Their season trending sharply downward, the Boston Celtics may need to get inventive to avoid a full-on free fall or, at the very least, to salvage what is looking more and more like a failed experiment with Kemba Walker.
Could Blake Griffin be the answer?
Monday afternoon, Detroit Pistons general manager Troy Weaver told ESPN that Griffin, the former perennial All-Star acquired in 2018 mere months after signing a five-year $171 million deal with the Clippers, had agreed to take a permanent seat on Detroit’s bench to open up playing time for the Piston’s young crop of players.
“We respect all the effort Blake has put forth in Detroit and his career and will work to achieve a positive outcome for all involved,“ said Weaver.
The agreement, which essentially amounts to paid time off for the 31-year-old veteran averaging 12.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists this season, means that Griffin is theoretically now in play ahead of the March 25 trade deadline. But few teams will have an interest in acquiring Griffin given what he’s owed over the remainder of his contract — $36.6 million this year and $39 million in 2021-22, according to Spotrac.
The Celtics, however, could make it work if they opted to part ways with the struggling Walker, who makes almost as much as Griffin annually. (Walker, according to Spotrac, will make $34.3, $36.0 and $37.6 million over the next three seasons before becoming an unrestricted free agent.)
Setting aside financials, it’s possible a Griffin-for-Walker deal could benefit both teams in the win column, while at the same time help them each move on from highly-publicized deals that haven’t exactly gone as planned.
But of course, in today’s NBA, financial considerations can never be set aside for long:
If the Celtics could manage to deal Walker to Detroit, Boston would essentially be off the hook for the third and final year of his contract, since Griffin’s contract expires a year earlier than Walker’s. That would mean almost $40 million in extra space for the team in green.
A Physical Presence
Though not the explosive player he once was (Griffin has not recorded a single dunk in 20 games this season, according to Basketball-Reference, a fact that would’ve once seemed unfathomable) his size and aggressiveness would immediately bolster a Boston squad that has had trouble defending inside the paint all season.
Griffin would give Boston an inside-outside option as well, something rarely seen all season. Griffin can also shoot from three — averaging two makes a game, though having a below-average year in percentage at 31.5%.
Walker leaving would almost certainly result in more playing time for some of Boston’s youngest players — a selection of Payton Pritchard, who already gets good minutes, Javonte Green, Carsen Edwards, Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford once he returns from injury — while of course keeping the ball primarily in the hands of stalwarts Jayson Tatum Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart. It’s possible the Celts could get point guard Delon Wright in the deal, too. Wright would provide length and a little veteran depth in the backcourt.
From the Detroit side, assuming he’s not dealt to another team, Walker would instantly give the Pistons a vital veteran presence in a backcourt lacking depth and experience. French import Killian Hayes, the 7th pick overall by the Pistons in 2020, is pegged as the point guard of the future, but right now he’s still very raw. Walker’s presence could help refine Hayes’ game while adding true star power and competitiveness as Hayes develops.
Walker came to Boston in 2019 from Charlotte where he was the best show in town for over a decade. He played well his first season with the Celtics and in the playoffs. But knee rehab kept him from starting this season on time and he’s been extremely erratic with only a handful of good games. Certainly not what Beantown expects from one of their superstars.
Griffin’s trade from the Clippers to Pistons came as a surprise, and he resented the move in general. Even so, he led Detroit to the playoffs in 2018-19, and, in many ways, his toughness resonated with the blue-collar sensibilities of Detroit fans. But injuries set him back and they diminished some of his trademark power and athleticism. which has led to where we are now.
Pressure to Act Now
The March 25 trade deadline has been top-of-mind for Celtics fans and management ever since Gordon Hayward’s sign-and-trade deal with Charlotte last offseason.
Hayward’s trade gave Boston the largest ever traded player exception in NBA history, $28.5 million, and fired up an almost constant debate over how best the Celtics should deploy their bounty, which becomes unavailable after one year.
While there is no lack of fervor over who the Celtics should acquire, Boston’s president of basketball operations, Danny Ainge, has stated on numerous occasions that he may opt to wait for better options to arise during the upcoming offseason. But with Boston’s recent slump (losers of 10 of their last 15 games) Ainge is feeling even more pressure to do something now.
“Just changing faces doesn’t always change things,” Ainge told the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy. “But it may come to that.”
Though any deal with Griffin would be outside the realm of the TPE, a swap between Walker and Griffin could allow Ainge to make a meaningful change while keeping the TPE in his holster.