One of the things that people sometimes overlook when evaluating a team in the post-injury stage is that there's a domino effect that takes place. When one player leaves, another might step in and he might do a sound job but the guy behind him isn't ready for the role he'll step into. In the case of the Los Angeles Clippers, the team will be missing Blake Griffin for the foreseeable future. And while Spencer Hawes can be a capable replacement for him at times during a game, it'll take all hands on deck for the team to stay afloat. But is it possible?
One of the other mitigating factors in yesterday's blowout loss was that Glen Davis got injured early on when it was still a ten point game in the second quarter. Davis isn't great. He's marginal at best. But his ability as a post-defender with his quick hands and sturdy body enable him to at least compete down there against taller post players. The Clippers will be without him probably until after the All-Star Break. That's neither here nor there, though, since the real root cause of all of this is the staph infection to Blake Griffin's right elbow. Without that injury, Davis isn't thrown into the possibility of more playing time and responsibilities that he cannot shoulder. The dominoes are falling.
What exactly will the Clippers be missing without Griffin on the court? The only player in the National Basketball Association that averages 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists per game. His full numbers are 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 5.1 assists on 50.1 percent from the field, 38.1 percent from beyond the arc, and 71.8 percent from the free throw line. While his Effective Field Goal Percentage (50.6) and True Shooting Percentage (55.0) fall into the category of being the worst and second worst seasons in his career, for each respective category, anyone who has actually watched him this season has seen the strides he's made as a player. Griffin is no longer throwing his body mindlessly into the paint in hopes of a dunk or foul call. He's now probing to find the holes in the defense and exploit them with his much-improved jumper and has mixed in going to the rim once defenses overcommit to him on the perimeter.
There are 81 players this season who have taken at least 100 attempts from 16-to-24 feet. Blake Griffin currently ranks second in total attempts behind Portland Trail Blazers power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. Griffin also ranks 41st in field goal percentage from that range and is making 40.7 percent of his shots there. That's a higher percentage than notable big men Marc Gasol, Jordan Hill, Serge Ibaka, Carlos Boozer, and DeMarcus Cousins. Guys who you would peg as having good mid-range jumpers just based on reputation alone and the way they've played this season when asked to take them. Griffin falls just a smidgen behind LeBron James and Markieff Morris when it comes to mid-range shooting this year. Aldridge has made 42.3 percent of his shots from that range so Griffin doesn't trail him by all that much. In fact, from 8-to-24 feet this year, Blake Griffin is shooting 40.6 percent while LaMarcus Aldridge is shooting 40.8 percent. Most people wouldn't expect that.
The above GIF focuses on the last two seasons by Blake Griffin, as it pertains to his shot selection and prowess from the three different areas on the court -- inside 8 feet, from 8-to-24 feet, and from beyond the three point line. However, over the last several weeks, Blake Griffin had been tailoring his game back into a great mix of attacking the rim and nailing mid-range jumpers. This hasn't been more evident than his play since January 1st where he was attacking inside just a tad more than he was settling for jumpers.
The little circle that showcases Griffin making 55 percent of his shots with a 7 percent shot volume is actually vital here. It's where the Clippers would run the pick-and-roll to free him up for a good luck at the basket. And, as evidenced, he was knocking them down at a very high rate. He's certainly no Dirk Nowitzki or Al Horford from that spot (or range), but Griffin had turned himself, through his work ethic and determination, into a very adept shooter from that area. And it opened up a lot of other things for the team.
Because of Griffin's ability to knock down the mid-range shot, some defenders even chose to start bodying him up further away from the hoop in an effort to deny him any easy looks. By doing this, it allowed Griffin to use his size-speed-strength combination to actually get by defenders and find teammates with his elite (for a big) passing ability. Whether it was J.J. Redick spotted up behind the three-point line, Matt Barnes ducking in for a backdoor layup, Jamal Crawford doing the same as Redick, or, most notably, DeAndre Jordan on an alley-oop; Blake Griffin's arsenal was expanding and teams were paying for playing him the wrong way.
The issue for the Clippers without Griffin shouldering the load for the front court now is that Spencer Hawes, who has shown the ability to shoot and score in the post, as well as be a really good high-post passer, is not the level of athlete or basketball player that Griffin is. And that's not a knock on Hawes at all. It's the sheer nature of the game. Blake Griffin can do things on a court that Spencer Hawes simply cannot do. Griffin stretches a defense and bends it to his will a lot of the time. The entire defense has to key in on what he's doing. They send double teams to combat him in the post, try to deny him in the post more than any other player on the team, and mug and grab and beat on him in an effort to tire him out. Hawes is a perimeter player who can sometimes play in the post. Griffin is everything.
Like the GIF about Blake Griffin over his last two years, this is Spencer Hawes' shot chart over the last two seasons. This season with the Clippers, his first in Los Angeles, he's seen an increase in three-point shot volume but a decrease in shot volume near the rim. His mid-range shot volume has stayed roughly the same. The biggest difference between Hawes and Griffin, stylistically, is that Hawes wants to venture out towards the three-point line more whereas Griffin wants to hover around that 18-foot area and await a pass or get the ball and create for others. Hawes cannot really create for others in the way that Griffin can. Let's face it, very few players in the NBA can do that.
