Losing their star PG could douse Clips' postseason chances in loaded West
(Don't shoot the messenger!)
The mildly disappointing season of the Los Angeles Clippers hit another road bump Friday when MVP candidate Chris Paul went down with a separated right shoulder. The timetable for Paul's return is three to five weeks, though Clippers coach Doc Rivers conceded that his star's recovery could take even longer.
After replacing Vinny Del Negro on the sidelines with Rivers during the offseason, and adding key role players Darren Collison, Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, the Clippers entered this season as a popular choice to win the Western Conference. With Paul exploding out of the gate, the Clippers looked like an offensive juggernaut in the early going. However, the loss of Redick to a broken wrist stemmed the tide a bit, and the Clippers have struggled with consistency. Los Angeles is just .500 on the road and tied in the loss column with upstart Phoenix on top of the Pacific Division. With most of the Western Conference playoff contenders so clustered, the loss of Paul threatens to throw some serious obstacles in the Clippers' eventual playoff path.
In reality, as we near the halfway point of the season, the Clippers have taken a minor step back from 2012-13, the most successful campaign in the lackluster history of the franchise. Los Angeles' .657 winning percentage is off from last season's .683, and its point differential is nearly a point per game worse. These setbacks aside, the Clippers remained in the title chase before Paul's injury, garnering an 8.3 percent chance to win it all per the most recent Hollinger Playoff Odds report. In the big picture, what has changed?
Paul's shot at MVP
For Paul, the loss of five weeks hinders his MVP case in a season with several strong candidates. Through Friday, Paul ranked third in the league in WARP (8.6), just behind Kevin Durant (8.8) and Kevin Love (8.6). LeBron James lurks just behind (8.3) and you figure he's due for one of his uber-streaks of otherworldly play. Stephen Curry and Paul George might also worm their way into the mix.
Paul was in the hunt for the MVP, which seems secondary now.
Assuming Paul returns in the quoted time frame, it's likely he'll slip behind the players mentioned. However, if the Clippers struggle while he's out, then go on a streak when he returns, it could have the ironic effect of enhancing Paul's MVP campaign.
That's the least of Paul's worries today. It's troublesome that the separation occurred in Paul's shooting shoulder. We can only speculate what sort of lingering effects the injury will have on one of the league's most efficient shooters, and there isn't a lot of recent history to look at, as it's not a terribly common injury type in basketball, at least according to my injury data. The upshot is that since it's an upper-body injury, presumably Paul will be able to maintain his conditioning. Assuming that the issue is fully resolved by the time Paul is cleared to return to action, he will hopefully be able to hit the ground running.
The Clippers went 6-6 with Paul out last season, but had one of this season's breakout players -- Eric Bledsoe, ironically, now with the Suns -- waiting in reserve. Last season, Bledsoe struggled somewhat in the larger role, averaging 14.2 points, 5.3 assists and shooting 40.5 percent in Paul's absence. This season, the Clippers have Collison around to take over, who is a pretty nice fallback option. Collison emerged as a sought-after NBA point guard back in 2009-10, when he filled in for an injured Paul for New Orleans.
That season, Collison put up 18.8 points and 9.1 assists during the 37 games he started for Paul while averaging more than 40 minutes per game. He is likely looking at a similar workload this time around. The big difference is that Collison has played off the ball a lot of time this season, which won't be the case with Paul out. Collison should be able to take over some of Paul's scoring load, as his true shooting percentage (.565) is in the same neighborhood as Paul's (.578). However, the gap will likely grow as Collison uses a larger portion of the Clippers' possessions.
Without Paul, the Clippers will have to lean heavily on Griffin.
More crucial will be how well Collison replaces Paul's role as playmaker and his league-best assist rate. Collison's history as a decision-maker is spotty, and turnovers often have limited his playability. The Clippers have the sixth-lowest turnover rate in the league, and since they don't hit the offensive glass particularly hard, they can't really afford a spike in miscues. If Rivers tries to compensate by sending Blake Griffin to the glass more often, that could hinder the Clippers defensively against some of the West's better running teams.
While Collison will be under the proverbial microscope, it's Griffin who will have to step up. Griffin has been playing his best basketball of the season in recent games, but now he's going to have to dance to a new tune, so to speak, without the maestro Paul around to attract defenders and set Griffin up on the pick-and-roll.
According to the on/off-court database at nbawowy.com, Griffin has a 28.3 percent usage rate and a .559 true shooting percentage this season when sharing the floor with Paul, but no Collison. When he's playing with Collison and not Paul, Griffin has a 24.7 percent usage rate and a .573 true shooting percentage. The usage drops a little because of the presence of Jamal Crawford in many of those Collison-but-no-Paul lineups, but the increase in efficiency is a great sign, for both Griffin and the Clippers.
Paul is one of the league's top clutch players, and ranks fifth in scoring this season during the last five minutes of games that are within five points or fewer. However, Griffin and Crawford also have taken a lot of shots in those situations and have both shot a better percentage than Paul. Of course, much of that is due to Paul's decision-making at the point in end-game situations. It's likely that when he needs a big basket, Rivers will now run a lot of two-man basketball with Crawford and Griffin. He should have Redick back soon, and in him, Matt Barnes and Dudley, the Clippers have plenty of veteran spot-up shooters to take big shots. Paul is as good as it gets in the clutch, but the Clippers have more than enough to work with for a short stretch.
Losing Paul throws a wrench into the works, but this is just the kind of adversity a title team overcomes. If the Clippers collapse in the interim, they were never a bona fide championship contender to begin with.
If Paul misses five weeks, that would put him back in action after the All-Star break. He'd miss 20 games by that point, 10 at home and 10 on the road, and 13 of those games are against the Eastern Conference. In other words, it's not the most brutal stretch of schedule an NBA team could have. Given that the Clippers have outscored opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions with Paul off the floor, you can easily envision Rivers escaping with something like a 12-8 mark during his star's absence, perhaps better.
That would leave the Clippers 31-20 with a recovered and rested Paul for the stretch run. L.A. might well sink to No. 6 or No. 7 in the West by then, but it's unlikely they'll fall far off the logjam of teams that reside on its tier. With more than one-third of the campaign to go when Paul returns, the Clippers will have ample opportunity to make a run at a home playoff seed.
In other words, all things are still on the table for Rivers and his club. Losing Paul throws a wrench into the works, but this is just the kind of adversity a title team overcomes. If the Clippers collapse in the interim, they were never a bona fide championship contender to begin with.