Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but thanks to a significant injury to one of their stars, the Clippers find themselves knocked down a few pegs in this week’s group of power rankings. Chris Paul tore a ligament in his left thumb (painful, I’ve done it) and a Core Four reunion that had been nearing reality has now been postponed for several weeks. Thankfully, Blake Griffin is set to return tomorrow night against the Philadelphia 76ers. Having him back on the court, fully healthy and entirely capable of running the first-unit offense, will be a pleasant sight for Clippers fans, but it can only go so far in mitigating CP’s absence.
It’s no secret that, due to both the quality of opponents and a lot of time spent on the road, the schedule is brutal through February. In the top-heavy West, it would be no surprise to see the Clippers fall all the way to the seventh seed before Paul returns, but due to disappointing seasons from pre-season playoff hopefuls such as the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, and Timberwolves, it seems infeasible that they could fall any lower and have their playoff odds threatened. Assuming the initial recovery estimate is accurate, CP should be back with enough time to shake off the rust before the postseason begins; the bigger story will be how this stretch will dictate the Clippers seed and prospective opponents come playoff time.
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 11 Last Week: 7
At the time of his thumb tear, Chris Paul had a better individual net efficiency than any other player in the league who had logged at least 1,000 minutes so far this season. When they lost him for six to eight weeks, the Clippers were plus-15.9 points per 100 possessions with CP3 on the floor this season ... compared to minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions when he was off the floor. The next four players in line, when Paul went down, were all Warriors: Klay Thompson (plus-15.9), Stephen Curry (plus-15.6), Draymond Green (plus-14.9) and Kevin Durant (plus-14.1). Blake Griffin is coming back this week, so perhaps the Clips will be whole come playoff time, but who knows where their collective psyche will be at that stage after yet another significant injury blow. (It certainly doesn't help that L.A. is in the midst of a stretch in which it plays 10 of 11 games on the road ... with the only home date against the Warriors on Feb. 2.)
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 8 LW: 7
Chris Paul is out 6-8 weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb and the loss would be easier to take if Jamal Crawford could make a shot. But Crawford has shot 25 percent (5-for-36 from 3-point range) since late December and has the league's worst effective field goal percentage (27.3 percent) by a wide margin (among players who have taken at least 100 shots) over that time. With 12 of their next 15 games against teams with winning records (and 10 of the next 12 on the road), a big slide could be coming. But the Clips definitely won't be falling any further than seventh in the West.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 9 LW: 5
Chris Paul needed surgery on his right hand and will be out until March, which is a huge blow as they are +15.9 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court (and have been outscored when he is off it, although there is a lot of noise in those numbers). On the bright side, Blake Griffin should return to the lineup this week or next. Still, the goal for the Clippers needs to be not to fall too far then climb back up to the four or five seed in the final month of the season — and stay healthy for the playoffs.
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 10 LW: 7
I hedged on dropping them to give them a week for Blake Griffin to get back. They're in bad shape, no doubt. And it gets rough this week as they finish a five-game road trip, with the red-hot Sixers and then the Warriors, all without CP3. It may get worse before it gets better.
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 13 LW: 9
Chris Paul is hurt, and that really sucks. There’s no beating around the bush here with the Clippers, who’ve faced seemingly every kind of existential curveball over the last several years. They’ve been able to fend for themselves consistently enough without Blake Griffin, but losing CP3 renders them a structurally different team (they’re 0–2 so far without him). So even with a nice 10-game postseason cushion in the standings and Griffin on the way back, L.A. takes a somewhat pre-emptive hit in these rankings.
They’re losing Paul at a bad time, too: over the next month, the Clippers draw the Warriors twice, have challenging matchups with the Jazz, Raptors, Hawks and Celtics on the road, and conclude that stretch of 13 games with the Spurs. The good news is a red-hot start to January bought them wiggle room. Given what’s currently a shoving match for a four-five seed matchup in the West, the Clips are going to need more than that. Griffin—who could suit up any day now—will obviously be key. Watch for him to step up even more as a distributor, but then the question becomes more about how they’ll hold up defensively. It’s murky.
But looking big-picture, the long-impending dissolution of this roster could really be on tap. Observers entertained a red-hot start, but the conference picture is thicker at the top than most imagined, too. It’s conceivably going to take even more than in past years to make it to the West finals, and that sure feels like L.A.’s ceiling. Get ready for more nihilistic Clippers takes, and hope CP3 gets back in time for them to pull together. As maligned as they’ve been, I have a feeling we’ll miss them eventually. Full disclosure: I still own a “Lob City” tee.
While the Clippers certainly slipped in the rankings, it seems as though most of the writers are reserving full judgement until Blake gets back on the floor. The power rankings may not be kind to the Clippers over the next few weeks of the season, but what’s most important is that they have a healthy squad once we reach April. In the meantime, John Schuhmann is absolutely correct to highlight Jamal Crawford as the Clipper that needs to step up, and he needs to do it big time. His ball-dominant play is tolerable when he’s hitting enough of those wild shots that inevitably cause me mutter a profanity or two before they find the bottom of the net, but when he’s slumping this dramatically, he’s a human-shaped anchor dragging down whichever unit with which he shares the court.
Around the league, the top of the rankings remain mostly unchanged, but it seems that the Utah Jazz have climbed their way up to being a consensus top-five team in the eyes of the pundits. I guess a six-game win streak that started with a convincing win over the defending champs and a top-five net rating (second defensively) has gotten everyone to take notice.
The Clippers take on the Atlanta Hawks tonight, the Sixers tomorrow, and then have three days off before facing off with the Golden State Warriors on Saturday. Wins will be tougher to come by without the steady hand of the Point God, but we’ll surely be rooting for a smooth transition back to live action for Blake Griffin. I’d definitely call that a win.