On the surface it would seem that Blake Griffin’s three-to-six week surgery couldn’t come at a worse time for a team that is slipping in the standings and virtually every advanced metric, but I’m here to tell you not to panic. Of the Clippers next 19 games (through January 28th, about six weeks from now), only 5 come against opponents with winning records. And, as I’m sure you remember, we’ve been here before. This same core group, not even a year ago, went through the motions of figuring out how to play without Blake and managed to find sustained success in his absence. Doc Rivers will still need to adjust lineups and strategize accordingly, but the learning curve will be less steep than last year.
It’s certainly not ideal, but the Clippers will be fine. They’ll maintain their standing in the middle of the Western Conference and shouldn’t lose too much ground to the surging Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz. Finally, this surgery seems as though it was inevitable, a sooner-or-later, arthroscopic procedure that should allow Blake to rediscover some of the explosion that seemed to be slipping away as the season wore on. In the short and long run, this isn’t the end of the world. Let’s get to the rankings.
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 9 Last Week: 7
The Clippers were a shiny 14-2 and sporting the league's No. 2-ranked defense heading into Thanksgiving, allowing just 98 points per 100 possessions in those first 16 games. Since then? L.A. is 6-6 overall and down to 18th in the league in defensive efficiency in that same span, surrendering 106.7 points per 100 possessions. And there's worse news: Blake Griffin has a fresh issue with his right knee that will require minor surgery and sideline him until at least January. Chris Paul is having a turn-back-the-clock season, but little else is proceeding according to script for the Clips, who suddenly find themselves closer to the fifth spot in the West than the Warriors' perch atop the conference.
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 7 LW: 6
The Clippers had won four straight games (over four teams with losing records), but had also suffered some defensive slippage entering Sunday's game in Washington. And the slippage came back to bite them as they gave up 65 second-half points to the Wizards and saw their winning streak come to an end. They still rank first in first-half defensive efficiency, but are now 21st in second-half defensive efficiency. Five of their next six games are against more teams with losing records, but they're playing eight games (with three back-to-backs) over the last 12 days of December and will be missing Blake Griffin for at least a few weeks.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 6 LW: 6
After a 14-2 start that saw them playing better than any team in the NBA, the Clippers have gone 6-6 — and now will be without Blake Griffin for a few weeks due to knee surgery. The Clippers starters with Griffin are the second most used lineup in the NBA and are +16.2 per 100 possessions, when they go to the bench the Clippers struggle. Los Angeles is about to go to the bench a lot. The Clippers “travel” to the Lakers on Christmas — I like that idea, a matchup where both teams get to spend the days with their families before the game, no travel.
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 9 LW: 11
Blake Griffin's injury is bad, to put it mildly, but it's important to remember that Griffin went down last year and the Clippers went on a huge run. Also, their schedule is tissue-paper soft outside of a handful of games in the time Griffin's expected to miss. Now if he can just avoid punching anyone...
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 6 LW: 6
Bad news: Blake Griffin will reportedly have a minor knee procedure and be out 3–6 weeks with a January target return date. In unrelated news: Griffin just passed Elton Brand for third most points in Clippers history. Does that say more about Blake, Elton or the history of the Clippers?
Instead of distancing themselves from the rest of the muddled Western Conference, the Clippers are sinking back into the pack. Most of the writers lump them in with, albeit typically at the top of, a group including the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, and Oklahoma City Thunder. As the Rockets continue to prove that you can win games without defending so long as your point guard is James Harden and the San Antonio Spurs keep Spurs-ing, the Clippers are stuck looking at an increasingly foggy road to the two-seed.
This Blake-less stretch will be crucial in determining where they slot into the playoff picture come April, but the rankings still reflect a respect for the Clippers early-season performance. As John Schuhmann highlights, this team still ranks first in first-half defensive efficiency (though ranking 21st in the second half, as evidenced by their unraveling against the Wizards on Sunday, is concerning) and they’ve collected plenty of impressive victories just a third of the way into the season. The recently snapped win-streak seems to have instilled a bit more confidence in this squad and done enough to mitigate their Power Ranking slide in the face of Blake’s injury.
Another four-game week features three home games against the Nuggets, Spurs, and Mavericks, and a pseudo-home game on Christmas Day against the Lakers. If the team is able to take care of business against the Nuggets, Mavs, and Lakers while hanging tough against the Spurs, their stock might just tick up a notch or two in next week’s batch of rankings.