Injuries are a factor in every NBA season. This season the injury bug seems to have hit with a particular vengeance, felling high profile players across the league, with six 2013 All Stars (Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kobe Bryant, Rajon Rondo, Brook Lopez and Jrue Holiday), the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year (Marc Gasol) and the 2011 MVP (Derrick Rose, who is out for the second consecutive season) currently on the sidelines.
The Los Angeles Clippers have underperformed slightly against their pre-season expectations, and now that Paul is out with a separated shoulder, we'll likely have to wait until after the All Star break to see the team at full strength. But even before Paul's injury, the Clippers were being impacted by injuries to significant players. In particular, the injury to J.J. Redick seemed to go under the radar in the national media, but was a major impact on the team's offense.
Redick missed all of December and the beginning of January, 21 games in all, with a broken bone in his hand and a torn ligament in his wrist. In October and November, in the 17 games with Paul and Redick forming the starting backcourt, the Clippers were the offensive juggernaut that most experts expected them to be, compiling an ORtg of 107.9 points per 100 possessions, 3rd in the NBA during that time. Over the next 21 games which were played without Redick, their ORtg dropped into the middle of the pack, 104.8, 13th in the league. In Redick's return to action Friday night, the Clippers hung 102 points on the Lakers -- through three quarters.
There's no single definition for which teams are contenders, but if you look at the eight teams with a winning percentage above .600 as of today, you might be surprised at which team has lost the most starter games to injury. It's not Oklahoma City, who have been without Westbrook for 12 games so far and have lost 19 starter-games. It's not Golden State, who played without Andre Iguodala for a dozen games as well, the bulk of their 16 lost starter-games.
In fact, the Clippers and the Rockets have lost 26 starter games to injury each, tops among the contenders, and the Clippers have another 16 or so to go on Chris Paul's injury alone. And while the Thunder are dealing with the absence of an All Star, the Clippers are the only contender that has had to cope with an injury to a first team All NBA talent. When you factor in Matt Barnes' injuries, the Clippers have in fact played just eight out of 39 games this season with their top eight players in uniform, and even then Barnes could hardly have been considered healthy for most of those.
The following table lists the top eight teams in the league by winning percentage, and the number of starter-games lost to injury for each team.
It's certainly not a coincidence that the most surprising teams in each conference -- the Pacers in the East and the Blazers in the West -- have been all but injury free this season. Of course the Pacers began the season without Danny Granger, but their starters have been together for all but four games, and they've employed just three different starting lineups, second fewest in the league. Portland on the other hand is the only team in the league to start the same five in every single game -- an obvious advantage for a team with a suspect bench.
Of course, relying on improved health as a reason to expect improved performance on the court only makes sense if one can reasonably expect improved health. Derrick Rose isn't walking through that door any time soon, so the Bulls aren't suddenly going to make a surge based on his return. The Thunder and the Clippers, as of now, each expect to have their All Star point guards back after the All Star break for the final third of the season and hope for a corresponding boost down the stretch.
For the Clippers, provided that their other key contributors remain relatively healthy, the return of a full strength Chris Paul would mark their healthiest state of the season. Jared Dudley has struggled through the first half while dealing with painful tendinitis in his knee. The current four day break in the schedule has him feeling "about 90 percent" at this point, and he is looking forward to the time off over the All Star break to get all the way back. I asked him if he would consider taking some time off now that the other injured wings are all back for the Clippers and he said that while he had wanted to do that earlier in the season but couldn't because of the rash of injuries, he isn't considering it at this point because he is getting so close and feels he can push through while helping the team. Small forward has been the weakest position for the Clippers this season, but neither Dudley nor Barnes have been fully healthy. There's no guarantee that they will be, but it's reasonable to suspect that they can play better than they have.
There's another significant reason to believe that we haven't seen the Clippers at their very best yet this season. While they did have their top eight rotation players in uniform for eight games, those eight games fell in the first three weeks, while the Clippers struggled in Doc Rivers' new defensive system. The difference between the Clippers defensively in the first 14 games (DRtg 105 points per 100 possessions, 27th in the league) and since then (DRtg 97.3, second in the league) is night and day, but we have scarcely seen the improved defense with the regular starters. When we did see those things come together, the Clippers won back-to-back games by a combined score of 214-162.
Whether the Clippers can actually pair their top three offense (17 games with Paul and Redick starting in the backcourt) with their top three defense (last 25 games after fully assimilating Rivers' defense) once Paul returns remains to be seen. It goes without saying that if they can do that, they will be one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA and poised for a great stretch run and postseason.