What if I told you that on a per-game basis, Blake Griffin is slated to make more money than Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, or LeBron James? What if I told you that on that same per-game basis, Danilo Gallinari will make more than Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard, or Kevin Love? It’s all true, at least based on a calculation that looks at average annual salary of a player’s current contract divided by the average games-played-per-season of his career. And in case you’ve been living in a bomb shelter, both Griffin and Gallo are contracted to play basketball for the Los Angeles Clippers for the next three seasons.
It seems like bad money and like there’s a high potential for the experiment in long-term investment to injury-prone players to crumble. But maybe it will crumble in on itself like a building strategically designed by blast engineers to collapse on itself and thus not injure anyone or anything nearby? And maybe that’s why I’m so damn intrigued by it all?
For his career, the 28-year-old Griffin is averaging 59 games played-per-season. Gallo, soon-to-be 29, is worse; averaging just 51 games-per-season – or 62 percent of total possible games. And they’re both signed to generous deals; Griffin for five years at an annual average of over $34 million and Gallo three years with annual average of over $21 million.
*Salary data courtesy of Spotrac.com
There are plenty of holes that can be poked in the table above, but the two general takeaways that remain are that Gallo and Blake are both injury-prone and both highly-paid relative to the other players who make similar money. Also, they’re both likely on the wrong side of their primes, barring Barry Bonds-like resurgences. Yet this is the direction of the new Jerry West/Doc Rivers partnership? I don’t know if it’s odd, but in a world where Kentavious Caldwell-Pope just signed with the Lakers for one year and $18 million, Gallo at least looks questionable.
This marriage of the old guard (Rivers, Blake, DeAndre Jordan) with the new (Jerry West, Gallo, haul from the Rockets trade, Milos Teodosic) is probably why their offseason and future are so intriguing. Pro basketball analysis has evolved to a place where culture and continuity are obvious components critical to team success. The Lob City Clippers had continuity, but culture? From former-owner Donald Sterling’s racism to Chris Paul’s acerbity to perceptions of favoritism regarding the coach’s son, it seemed to be a tense workplace with frequently unsatisfying results. Beyond the endless march to MRIs and X-rays, the team’s own identity seemed to hold them back.
The result is a roster with a foot in the past and one stretching toward uncertain future (and, if the past is any indicator, that foot stepping is likely to roll an ankle and miss part of the future). As of July, the roster looks to have ten new players for the upcoming season – or, over 60 percent roster turnover. So much for continuity, but it’s not like the old guard had progressed to where the team wanted to be. Of those new faces, half came over as part of the Rockets deal for Paul and could be constituted as Rockets West or the Los Angeles Rocclips.
As a sub-bullet, the former Rockets on the roster are equal in number to the carryover Clippers – each team is providing five players to the new-look Clippers. So you end up with five Clippers, five Rockets, Gallo, Teodosic, and two rookies (Jawun Evans and Sindarius Thornwell).
Beyond the cultural components of the roster, which I assume will be led by Rivers/Griffin/Jordan as the de facto team leaders based on role and tenure, are the on-court stylistic options, it’s a funky bunch. Jordan and Beverley are both quality defenders while Rivers and Griffin are competent. Gallo, by contrast, is not. He’s one of just 44 players 6-foot-10 or taller to appear in 450+ games with steal and block rates below 1.5 percent — another on this list is Griffin. No one off the bench projects as a plus-defender either. Dekker and Harrell don’t lack effort, but both have positional defensive limitations. Liggins can defend, but there are no guarantees he’s still on the roster come November.
