Usually, nothing changes the “look” of an NBA team more suddenly and radically than the absence of a superstar.
When Stephen Curry sat out a recent game against the Mavericks with a shin contusion, the world-beating Warriors struggled with the most basic tasks on their way to a 23-point loss. When LeBron James rested on the second night of a back-to-back in early December, the Cavaliers shot just 36.5% from the field and committed as many turnovers as assists in a 15-point loss to the Heat. When Kevin Durant missed time last year and earlier this season with various injuries, the Thunder’s uber-potent offense gave way to a much more chaotic style.
The loss of Blake Griffin to a partially torn quadriceps tendon on the day after Christmas threatened to have a similar impact on the Clippers. To that point, L.A.’s season had been largely defined by its shortcomings in high-visibility matchups against contenders and its unfinished integration of its numerous offseason additions. Now, the Clippers were staring down the barrel of an unknown recovery timeline for Griffin, the team’s leader in minutes (34.9 MPG), scoring (23.2 PPG), usage (30%) and touches (90 per game, the most among all non-point guards). Griffin, a five-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection, was also L.A.’s second-leading rebounder (8.7 RPG) and second-leading assist man (5 APG).
Like the A-listers mentioned above, Griffin’s absence was sure to alter the Clippers’ aesthetics. His rare combination of power, speed, and energy commands constant defensive attention and threatens to produce a “Wow” play at any moment, even if his above-the-rim highlights are less frequent than they were during his first few seasons. His reliable positioning at the elbow serves as a fulcrum for so much of the Clippers’ offense, even when Chris Paul is running the show from the top of the key. His personality—competitive, demanding and occasionally aggrieved—is deeply ingrained in the Clippers’ way of doing business. Griffin’s advanced numbers—23.6 PER, 3.9 Win Shares, +3.2 RPM—are all indicative of a player who would be very sorely missed.
Already facing carryover doubts from their 2015 playoff collapse and working through serious rotation questions, the loss of Griffin pushed the Clippers to an uncomfortable place. The good news: The West’s weak middle class gave L.A. some breathing room it wouldn’t have enjoyed in recent seasons. The so-so news: L.A. had made due without Griffin before, going 9-6 when he was sidelined with an elbow injury last year before his return helped catapult the Clippers to a 14-1 closing push. The bad news: Coach Doc Rivers was going to be forced to rely on a supporting cast that had raised more questions than answers this season.
Given that backdrop, the Clippers’ ability to take care of business without Griffin has been remarkable. During his absence, the Clippers have gone a perfect 8-0, posting the NBA’s second-best point differential (+11.5), No. 2 offensive rating (113.1) and No. 5 defensive rating (99.7). They enter Wednesday night’s game against Miami riding a 9-game winning streak, tied for the second-longest streak of the 2015-16 season.
How? Why? Where did this come from? Let’s take a look at a few theories.
* All stats entering action Wednesday, Jan.13
Theory 1: They’re beating teams they should beat
There’s never a great time to lose a player like Griffin for an extended stretch, but the timing definitely could have been worse.
The Clippers’ nine opponents during their current winning streak enter Wednesday’s action with an average record of 119-222 (.349). None of those nine are currently above .500, only one is currently in the playoff picture (Utah, the West’s No. 8 seed), only one has an above-average defensive efficiency (Charlotte, at No. 14), only two have above-average offensive efficiencies (No. 10 Portland and No. 13 Charlotte) and six of those games came against division basement-dwellers (the Pelicans twice, the Hornets twice, the Lakers and the Sixers).
But, as Dan Woike of the Orange County Register pointed out this week, those ugly surface-level numbers overstate the strength of the Clippers’ recent slate. For various reasons, many of them injury-related, L.A. was able to duck Utah’s Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, Washington’s Bradley Beal, Charlotte’s Al Jefferson and Nicolas Batum, Portland’s CJ McCollum, and New Orleans’s Anthony Davis, among other key players.
While none of those players, save Davis, is a peer of Griffin’s, all play central roles for their respective teams. Clearly, one really good method for offsetting bad injury luck is playing teams who are dealing with bad injury luck of their own.
