoring and passing. They could still beat Utah without Griffin. Even with Griffin, though, the Clips have lost 10 straight times to Golden State, almost certainly their next opponent in the conference semifinals if they get past the Jazz.
And if you haven’t beaten Golden State in two years, are you going to throw something in the neighborhood of $400 million at Paul and Griffin to keep the nucleus of the current team together -- one that doesn’t seem good enough to beat the west’s standard bearer?
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