In a very real sense, the story of the Los Angeles Clippers' season has been about the rest of the Western Conference. The Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs have been historically good (more on that later) -- so good that the Clippers could not reasonably have been expected to compete for a top two seed in the postseason. The Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies have been surprisingly bad -- so bad that they are not mounting a serious threat for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. (At least the Grizzlies have a good excuse.)
All of which leaves the Clippers in a battle with the Oklahoma City Thunder for the third seed in the West with about a month left. Which is more or less what one would have predicted heading into the season.
This despite the fact that the Clippers have played more than half of their games without leading scorer Blake Griffin.
If the Warriors and Spurs weren't so damn good, a few more people might be talking about the unlikely performance of the Clippers without Griffin. Griffin is the Clippers' best scorer, second best rebounder and second best playmaker. The fact that they are 25-10 without him after posting a 17-13 record in the games he played is certainly mysterious, but the one thing we know for certain is that it is NOT because the team is better without him.
For whatever reason the Clippers opened the season playing painful basketball, but Griffin was in many ways the lone bright spot. The 3-8 stretch in November was the low point not just of the season but also of Chris Paul's tenure in L.A., but a combination of factors that includes better three point shooting, a more predictable bench that features Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich over Josh Smith and Lance Stephensen and plain old effort has righted the ship. Griffin got hurt just after the team started playing better -- not the other way around.
Even so, as well as the Clippers have played without Griffin, the strain of playing without him is definitely showing. The hand-wringing over the team's poor record against the best teams (now 2-10 against teams over .600) is pretty laughable. Do you know why the Clippers lose to Cleveland? Because Cleveland is better than these Clippers. A whole lot better than the Clippers without Blake Griffin. It hasn't helped that Cleveland has been unconscious from deep when they've played LA. but it probably didn't matter.
The question now is when (if) we will see a non-dysfunctional Clippers team with Griffin this season. With his quad injury lingering (the broken hand is apparently not what's holding him back at this point) Griffin's return is now targeted for the end of March. It's anyone's guess whether Doc and the team will fudge the rules and declare Griffin fit before he's actually ready to be back on the court, starting the clock on his four game suspension -- but even if "end of March" means "end of March" that leaves precious little time for him to get back up to game speed and for the team to get used to his presence before the post season actually starts. It's even less time if "end of March" means "second week in April."
And it likely doesn't matter a bit. Everyone is talking about the Warriors' assault on the single season win record -- but the Spurs are close to an even more impressive record if you ask me. In the history of the league, the best average margin of victory was the 71-72 Lakers at 12.28 points per game. The Spurs are sitting at 12.24 (as of March 13). That's impressive enough in and of itself, but when you consider that we're talking about the team that invented the practice of resting perfectly healthy players during the regular season, the idea that they are in the running for the best regular season of all time is insane. Oh, and Golden State's average margin of victory currently ranks as the sixth best of all time -- these two teams are simply off the charts.
In other words, even in the best case scenario in which Griffin comes back for a a couple of weeks before the playoffs start and fits in well and the team is playing its best basketball, they're still going to lose in the second round. The three-four battle between the Clippers and the Thunder is probably meaningless -- neither the Spurs nor the Warriors have lost at home all season, so neither is exactly a bargain. (Not to mention that at this point three-four looks like a race to the bottom -- the Clippers are in an incredibly tough stretch just as Griffin's absence is really beginning to wear them down, but the Thunder have been dreadful so they could lose it yet.)
Could the Clippers beat one of the big boys in a seven game series? Sure, they could. I suppose if you made me pick, I'd say LA would be better off against the Spurs, simply because they've had recent success against them. But it would be a significant upset to beat either.
Worst of all, if the Clippers do indeed go out in the second round (again) it will restart the inevitable "break up the core" talk. Maybe it makes sense (I don't think it does), but here's the reality: the Spurs and Warriors are literally two of the best teams in the history of the NBA based on their performance this season -- the idea of making wholesale changes in the hopes of passing them is just silly. The only reasonable way to beat them is to get lucky or to be better, and to be better the team would have to be an all time great. If faced with competition like that, your best bet is to hope they decline, because that's a hell of a lot more likely than getting better than the best.
It would be really great if the Clippers could get Griffin back in time for a key game like Tuesday in San Antonio or March 23 in Oakland -- if they could send a full-strength message to their potential opponents. But it's not going to happen. (Maybe March 31 for the crucial last meeting with the Thunder? Fingers crossed.) We still won't know how good they are when he does come back, because the schedule in April is so weak. The Griffin-less Clippers could easily run the table in April against the likes of the Lakers and Phoenix -- we won't be able to tell much even from an undefeated April with Griffin. It will be nice to build up some confidence against those cupcakes, but there will still be plenty of unanswered questions when the playoffs do start.
The best case scenario (and it's actually pretty likely) is that the Clippers win their final seven regular season games and then handle the Marc Gasol-less Grizzlies in the first round pretty easily. A full strength Clippers team could then head into a showdown with either the Spurs or the Warriors with plenty of momentum.
The question is, when you add an All-NBA level Griffin to a very good Clippers team, do they become good enough to beat one of the great teams in NBA history? I'm afraid I know the answer.