Theory 2: Chris Paul is saving the day
The “Big 3” roster model has its flaws—as the Clippers well know, given their constant cycling through low-salaried supporting players in recent years—but a top-heavy team at least has big pillars to lean on when a star goes down. Paul, 30, is uniquely suited to picking up the slack: he’s a bonafide superstar who has captained efficient offenses for years and years, he loves having the ball in his hands, he has scoring ability of his own and elite play-making ability for others, and he’s seen it all during his 11-year career. While Paul might no longer be the NBA’s consensus top point guard, thanks to Curry’s rise, he’s still a no-brainer All-NBA and All-Star selection.
He’s still a guy who can perfectly string out a defense before tossing a pinpoint alley-oop pass to DeAndre Jordan through traffic for a dunk…
He’s still a guy who can read the court in transition before unleashing a crosscourt bounceback to J.J. Redick for a perfect catch-and-shoot three-pointer…
He’s still a guy who can go behind his back while bringing the ball up the court, lure two defenders into the corner with a stutter-step, and then toss a quick pass to a cutter for a simple finish…
He’s still a guy who can destroy a defender with a filthy series of dribble moves and an absolutely wicked step-back jumper…
And he’s still a guy who can split the pick-and-roll, attack the basket, and finish with something approaching authority (at least once in a while…)
Paul’s basic numbers before and after Griffin’s injury show an expected jump in production.
• Before: 17.7 PPG on 13.8 FGA/G, 8.9 APG
• After: 19.5 PPG on 16.6 FGA/G, 11.5 APG
Perhaps the best indication of Paul’s enhanced role, though, is his domination of the ball. Before Griffin’s injury, Paul possessed the ball for 7.3 MPG, per SportVU. Since Griffin’s injury, that number has spiked to 8.9 MPG, which leads the league over that stretch and is higher than any player’s mark for the 2015-16 season, including super ball-dominant guys like Damian Lillard (8.3), Russell Westbrook (8.1) and Reggie Jackson (8.0).
For Paul, who famously has never reached the conference finals during his career, this Griffin-less stretch—and his enhanced role therein—is basically an intermission for a Clippers team that still harbors title aspirations.
“This isn’t our team until ‘32’ gets back,” Paul said of Griffin, after L.A. beat New Orleans on Sunday. “We are happy we are winning games. We want to keep winning games and build our team as much as possible, but this is not our team without ‘32’.”
Nevertheless, Paul has kept the Clippers churning, and he was a worthy selection as the NBA’s Western Conference Player of the Week on Monday.
Theory 3: Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson are pitching in
Wrong answer. On paper, it would seem like Josh Smith and Lance Stephenson, the Clippers’ two most polarizing off-season additions, could theoretically help make up for some of Griffin’s contributions. After all, Smith has plenty of experience at the four, he’s a capable passer and rebounder, and he was accustomed to a starting role until last season, while Stephenson brings energy, physicality and occasional bursts of play-making. Plus, both players were seeing fewer minutes than expected prior to Griffin’s injury, so both surely might have hoped for Rivers to give them a shot.
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That just hasn’t happened so far. Since Griffin’s injury, Smith and Stephenson have combined to play a whopping 47 minutes over eight games. Smith, who reportedly got into a locker room argument earlier this season, hasn’t scored during the streak; Stephenson’s only offense came during a blowout victory over the Sixers.
This year, both Smith (-0.6) and Stephenson (-2.9) grade out poorly by Real Plus-Minus, and Rivers recently told the Los Angeles Times that he had no real plans to expand their roles.
“Right now, why would you want to touch what’s going on?” he explained.
Theory 4: Paul Pierce is working his way back from the dead
Let’s be honest: “The Truth” looked pretty dubious earlier this season. In 14 November games, the 38-year-old averaged 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds while shooting just 29.9% from the field and 25.5% from deep. Yikes. Those are “Fell off the cliff and it’s time to schedule a Farewell Tour” numbers.
But Griffin’s absence created a huge minutes void that needed filling, not to mention an open spot in the starting lineup. Pierce has moved into Rivers’ opening five and ramped up to 20.4 MPG since Griffin’s injury. His pre/post Griffin injury splits show him returning to a form that resembles a useful player.
