Perusing the weekly circuit of power rankings has been a bleak experience for us Clippers fans as of late, but thanks to the triumphant return of the Point God and supernova Austin Rivers, this week’s batch of blurbs gives reason for optimism. Since spoiling everyone’s holidays by dropping six in a row, the Clips have ripped off four straight wins and remain undefeated in 2017.
Chris Paul, who seems to break a new record or reach a career milestone every single night, is the stabilizing force the Clippers needed to set them back on track. His puppeteer-like control of the offense and knack for perfectly setting up teammates makes a world of difference for J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan, who struggled to create their own offense during Paul’s absence. Couple CP’s return with the emergence of an even more confident (who knew that was possible?) Austin Rivers, who led the team in scoring against Memphis and Sacramento, and the Clippers are back to making us feel like they are more than capable of weathering the storm with Blake Griffin still on the shelf.
ESPN (Marc Stein) - 9 Last Week: 15
Chris Paul just joined Gary Payton, Jason Kidd and John Stockton as the only players in league history to rank in the top 10 in career assists and the top 15 in career steals. What this means most, of course, is that Paul is back in the Clippers' lineup after an eight-game run in which he was only able to play once thanks to a hamstring problem. Skepticism abounds in the wake of Doc Rivers' recent vow that both he and his players will endeavor to cut down on the techs they rack up, but credit the Clips for mustering consecutive double-digit wins (over Phoenix and Memphis) in their final two games without CP3 ... and in the wake of six-game losing streak.
NBA.com (John Schuhmann) - 7 LW: 10
Chris Paul returned on Friday, but the Clippers' got their four-game winning streak started before that, winning ugly against Phoenix and then shooting 51 percent and getting to the line 45 times against the Grizzlies' second-ranked defense, with Austin Rivers scoring a season-high 28 points. The offense has been good, but the defense has been bad with Rivers, Paul and J.J. Redick playing together, a look the Clippers went with in Paul's return in Sacramento. They've only used it for 127 minutes, but that's already more than it saw last season (94, including playoffs), and it may be a critical postseason option if Luc Mbah a Moute is too much of a liability on offense.
NBC Sports (Kurt Helin) - 10 LW: 13
Winners of four in a row, three of those have come with Chris Paul back and Los Angeles is looking like one of the top four teams in the West again. Expect LA to shoot back up these rankings the next couple of weeks as they have a five-game homestead with only one of those teams over .500 (OKC).
CBS Sports (Matt Moore) - 11 LW: 17
A soft schedule and a, ahem, tired Grizzlies team after several days in Los Angeles gives them a four-game winning streak so they jump up here. If they can just get the non-Blake guys back consistently they should be able to stabilize things, and at fourth in the West, they're in a good spot regardless. However, think about this: The Clippers are already 5.5 games out of the 2-seed. Second-round homecourt is likely already gone.
Sports Illustrated (Jeremy Woo) - 11 LW: 12
L.A. has followed six straight losses with four wins and is poised to take advantage of a cushy-looking January schedule, beginning with a five-game homestand. Chris Paul is back and Blake Griffin is making progress in his recovery. The arrow points tenuously upward.
The most encouraging theme of this week’s rankings is certainly that it seems as though everyone is beginning to look ahead rather than dwell on what the Clippers are without their two best players (which is not good at all, for the record). Delving into the trio of Paul-Redick-Rivers that John Schuhmann highlights, their net rating is +4.8 (114.2 offensive, 109.4 defensive), which is encouraging given that those minutes have mostly come with Blake off the floor. Though Luc’s offense is much improved from last year, it will be interesting to see how often Doc looks to use Austin at the three moving forward, particularly once Blake is healthy. The defensive rating is on the high side, sure, but Austin is a much more competent defender than Jamal Crawford, who often gets the call to close games with the Core Four (and by the way, has been far less efficient than Austin on the offensive end so far this year).
Around the league, the most interesting development is the Warriors dropping to the four-spot in most of the writer’s minds. Draymond Green’s mid-game dressing down of Kevin Durant and body language on the final possessions of their shocking collapse against the Grizzlies reignited concerns about Golden State’s chemistry and late-game offense, and with the Spurs, Rockets, and Cavaliers firing on all cylinders, the Dubs find themselves amidst a slight tumble down the ranks.
With only two games this week, both coming at home, the Clippers should have ample time to rest and fit in a couple of practices. They host the Orlando Magic on Wednesday before taking on their cross-hall rivals on Saturday. Anything less than 2-0 would be a disappointment and you can be that the team is looking for vengeance in their rematch against the Lakers now that Chris Paul is back in the fold.