In response to a left knee injury by Blake Griffin that could leave the Clippers without their star forward for up to two months, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers said at practice Wednesday that a variety of players could see opportunities to start games or play increased minutes during Griffin’s absence. Rivers named Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Willie Reed as three players who could see significant increases in minutes.
#Clippers' Doc Rivers on who will replace Blake in the starting unit - 'We're going to start a lot of guys. We've got to keep mixing and matching and pulling out single games.'— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) November 29, 2017
Doc Rivers wouldn't commit to starting any one player in Blake Griffin's spot, but did name Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Willie Reed as guys who would see increased time. #Clippers— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) November 29, 2017
The obvious option to start in Griffin’s stead is for starting small forward Danilo Gallinari to slide over to power forward, leaving the small forward position open for Wesley Johnson. Presently, Gallinari is out with a minor injury of his own, with Johnson starting the last 10 games in his place, so it should be a relatively smooth transition for Gallo to return at the power forward position and leave Wes in place. However, Gallinari (along with guard Milos Teodosic) is expected to miss 5-10 more games, so the Clippers will have to get creative in the meantime.
When Griffin went down with a few minutes left in the Clippers’ most recent win against the Lakers, Doc Rivers chose Sam Dekker to close the game in his place. Dekker has been playing primarily backup power forward in recent weeks, getting some minutes at the small forward position as well, and is probably the most logical choice to start most games. We’ve seen Doc Rivers go small around DeAndre Jordan when Blake has been injured in the past, so this should come as no surprise.
Dekker can’t play all 48 minutes, though, so it will be interesting to see where Doc Rivers turns. Montrezl Harrell and Willie Reed are both questionable fits at power forward because they don’t provide much spacing (whether paired with DeAndre or with each other), although Doc has managed to effectively employ two-big lineups in certain situations in the past. When Cole Aldrich was thriving in a backup center role for the Clippers two years ago, there were a handful of games where Doc felt like he could get away with playing Cole and DJ together for stretches. If Doc looks for more smallball when Dekker goes to the bench, it will come down to Wesley Johnson sliding to the power forward position, freeing up small forward minutes for players like C.J. Williams (who has gotten a good amount of backup SF minutes in recent weeks), Sindarius Thornwell (who will be limited because he is already needed at the SG position due to injuries to Teodosic and Beverley), and Jamil Wilson, the little-used summer league star who is a natural small forward.
Interestingly, there has not been much mention of 2016 first-round pick Brice Johnson, who is a natural power forward but has been assigned to the NBA G-League since the Clippers chose to decline the option on his contract for next season. The team regularly releases updates on players moving back and forth between the NBA and G-League, and there was no indication that Brice joined the team for practice today after Blake’s injury.
However, Doc made it clear that he’s going to adjust on a nightly basis in order to try and win games. We’ve heard this rhetoric from Doc before when the Clippers are suffering from multiple injuries—that the thought process shifts from long-term team building to short-term wins, and he focuses less on the big picture and more on picking up any win however he can get it. Stealing wins is going to be crucial for the Clippers in the coming weeks—they’re currently 8-11, and they’ll be getting Gallinari and Teodosic back at some point in the next batch of games. If they can adjust well enough night-to-night to beat the bad teams on their schedule, and come up with a few surprising performances to steal games that they should lose, then they can put themselves in a position to be treading water at around .500 heading into January. It’s unlikely, but at least a reasonable possibility.
Due to the vague nature of Griffin’s injury timeline, I expect it’s possible that if the Clippers are still in the playoff hunt, he could return well ahead of the 8-week estimate. The Clippers’ statement only says “the recovery time for this injury can take up to 8 weeks,” and we saw Kevin Durant return from the same MCL sprain in 5 weeks last season—and that was with KD taking his time to rest and recover fully because of the Warriors’ secure position in first place. I think it’s entirely plausible that the Clippers left Blake’s timeline open-ended so that he can return as soon as possible if the team is still in a position to make the post-season this year, but stay out for the full two months if things turn south quickly.