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Clippers at Kings: The Severely Injured vs. The Severely Angry

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With both teams eyeing playoff seeding, this will be a high stakes mid season game.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Clippers
Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford have captained the Clippers in the absence of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Backstory: Clippers and Kings Fighting For Seeding

The Los Angeles Clippers look to continue their two game win streak against a Kings team which will be playing its third game in four nights on Friday January 6 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, CA. The Clippers will look to prove to themselves that—after a rough six game losing streak—they can keep the ship from sinking with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin out. Los Angeles prime mover Doc Rivers is “hopeful” Chris Paul will be back in the lineup in Sacramento, but considering the lingering and persistent nature of Paul’s hamstring injury, don’t be surprised if Paul’s return is delayed until sometime next week. Meanwhile, every game is a must-win for the Kings who—shockingly—currently sit at number eight in the Western Conference standings, and effectively must make the playoffs to convince DeMarcus Cousins not to walk in the summer of 2018.

The Big Picture | Clippers Waiting For Return of Paul, Griffin

Things aren’t as bad as they may have seemed a week or two ago. Yes, the Clippers dropped six in a row while missing two of the league’s top ten players—who wouldn’t? But, even after a six game losing streak, the Clippers are still in the four seed in the Western Conference, and are only four and a half games behind Houston—a completely closable gap at not even half way through the season. Most Clippers fans were probably expecting the team to hold down the fort a little more effectively in the absence of Paul and Griffin—.500 ball would have been nice—but it was a weird schedule and there were a couple of lame losses that could have gone either way. That said, there’s been a few positive takeaways from this stretch of playing shorthanded.

Austin Rivers: A Key Cog in the Clippers’ Future Plans?

The younger Rivers can be something of a polarizing figure among Clippers fans. Some fans lament his often frequent / sometimes inefficient shooting, while others point to granular data and general eye-tests which both suggest that Austin Rivers is playing well above his eleven million per year salary. There’s a lot to like about Austin’s game—genuinely elite ability to finish around the rim, now shooting almost 40% from deep, and strong perimeter defense—and his more featured role in the absence of Paul and Griffin is actually showing that coaches, scouts, and fans may have severely underestimated the ceiling of his talent. At only twenty-four years old, Austin Rivers is the only legitimate, young, semi-proven talent on the Clippers roster. With Griffin turning 28 this year, and rookie prospects perpetually injured or in the D-league, youth is not a resource with which the team is well endowed.

The Antagonist

Sacramento currently sits at the eighth seed in the Western Conference standings. The Kings entire existence is based on the presence of DeMarcus Cousins. He’s massive, reasonably athletic for his size, and although the only eye-popping individual statistic he registers is the 28.6 points per game he is averaging this season, his game has no identifiable deficiency. At 26 years old, he’s still a genuine franchise cornerstone and is the key to Sacramento’s quest to rediscover the elite status they enjoyed during the late ‘90s / early 2000s Chris Webber era. Second year big man Willie Cauley-Stein has looked strong on defense throughout his young career, and there’s every reason to think he will develop into a legitimate starting center at some point, but while the Kings appear to be satisfied with their 2015 number five overall pick, they probably like the idea of him as a backup to Cousins a lot better than the idea of him starting at the five spot if Cousins were to leave the team. Cousin’s frustration with the Kings’ inability to crack the playoffs has been well-documented. Although the team did well to extend his contract through 2018 using Bird rights, Cousins will be an unrestricted free agent at twenty-seven years old in the summer of 2018, and there’s every reason to think that if the Kings don’t appear to be reasonably close to contending for a title at that point, Cousins would almost certainly walk. With Sacramento walking the razor’s edge of playoff qualification, expect Sacramento to be extremely motivated to extract a coveted division victory against a Clippers team missing the premier players in the league at their respective positions.

Is There Special Motivation For DeAndre Jordan?

The first all-star ballot reports have come in, and DeAndre Jordan was not among the top ten front court players in the Western Conference. Of course, the fact that Zaza Pachulia garnered a single vote—much less the second most votes behind Kevin Durant—is evidence enough that fan voting should be abolished and never spoken of again. In any case, Jordan and Cousins were the first and second team all-NBA centers last season, and were the two gold medal winning centers on the Olympic team. Cousins is currently sixth in the all-star voting for front court players in the Western Conference. Jordan has appeared to desire an all-star selection, even if he hasn’t openly campaigned too hard for a spot. Not that it would necessarily be on his mind, but expect talking heads and Instagram GMs to use the matchup as a measuring stick for a ‘best center in the NBA’ discussion.

Chris Paul’s Hamstring

He’s going to be listed as questionable, but Paul is probably going to be out. We love Chris, and he has an absurdly impressive resume, doing things only done previously by players like Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, Isiah Thomas, and John Stockton. In his time with the Clippers, the only semi-recurring injuries have been hamstrings. They’re not horribly debilitating—which can be a fool’s gold of sorts. Paul is so important to what the Clippers do that the team tends to bring him back a tad sooner than would be ideal, because Paul is so good he can still contribute injured, but it draws the healing process out. The Clippers are set on pursuing the highest possible seed, and that means picking off as many wins as possible, but Doc Rivers is quite clear about the fact that he would rather enter the playoffs as the eighth seed and with a 100% healthy roster than be injured. Considering the Kings aren’t ever going to be in range of the Clippers seed, this is a game that would be nice to win, but it’s not a must-win. As such, look for Doc Rivers to be extra patient and rest the best true point guard in the league.

Blake Griffin Progressing Fine

Look, we love Chris, DJ, JJ, Jamal, Austin, the whole gang, but this team has always been about Blake, and when he returns the team can start to reassess and make a back stretch push for seeding. There’s not much to discuss here other than how lame the whole “Better without Blake” thing was. That was survival last season, going about 30-15 without Blake, but what we’ve seen recently, losing six in a row, losing to the worst teams in the league, losing to an awful Lakers team; that’s what a post-Blake Clippers team would look like. Although it’s a major bummer for Blake on a personal level that he is likely to not be an all-star, and that he’ll have a difficult time earning all-nba this season, we can now all agree that the concept of trading Blake for a collection of mid-level role players to even out the roster was nothing but a mirage in a desert of playoff failures.