Pivot to shooting and things are a bit rosier with Gallo, Rivers, and Beverley but between the three of them, they have just two seasons shooting over 40 percent from deep. For all of Lou Williams’s volume scoring exploits, he’s just an average 3-point shooter, under 35 percent for his career. Contrast that with the loss of Paul, Redick, and Crawford who combined to shoot ~6-15 from deep per-game last season for a 40 percent rate and there’s a significant drop-off. Though, the jump in shooting from Luc Richard Mbah A Moute (shot 39 percent on under 1.5 attempts last season) to Gallo is a massive one for which defenses will have to account. The other wildcard is Griffin. He attempted nearly two 3s per-game last year which was easily a career-high. He only made 33 percent, but if he can make the steady kind of gains from deep that he’s made at the free throw line or that we’ve seen from DeMarcus Cousins, the team will have loads more space for each of Griffin, Gallo, and Rivers to operate.
The player I haven’t mentioned is Teodosic. This scouting report from Trevor Magnotti is great as an intro into the Serbian guard’s game. His passing is otherworldly, his shooting is good (shooting 40 percent on nearly seven attempts over the past three seasons for CSKA Moscow), but his defense is an abomination. Or, as Magnotti wrote, “To say it’s [effort] lacking is an offense to the word lacking. This is a man who does not care in the slightest on this end of the floor.” In Williams, Gallo, and Teodosic, there are three truly poor defenders. This limits Rivers’s ability to mix and match lineups.
This known/unknown commodity to Teodosic’s NBA game combined with the ever-so-unlikely possibility that Gallo and Griffin stay healthy is the core of why the hell I’m spending time researching and writing about this team. We know Beverley and we know Jordan. We don’t know a healthy Gallo or what Teodosic looks like alongside all-world finishing dunk masters like Blake and DeAndre. And I at least have forgotten what a Blake Griffin comprised of all his powers looks like. Just to remind myself, this is a player who averaged 25-13-6 with a steal and a block in the 2015 Playoffs; a player who, through 16 games and a 14-2 record in 2016-17 was considered a top-five MVP candidate.
There’s a high-water mark made up of frisky, competitive basketball where Pat Beverley carries the troll torch that’s probably one of the most identifiable traits from the Blake/CP Clippers. In this world, health isn’t an issue and Doc finds a rotational rhythm that accounts for some of this their defensive deficiencies. They compete despite finally being at a talent disadvantage. Maybe there’s a competitive second round series or their opponent suffers injuries for a change and the Clippers ironically reach the Western Conference Finals by beating the Rockets.
There’s the expected outcome too. Glimpses of the ceiling when Teodosic is finding the roll-man on wraparound pocket passes and scoop lobs and the highlights run on loops, but the team gives up 115-points and Blake and Gallo never gel because they’re taking turns getting hurt. Maybe this version makes the playoffs and gets swept and we all shrug because when what we expect to happen actually happens and no matter how much pride we take in our pseudo-expert ability to analyze and make rational predictions, our chaos-craving selves want to be surprised.
And there’s the sad, pathetic Murphy’s Law where it all comes undone because damnit, what happens is the only thing that can happen. Blake’s toe never heals and Gallo is only healthy for 33 games. Of course, in this world, Gallo averages 27 on 45 percent 3-point shooting for the half-season he’s healthy just to tease Clipper Darrell. Meanwhile, Teodosic finds that at 30 and with questionable effort and athleticism, the NBA game with its extended range and emphasis on defensive versatility is a game in which he doesn’t fit. These Clippers miss the playoffs and the West/Ballmer/Rivers triumvirate spend long hours staring at each other without answers; just big personalities in a well-adorned room filled with what-ifs and failure.
Gallo, Teodosic, Jerry West. Strange white hopes in Clipperland, but the only hope who can sway this thing is the 34-million-dollar-a-year-man: Blake Griffin. His is a talent modeled after LeBron’s in that he combines generational physical ability with the skill of the tactician. His talent allows the presence of a below-average playmaker like Beverley in the way James Harden did. It makes life easier on Jordan, and likely on Gallo too (who also makes it easier on Blake). But with a toe injury that still hasn’t healed and with his status for the start of the season still unknown, it’s fair to expect the expected; that these Clippers struggles, that Blake and Gallo have massive per-game-salaries, and that the Clippers, no matter how intriguing they are in July, can only hope to be a speedbump in the west come May.