With just a few weeks left in the regular season and Blake Griffin finally scheduled to return to action, it's time to think about the best course of action for the Los Angeles Clippers heading into the post season. As I've pointed out before, this is all essentially moot -- the Clippers are more or less locked into the fourth seed, they're almost certain to meet (and beat) the banged up Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs and then to meet (and lose to) the record setting Golden State Warriors in the second round. In stark contrast to last year's instant classic series with the San Antonio Spurs, which could have gone either way from the opening tip of Game 1 until the final seconds of Game 7, there just doesn't seem to be much mystery about the team's playoff future this season.
Still, they clearly want to give themselves the best possible chance to advance when the time comes. After all, you never know what could happen and that's why we play the games. Stephen Curry could twist an ankle or even shoot 1-10 from deep a couple of times -- it's happened before.
So what should the Clippers' priorities be for the next couple of weeks? In a normal year, a team would still be battling for playoff positioning every game, but this season has been far from normal. The Clippers are five games behind the Thunder and six games ahead of the Grizzlies with just nine games left, making it highly unlikely that they could move either up or down in the pecking order.
With nothing to play for in the standings, the Clippers' priority will clearly be to get Griffin up to game speed and integrated into the offense during the seven regular season games for which he'll be back. But there's another potential priority contradictory to the first -- rest.
I'm really not a fan of the Popovichian strategy of resting perfectly healthy players for various reasons, but the benefits of prioritizing the postseason over the regular season are undeniable. Given the importance of Chris Paul in any scenario in which the Clippers advance beyond the second round in May, having him as fresh and healthy as possible at that time is crucial. Not to mention that Tony Allen is likely to dish out some abuse on Paul in the first round, abuse that may or may not include kicks to the head.
Now obviously, Paul has to play with Griffin for the Clippers to accomplish any part of their first priority, establishing some sort of rhythm for their reintegrated starting/closing unit. Remember, Griffin was hurt seven weeks before the Clippers traded for Jeff Green, so this group has literally yet to play a game together. Even Paul Pierce's injury is a factor in this calculus, albeit a minor one, given that the teams' best post-season rotation wouldn't feature Pierce, a point probably lost on Doc Rivers.
So the final nine games will be a balancing act -- play Griffin and Paul together a lot, but then sit Paul a lot also. Oh, and Thursday in Oklahoma City, the last game without Griffin, might be a great time to give CP3 a full night off.
As I said, I don't much like the strategy, for a few reasons. There's an inherent obligation to try your best every night in any league. The entertainment nature of the business only exacerbates this problem, as a German exchange student found out Tuesday night when he went to see Kevin Durant for perhaps the only time in his life only to discover that a perfectly healthy Durant was being rested.
But I can write that off as "tough break" pretty easily. The more difficult one for me to reconcile is the competitive question. Full strength Sacramento beat the 36-38 Mavericks on Sunday -- then rested DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Rajon Rondo on Monday while losing to the 39-36 Trailblazers. As four teams fight for the last three spots in the Western Conference playoffs, those kinds of decisions can make a huge difference, and the potential for coaches exercising grudges against rivals is pretty obvious. (Not to mention, what the hell is George Karl saving Cousins and Gay and Rondo for? The off-season?)
Nonetheless, for the Clippers over the next few weeks, the mission is pretty clear: severely limit the minutes of key personnel, first and foremost Chris Paul. That will necessarily minimize the opportunity to play the A-team together as an entire unit, but it's worth it. I'll tell you this much -- I sure as hell wouldn't play Chris Paul a single second without Blake Griffin over those final seven games. We've certainly seen enough of Paul without Griffin over the last three months.
The Clippers have very little chance of advancing through the Warriors to the Western Conference Finals -- but whatever hope they have depends on two things. A fully recovered and integrated Blake Griffin and a healthy and fresh Chris Paul.