The Clippers suffered their latest bout of bad news earlier this week when Chris Paul tore a ligament in his left thumb and required surgery, meaning he will miss the next six to eight weeks. This, of course, after the franchise had already lost Blake Griffin for three-to-six weeks following knee surgery in mid-December, and not too far removed from their 8-12 skid from late November through the New Year.
With Paul expected to return in early-to-mid March, and Griffin still out for another week or two, the fourth-seeded Clippers risk plummeting down the Western Conference playoff standings as they embark on arguably their most challenging juncture of the season. Eleven of their next 14 games are on the road, and they face the Warriors (three times), Spurs, Raptors, Rockets, Celtics, Jazz, Hawks (twice) and Hawks (twice) all before Paul’s projected return.
Griffin will return during the first half of that stretch, but there’s no telling how long it will take him to shake off the rust of missing over a month of basketball, or how seamlessly the Clippers will adjust their offense around him without Paul. The Jazz are currently only two games behind the Clippers, and the Grizzlies and Thunder are only 4.5 games back. It’s possible all three are ahead of LA the next time Paul suits up.
The burden now falls on Griffin, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers and Raymond Felton to pick up Paul’s transcendent playmaking and efficient scoring. It’s a daunting task. Rivers and Felton have notably improved their play this season when Paul has been out, but it hasn’t translated to anywhere near the same level of efficiency on either end of the floor, and both still rate as below-average players.
With Paul on the bench, the Clippers have been a disaster this season, posting a -4.9 net rating in 962 minutes — a figure equivalent to the 13-29 Phoenix Suns, who sport the third-worst record in the league. This is nothing new, of course. The Clippers have struggled without Paul on the floor throughout his tenure in LA, posting a -4.7 net rating with him off the floor in 2015-16 and a -7.6 net rating in 2014-15, according to NBA.com/stats.
With Griffin on the floor and Paul on the bench the Clippers have actually thrived this season, posting a monster net rating of 22.4. However, there’s a lot of noise in that figure, as it comes from an incredibly small sample size of 85 minutes, according to nbawowy.com.
If we expand the sample size to previous seasons, it’s a mixed bag. Lineups with Griffin and no Paul did well in 2013-14 (posting a 4.7 net rating), but struggled in 2014-15 (-5.4 net rating) and 2015-16 (-7.8 net rating), per NBA.com/stats. The Clippers’ bench is clearly deeper this season than in years past, but it would be foolish to assume anything other than a steep decline without Paul, who leads the league in RPM and is unquestionably a top-5 MVP candidate.
Barring improved play and a hot streak from some combination of Redick, Rivers, Crawford, and/or Felton, the only logical way the Clippers can stay afloat offensively is if Griffin returns to prior levels of dominance — particularly his stretch during the 2013-14 season when Paul missed 20 games and Griffin finished third in MVP voting. While certainly possible, assuming Griffin will return and immediately play the best basketball of his career is wishful thinking.
The biggest challenge offensively for the Clippers will be replicating Paul’s ability to create easy shots. The Clippers’ percentage of assisted field goals drops from 60.5 percent with Paul on the floor (a number that ranks ninth league-wide) to 53.2 percent with him off of it (ranks 29th), according to NBA.com/stats. Look up basically any offensive figure and you’ll find that the Clippers score easier and assist more with Paul on the court.
Defensively, the Clippers might have an even greater letdown. LA has been 10.0 points per 100 possessions worse on defense without Paul this season (dropping from a 98.3 defensive rating to 108.3), putting them on par with the NBA’s 26th-best defense. Rivers and Felton can pressure the ball and handle most non-superstar perimeter threats, but there’s no replacing Paul, who’s the best defender at his position according to defensive RPM.
Besides the obvious decline on both ends of the floor, the biggest factor working against the Clippers is their upcoming schedule. A six-to-eight week window means Paul is projected to miss between 16-24 games. Given their record without him this season (2-5) and over the past two years (5-12, including playoffs), and the fact that Griffin will likely miss at least a few more games, the Clippers will be lucky to play .500 ball over the next month and a half. A 5-11 or 8-16 record — or worse — during Paul’s absence will almost certainly knock the Clippers out of contention for the No. 4 seed, and probably lock them into the battle for the No. 6 or No. 7 seed.
Which brings us to a silver lining: Paul’s injury all but assures that the Clippers won’t surpass the Spurs and/or Rockets for the No. 2 or No. 3 seed (their goal heading into the season). Doing so would keep the Warriors on the opposite side of the playoff bracket, which is every team’s goal in the West. Now, though, falling to the No. 6 or No. 7 seed — and still avoiding the Warriors until the conference finals — appears to be the next-best thing.
Playing the Spurs or Rockets without home-court advantage means the Clippers could lose in the first round again, but that gamble is preferable to beating the Jazz or Grizzlies in the 4/5 matchup and then getting smacked by the Warriors in the conference semifinals. Whether the Clippers lose in the first or second round is irrelevant — it’s conference finals or bust at this point. Plus, recent history suggests the Clippers are bad matchup for the Spurs and typically play the Rockets well (when healthy). LA has the requisite star power and playoff experience to make the Western Conference finals, and the 2/3/6/7 side of the West bracket makes that possible.
Overall, the Clippers should be fine. They have a 10.5-game lead over the eighth-seeded Nuggets, implying that even with a disastrous stretch they won’t slip far enough to miss the playoffs or face the Warriors in Round 1. Who knows, maybe learning to play without Paul and building the offense around Griffin gives the team a new weapon and proves to be a difference-maker in April and May. As long as Paul and Griffin are healthy and have a month or so to jell before the playoffs, the Clippers will be as tough of an out as any team outside of Oakland.
This is clearly a setback, though, and adds to the ridiculously long list of unlucky breaks in the CP3 era.