• Before: 4 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 30.6 FG%, 24.7 3P%
• After: 10.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 39.7 FG%, 42.1 3P%
Pierce has been a workable stopgap and, in some cases, much more. Just ask the Jazz and Blazers, who each suffered through five three-pointers from Pierce during the winning streak. As a point of reference, Griffin has hit six three-pointers all season, so Pierce’s floor-spacing ability—now that he’s come back to life— presents a new challenge to opposing defenses.
Pierce’s high-IQ, leadership abilities and understanding of his own limitations help compensate for his physical decline, and they fit well as a complementary option in a starting lineup that looks first to Paul, Redick and Jordan.
In fact, Rivers’ new starting lineup of Paul, Redick, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Pierce and Jordan has functioned very well together as a unit.
Minutes: 104 | Off. Rating: 118.5 | Def. Rating: 96.3 | Net: 22.2
Here’s how the same group, with Griffin in place of Pierce, performed prior to the injury.
Minutes: 204 | Off. Rating: 111.3 | Def. Rating: 99.8 | Net: 11.6
Although sample size and strength of schedule disclaimers need to be applied before any sweeping conclusions can be drawn, it’s safe to say that Pierce is contributing about as much as can be reasonably expected.
It’s also worth noting, as the Washington Post did this week, that Pierce is one of many Clippers shooting the deep ball well during this Griffin-less streak.
Here’s how the Clippers’ outside shooting numbers compare before and after Griffin’s injury.
• Before: 23.7 3PA/G | 34.3 3P%
• After: 28.3 3PA/G | 38.9 3P%
That jump in proficiency takes the Clippers from what would be a No. 21 league-wide ranking in three-point percentage for the season all the way up to No. 2. You’ll win a lot of games if you can hit three-pointers at a better rate than anybody except the Warriors, especially when you’re jacking them up at a very healthy clip.
Theory 5: Other guys are stepping up
As it turns out, basically everyone in Rivers’s rotation has pitched in to keep the offense going. Remarkably, nine different Clippers—Paul, Redick, Jordan, Pierce, Mbah a Moute, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Cole Aldrich—have all upped their scoring averages since Griffin’s injury. That’s a testament to the size of the hole that Griffin’s absence creates and to the offense-initiation abilities of Paul and back-up Pablo Prigioni.
From that list, Redick’s surge in scoring has been the most critical and the least surprising. The veteran shooting guard has been scoring hot all season from beyond the arc, and he has a well-established chemistry with Paul that dates back several seasons.
Prigioni, who was signed a veteran’s minimum deal over the summer, has been particularly instrumental in ensuring that Crawford and Rivers don’t gunk things up too badly with over-dribbling. While it’s not always pretty, Prigioni has found a pick-and-roll partnership with the lumbering and beefy Aldrich that has worked well enough against the Clippers’ recent weak competition.
Aldrich, like Prigioni, arrived in L.A. over the summer on a minimum deal. Even if Rivers’s higher-profile summer moves have been iffy to date, he’s at least found a way to get something from his end-of-the-bench bargain buys.
The Clippers have upped their team assist ratio from 17.4 before Griffin’s injury to 18.7 after, a nice development given Griffin’s status as one of the league’s top frontcourt distributors. For a team with so many “shoot-first” guys on paper, it’s good to see that adversity hasn’t led to slippage in the unselfishness department.
Where the Clippers go from here remains an open question. For one, it’s still not clear when Griffin will return. For two, their recent stretch has been promising, but not thoroughly convincing. Sunday’s win over the Pelicans makes for a nice case in point: The Clippers went the final six minutes of regulation without a field goal and had to eke out a win in overtime after they misplayed a “foul while up three” end-game situation. Paul saved the day in the extra time, but they very nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Lastly, the schedule gets tougher, starting Wednesday against the Heat. The rest of their January schedule includes 10 games, a five-game road trip and two sets of back-to-backs. What’s more, the collective record of their next 10 opponents is 204-178 (.534), entering Wednesday’s action, far better than their last two-week stretch.
Perhaps the best conclusion, then, is the simplest one: Griffin can’t get back soon enough.