Craig Smith's back has been bothering him since pre-season. After missing two of the last four games with back pain, he had an exam in Los Angeles on Tuesday. The MRI revealed a herniated discc in his lower back. He had an epidural and will be examined again in two weeks. He will be out at least those two weeks, and it will likely be more than that.
Smith joins a growing list of Clipper bigs currently sidelined. Chris Kaman has played in only ten of the team's 29 games this season. He sprained his left ankle in game eight, and when he attempted to come back after just two more games he realized something was still not right. Meanwhile, Brian Cook likewise twisted an ankle last Friday. According to LA Times
Medical Clippers beat writer Lisa Dillman, Kaman is out of his walking boot today, but Cook's injury is apparently more serious than we knew, and Cookie will be out three weeks.
At this point, Kaman could be the first of the three back. When he was rediagnosed on December 10th, it was determined that he had suffered a bone bruise, and the time frame was placed at "a minimum of three weeks." Having him out of the walking boot in eleven days seems like relatively good news, and maybe we can actually hope that he'll be close to that original estimate, which would have him back at the beginning of January. Then again, where a Kaman foot injury is concerned, time has a way of slipping away.
At any rate, it's clear that for the rest of December at least, the Clippers will be without the services of these three bigs. Now, it's hard to know what the depth chart really looks like at this point, since the team has been dealing with injuries all season. But it's safe to say that Kaman is their top center, and I think it's reasonable to call either Smith or Cook the primary backup at power forward. In other words, these are three of the Clippers top five options in the front court.
Because they are so shorthanded, the Clippers are reportedly planning to sign Ike Diogu on Wednesday. Diogu was a lottery pick for the Warriors in 2005 (taken one spot after Channing Frye, one spot ahead of Andrew Bynum and three spots ahead of Yaroslav Korolev, as points of reference). Early in his career he looked like a keeper. He played 15 minutes per game, shot over 52% and posted a very respectable 15.9 PER as a 22 year old rookie in 05-06. He was then traded to Indiana as sweetener for the Pacers in the blockbuster Dunleavy and Murphy for Jackson and Harrington trade. Unfortunately, Diogu's minutes have decreased essentially every year since his first season, in brief stays in Indy, Portland and Sacramento. He's capable of scoring in the NBA - his career shooting percentage is better than 50%, and he averages better than 17 points per 36 minutes, a number that has been pretty consistent through most of his stops. But he's a bit undersized for the four, and certainly wasn't capable of playing up tempo basketball for the Warriors or Pacers.
Prior to the 2009 season, he signed as a free agent in New Orleans, and I remember the Hornets people being very excited about him at the time. Unfortunately, he never played a minute in New Orleans, and in fact has not played in an NBA game since. He underwent microfracture surgery a year ago now and missed all of last season. He was in camp with the Pistons this year and appeared in three pre-season games for a total of 17 minutes.
He was never the most athletic guy, so a loss of athleticism post surgery might be less of a concern with him. His NBA career so far has seemed to be a story of wrong place, wrong time, and then the injury of course. I liked him a lot when he was in college at Arizona State - he was a monster, and was chosen the Pac 10 Conference player of the year against a field of competition that included Nate Robinson, Channing Frye, Brandon Roy and Salim Stoudamire. Let's hope he's ready to play some after his surgery, because he's likely to get a chance to show what he can do over the next few weeks at least. He may remind Clipper fans a bit of Elton Brand, at least physically: Brand measures a bit taller at 6'9" to Diogu's 6'8", but neither has much neck and both have long arms - Diogu's wingspan is 7'4", and his standing reach is 9'1", which is just an inch shorter than Brand's.
The good news for the Clippers is that against most teams they can get away with playing a bit smaller. During Monday's game against the Timberwolves, their first game with Kaman, Smith and Cook all injured, Blake Griffin (36 minutes), DeAndre Jordan (26) and Jarron Collins (13) combined to play 75 of an available 96 minutes at the center and power forward. Jordan and Collins were never on the floor together, which means that Griffin was playing center for 9 minutes, and either Ryan Gomes or Al-Farouq Aminu played 21 minutes of power forward. The Clippers have actually built a fairly flexible roster (one thing Neil Olshey definitely got right) of players who can move between multiple positions, and most nights they'll get away this lineup. But foul trouble or another injury could be disastrous at this point, so Diogu is an important insurance policy.
The Clippers have been a little lucky lately to have faced teams missing key bigs of their own. When they meet the Yao-less Rockets Wednesday night, it will be their third straight game against an opponent missing their starting center (Darko Milicic of the Wolves played 5 minutes Monday night before deciding his injured ankle wasn't ready).
Kaman obviously remains the real key missing piece here, and the Clippers have been dealing with that absence for the better part of the season, so they've more or less adjusted to it. But losing Smith and Cook in back-to-back wins is a definite blow to what had been shaping up as some pretty decent depth. We've got a level of confidence that Blake Griffin is going to be a factor in the front court every night - but for the next two weeks at least, Jarron Collins and Ike Diogu are going to have to contribute as well.