The Los Angeles Clippers are facing a stretch of at least 19 games without their superstar point guard and team leader Chris Paul, who has a Grade 3 separated shoulder. Paul is so important to the team, such a key component of everything that they do on the court, especially on offense, that there seems to be a feeling that the team will slowly (or not so slowly perhaps) slide down the standings during his absence. So just how bad will it get? Are the Clippers destined to lose the Pacific? To lose a spot in the top four in the Western Conference and enter the postseason with a series on the road? Is it perhaps even in the realm of possibility that they'll fall out of the postseason picture altogether?
Chris Paul arrived in Los Angeles to join the Clippers in December of 2011 just after the NBA lockout ended. In two plus seasons since then, the Clippers have played 184 games -- 164 with Paul, and 20 without him. As it happens, the team has won almost exactly two in three games with Paul (109-55) and exactly one in two games (10-10) without him.
So yes, the team is better with Paul, which is hardly a newsflash. What may be news is that they're far from a disaster without him. If we assume that the Clippers go 10-10 without Paul (including the loss in San Antonio on Saturday) they'll have a record of 33-22 at the All Star Break -- a winning percentage of .600, which certainly keeps them solidly in the playoff picture. It is true though that six other Western Conference teams are currently better than .600, so all other things being equal, they'll have some ground to make up to get back into the top four. In the Pacific Division specifically, the Warriors current winning percentage of .639 would equate to a record of 35-20 after 55 games. In that scenario, the Clippers would be in a massive two game hole with a mere 27 games remaining. Oh noes!
But upon further inspection, the Clippers non-Paul record over the past couple years is actually a little better than it appears to be at first glance. For one thing, through sheer randomness, 13 of the team's last 15 games without Paul have come on the road, with 14 road games total in the 20 sans CP3. Their Paul-less record in home games has been 4-2; on the road, they've been 6-8 -- which is more than a respectable road record.
Not only has their Paul-less schedule been very road heavy, when you look at the point differential for those 20 games, they've actually got an average margin of victory of +2.45 -- which equates to a Pythagorean winning percentage much close to .600 than to .500. They've lost some close games without their closer on the floor, but they've generally been better than a .500 team.
While the home/road mix without Paul the last two years has been very tough, they have had gotten a bit lucky regarding the level of competition. Among the 20 opponents were eight playoff teams and 12 non-playoff teams (I'm using actual post season appearances for games prior to this season, and counting the Spurs as a playoff team and the Kings as a non-playoff team this year, which seems reasonable). They've gone 3-5 against the better teams, 7-5 against the lesser teams.
As we've seen in the analysis that citizen Axxer did on the games from now to the All Star break, the Clippers once again will have some weak competition to face without Paul, with 12 sub-.500 teams among the next 19 opponents. However, they have a much more reasonable home/road mix than in years past, with 10 home games and nine road games.
Given the team's historical performance without Paul, especially the point differential, and the level of the competition they're facing, I believe that 11-8 would be a conservative estimate for the next 19 games, and I could make a pretty strong case for 12-7.
Of course we're just going to have to wait and see what happens. It's entirely possible also that the Clippers will be 10 games back of the Warriors at the All Star break, especially if Golden State never, ever loses again. And who knows what's going to happen with teams like Phoenix and Portland and Oklahoma City and Houston. And it's also possible that Paul's absence could drag on beyond the All Star break. But as of now, reports of the Clippers demise are probably a bit pre-mature. Let's just see how they play.