With Hawes, it's a much more deliberate offensive system that puts more of the onus on Chris Paul to be the main ball-handler and playmaker whereas Griffin was there to assist Paul in those duties. The upside to Hawes instead of Griffin actually comes defensively and with protecting the rim. Thanks to Seth Partnow and Nylon Calculus, we're able to see just how effective certain players are as rim protectors. None of the Clippers bigs, DeAndre Jordan included, rank in the Top 30 in the NBA in Points Saved Per 36 Minutes. Jordan ranks tied with Aron Baynes of the San Antonio Spurs for 40th (0.07). Blake Griffin (-2.25) ranks as one of the worst rim protecting big men, and that's to be expected because of his short arms and lack of a great defensive game. Spencer Hawes actually grades out better than Griffin, though, with a mark of -1.07. While that's still not good, it's not far behind Joakim Noah (-0.91) and is ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge (-1.51), Chris Bosh (-1.85), and Kevin Garnett (-2.04). Hawes and Jordan actually allow the same field goal percentage (49.3 percent) at the rim, as well. And both marks barely rank ahead of Anthony Davis (49.4 percent).
The thing to keep in mind with the Hawes addition to the starting lineup is that he will be guarding power forwards more than centers, a scenario that was entirely reversed when he was coming off of the bench. Because of Jordan's shot blocking, the Clippers will prefer to keep Jordan along the back line and have Hawes defend in space. If there's one thing Spencer Hawes cannot do, it's defend in space. He lacks the proper footwork and agility to do so even at an adequate level. While it is a brutally small sample size, just 30 minutes of action together this season, the lineup of Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Spencer Hawes, and DeAndre Jordan have a Defensive Rating of 131.2. That's impossibly bad. Even their Offensive Rating of 113.5, which is really good, cannot combat that horrid level of defense.
On the bright side, it is just 30 minutes of play together and the team will undoubtedly get more time together to work out the kinks and such while Griffin is out. The problem stems from the fact that their upcoming schedule is really unforgiving. While the All-Star Break is only a few days away, they still have to play the Dallas Mavericks tonight and the Houston Rockets on Wednesday. If Griffin's injury does keep him out the four to six weeks that's been tossed around, the Clippers could be in serious trouble. Over the next four weeks, they'll have to play, in order, at Mavericks, Rockets, Spurs, Kings, Grizzlies, at Rockets, at Grizzlies, at Bulls, at Timberwolves, Blazers, at Warriors, and Timberwolves. That's just in the next four weeks. The only teams that currently do not hold a winning record out of that group are the Kings and Timberwolves but without Blake Griffin those games are not easy or even remotely close to being sure-fire locks. If it's closer to the six weeks, then we're also looking at games at the Thunder, at Mavericks, Rockets, Hornets, at Kings, Wizards, and Pelicans. Nothing easy there, either.
A lot of the pressure to perform will fall squarely on the shoulders of Chris Paul but, even with as great as he is, the problem this team now faces go far beyond anything he's able to do. As of a few days ago, the Clippers were a lock to make the playoffs. Now? They're only five games up in the loss column of 9th place New Orleans and six games up in the loss column on 10th place Oklahoma City. There is now a very realistic possibility that the Clippers do not make the playoffs this season. The injury to Blake Griffin is that severe. While the team was able to tread water and perform well without Chris Paul last season, Griffin's absence brings up an entirely different animal. The team revolves itself around the pick-and-roll combination of its two stars and the off-ball movement of the roleplayers. Without the vital cog coming off the pick, the team now misses out on the ability to take advantage of overeager defenses collapsing onto Griffin on the roll or Griffin being free off the pop. Now, teams will blitz Paul and give zero thought to Spencer Hawes in pick-and-roll action.
Teams will live with someone like Hawes beating them. They weren't able to live with themselves if Griffin was the one bashing their brains in for 48 minutes. As great as Chris Paul is, and he's one of the greatest point guards in the history of the NBA, he might not be enough to sustain the team while Griffin is gone. The added absence of Glen Davis, for however long, also hurts the team by having to play Hedo Turkoglu more minutes at spots he's not good at -- i.e. power forward and center. While Hedo can play the stretch four at times, his work as the backup small forward has proven invaluable to the team during some games. It throws the entire balance of the team off, though.
No Griffin means more Hawes which means more Davis and Hedo which means more time for the bench on the floor which means less production as a team. The other injury the Clippers are dealing with -- the one to J.J. Redick -- also has hurt them because it's moved Austin Rivers into the starting lineup. While Rivers has proven to be a good defender with the team, he's clearly not even in the same stratosphere as Redick offensively. The complex issues the team faces without Griffin is far more advanced due to their lack of legitimate big man depth. Hawes will be serviceable, but he won't be Griffin. No one is.
We all watched and cringed at how bad Oklahoma City looked without Kevin Durant this season (11-16 without him) and how terrible Cleveland looked without LeBron James (2-8 without him). Even the San Antonio Spurs without Kawhi Leonard (9-9) have felt some pains. Now it's the Clippers turn to see how the team copes with the loss of their superstar forward and key cog. Especially in a season in which it seems like Chris Paul has passed the torch to Blake Griffin at times. Make no mistake, this team will struggle without Griffin. A lot. That's not an indictment on Chris Paul, Doc Rivers, or anyone else, though. It's a testament to how great and impactful of a player Blake Griffin truly is.
For the first time since the team acquired Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers are staring down the very real scenario in which they're sitting at home watching the playoffs without ever participating in them. It'll be all hands on deck. It just might not be enough. The playoff race in late March and early April could get a whole lot more interesting, especially if the Clippers are fighting to make it and Blake Griffin is back. Without him, there's just no telling how far the team might slip.