Days before free agency opened last summer, Clippers fans in California awoke to an early-morning blockbuster trade that drastically shifted the future of two franchises—the Clippers, and the Houston Rockets. Chris Paul had informed the Clippers that he wanted to leave in free agency, but would agree to opt in to the last year of his contract if the team would send him to the Rockets. Houston’s Daryl Morey found a series of gymnastics that allowed the Rockets to absorb Paul’s salary and add one of the best players in the league to an already-good team. And the Clippers, while clearly on the losing end of the trade, did quite well for themselves compared to losing Paul for nothing: getting Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, and Houston’s 2018 first-round pick (which they then used in a sign-and-trade for Danilo Gallinari).
Unfortunately for everyone involved, both Paul and Beverley (the two guards on last year’s All-NBA Defensive First Team) have struggled with injuries this season. Paul missed 14 games with a bruised knee after a poor opening night performance, but returned and led the Rockets to a 13-game winning streak in his typical, phenomenal fashion. A strained left adductor will keep him out of tonight’s game against the Clippers, but he shouldn’t be out of the lineup for long. Beverley has played just 11 games this season, and will miss the remainder of the year following microfracture knee surgery.
They aren’t the only guys missing for either side. The Clippers are also without their best player, Blake Griffin, as well as starting small forward Danilo Gallinari and backup forward Wesley Johnson, who had been filling in as a starter. The Rockets are missing their other former Clipper, Luc Mbah a Moute, who has been just as excellent in Houston as he was in L.A. They could also be without starting center Clint Capela, who is listed as doubtful and has been in and out of the lineup with a bruised heel.
In the Rockets’ most recent game, a loss against the Lakers, Mike D’Antoni seemed hesitant to go deep into his rotation, playing 8 guys (including Chris Paul) and pushing James Harden and Trevor Ariza to 43 and 45 minutes, respectively. There haven’t been a ton of opportunities for players low on Houston’s depth chart this season: Tarik Black, the 10th-most-used player, has averaged just 8 minutes in 23 games. This is a stark contrast with the struggling Clippers, who have used their injury woes as an opportunity to open the door for significant playing time for everyone on the team except for Brice Johnson. Especially if Capela is out, the Clippers could have an opportunity to take advantage of situations where the Rockets are forced to feature players like Black, Zhou Qi, Bobby Brown, or Demetrius Jackson, none of whom have gotten much run this year.
Outside of those fringe matchups, however, the Clippers are going to have a really rough time with a Rockets team that has been the NBA’s best thus far this season. James Harden is following his MVP-worthy 2016-17 season with averages of 32 points and 9 assists, and the core supporting cast of Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, P.J. Tucker, and Nene remain remarkably good, even when they’re missing pieces like Paul, Mbah a Moute, and Capela. Except for Nene, everyone in that rotation is a killer threat from beyond the arc, with Houston taking a league-high 43 threes per game and making a league-best 16. The Clippers, by contrast, take 29.5 threes per game and make 10.
Houston also has one of the most potent offenses in basketball (basketball-reference has them at a league-best 116.0 offensive rating, and they score 115 points per game), and they’re likely to overwhelm a mediocre-at-best Clippers defense. L.A.’s best recourse against the current spate of injuries has been to get hot offensively, typically behind scoring outbursts from guards Lou Williams and Austin Rivers. Unfortunately, the Rockets raise the bar so high offensively that a victorious result for the Clippers tonight would require a flukey-bad shooting night from the home team.
Speaking of Lou Williams, he’s likely been the most valuable piece of last summer’s trade so far, arguably serving as the Clippers’ best player for most of the season. He’s averaging a phenomenal 20 points and 5 assists per game on efficient 44/39/90 splits, and if the Clippers are currently gasping for air, they’d have drowned long ago without him. The other former Rockets, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell, both came into the rotation slowly but have played well of late, with Harrell especially standing out by averaging double-digit scoring in just 16 minutes per game since Blake Griffin left the lineup with a knee injury a month ago. Dekker has really struggled shooting the ball (he’s just 7-45 from deep on the season), but he has brought a good level of activity in a decent-sized role since being benched 7 games ago against the Wizards, averaging 6 points and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes a night.
Beyond those former Rockets, the Clippers will continue to lean heavily on Austin Rivers (who has been phenomenal in the past month) and Milos Teodosic, and they’re led by their anchor, DeAndre Jordan. Past that, however, they treacherously rely on contributions from second-round rookies and two-way NBA G-League players to play major minutes. C.J. Williams and Jamil Wilson are likely to start together at the forward positions tonight, with Jawun Evans playing serious rotational minutes as the backup point guard. For a team in the Clippers’ position, it’s preferable to Mike D’Antoni’s short bench and high minutes, but it’s far from ideal.
The Rockets are looking to bounce back from a Wednesday night loss to the Lakers and maintain their narrow lead over the Golden State Warriors at the top of the Western Conference, while the Clippers are trying to remain competitive at the bottom end of the playoff picture. While the Clippers have played fewer games than the Utah Jazz, they’re tied in the loss column and sit just two losses behind the 8th-place New Orleans Pelicans, and three losses behind the Portland Trail Blazers, Denver Nuggets, and Oklahoma City Thunder, who are tied for 5th place. This game in Houston is a long shot for LAC, but their 2017 concludes with contests against the Grizzlies, Kings, Lakers, and Hornets—a chance to pick up some wins and make up some ground, even short-handed. With that Grizzlies game coming in Memphis on Saturday, on the second night of a back-to-back, it might be wise for Doc Rivers to keep minutes down tonight for key players like Rivers, Teodosic, Williams, and Jordan.