- Already without Blake Griffin, the Clippers announced Chris Paul will undergo surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb. How will his injury impact the Clippers going forward?
The Clippers got off to a dream start and then held things together beautifully after Blake Griffin underwent minor knee surgery in mid-December, only to lose their other perennial All-Star to an extended injury that threatens both their short-term and long-term outlook.
Chris Paul will undergo surgery on Wednesday to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb, a procedure that is expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. The nine-time All-Star sustained the injury while defending Russell Westbrook during a Clippers victory over the Thunder on Monday.
Given his current timetable, Paul is projected to be sidelined until sometime between March 1 and March 15, causing him to miss between 16 and 24 games. What’s more, he will miss LA’s final three games against Golden State and its next meeting with San Antonio. Paul, 31, is averaging 17.5 PPG, 9.7 APG, 5.3 RPG and 2.2 SPG, and his advanced stats are even more impressive. Entering Tuesday’s action, he ranked No. 1 league-wide in Real Plus-Minus, No. 6 in Player Efficiency Rating and No. 7 in Win Shares.
This latest injury for Paul, which comes after a season-ending right hand injury sustained during the 2016 playoffs, has a long list of implications both for Paul and the Clippers, who are currently the West’s No. 4 seed with a 29-14 record. Let’s dig in.
During Paul’s six-year tenure in LA, the Clippers are 264-120 (.688) when he suits up and 27-26 (.509) when he doesn’t. In other words, LA has been, on average, a 56-win team with Paul and a 42-win team without him. This season, LA has enjoyed a positive net rating when either Paul or Griffin has been on the court, but things have gotten pretty ugly with both off the court. Until Griffin returns, LA will be holding on for dear life. Even after he returns, the Clippers’ supporting cast will have its hands full handling the minutes when he rests.
Given how tightly packed the West’s second-tier is and the major drop-off in LA’s depth chart (Paul is backed up by journeyman Raymond Felton and combo guards Austin Rivers and Jamal Crawford), slippage in the standings during Paul’s absence is virtually inevitable.
There is the tiniest of silver linings. Thanks to an impressive seven-game winning streak without Griffin, LA has built an 11-game lead over Portland and Denver, who are currently tied for the West’s No. 8 seed. Assuming Griffin returns on schedule later this month, the Clippers should benefit from the conference’s weak middle and comfortably maintain a playoff spot. In some years, this type of injury, especially if it kept him sidelined for two months, could have knocked the Clippers all the way out of the playoffs.
Realistically, though, the playoff implications are very, very bad for the Clippers, who are facing significant pressure to make a deep run this season with Paul, Griffin and J.J. Redick all heading towards free agency this summer. LA’s best-case scenario – drawing the No. 2 or No. 3 seed and avoiding Golden State until the West finals – is almost surely gone now, given Houston’s steady play and Utah’s untapped upside following early-season injuries. From there, the backside pressure from the Jazz, Grizzlies and Thunder is significant; if the Clippers go .500 without Paul over the next six weeks, a tall order given the quality of their upcoming competition, they are at risk of slipping to seventh.
If the Clippers do slide to seventh, which stands as a reasonable worst-case scenario, that would likely mean opening the playoffs on the road at San Antonio or Houston. While that wouldn’t be the end of the world, given that the Clippers beat the Spurs in the first round and were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the conference semifinals two years ago, it would make for a much tougher path to the conference finals. Remember, LA’s entire vision – constructing a Big 3, desperately recruiting DeAndre Jordan to return, loading up on veterans, trading picks wouldn’t be the end of the world, given that the Clippers beat the Spurs in the first round and were up 3-1 on the Rockets in the conference semifinals two years ago, it would make for a much tougher path to the conference finals. Remember, LA’s entire vision – constructing a Big 3, desperately recruiting DeAndre Jordan to return, loading up on veterans, trading picks and passing on the development of younger talent – was predicated on building a team that was ready to get over the hump and advance to the West finals this year.
July and Beyond
From an asset management standpoint, the Clippers are more or less stuck. They already owe their 2017 first-round pick to the Raptors. Their best players – Paul, Griffin, Jordan and Redick – are all irreplaceable given the talent behind them. Their secondary pieces – Rivers, Crawford, Wesley Johnson, Mo Speights and Raymond Felton – aren’t going to land difference-makers in return. If LA tried to swing a major deal before the trade deadline, it would almost certainly require breaking up its long-standing core, an approach that seems unlikely under Doc Rivers, who would seemingly prefer to give the group an opportunity to take its shot in the playoffs.
Next summer, though, could be a different story. Even before this season’s injuries to Paul and Griffin, some observers questioned their compatibility on the court and their collective durability. Both players are no-brainer max guys when healthy, even at their respective ages, but both have had recurring health issues that have prevented LA from reaching its goals. Prior to this injury, Paul has missed an average of nine games per season in LA and has suffered multiple postseason injuries. Meanwhile, Griffin has been sidelined for long stretches in each of the past three seasons.
If injuries again prevent the Clippers from maintaining the proper chemistry heading into the postseason, Rivers will be forced to consider whether committing long-term dollars to both Paul and Griffin is in the best interests of his franchise. How many executives could talk themselves into shelling out well over $300 million to two players who have repeatedly sustained season-altering injuries? That’s a “Gulp” moment, for sure, even before one considers Redick’s increasing cost.
The bright side from Paul’s standpoint is that his current recovery timeline gives him at least one month of regular-season action to get right for the playoffs. As long as there are no complications and he plays to form down the stretch and during the postseason, Paul’s earning potential as a max player should remain unchanged by the injury. Even if Paul is limited, or if the Clippers go out in round one or somehow miss the playoffs, his worst-case scenario would seem to be settling for a four-year max contract, with the Clippers or an outside suitor, rather than cashing in on the full five-year max that ESPN.com reported in December that he’s seeking.
Although Paul may very well secure an All-Star spot from the coaches vote – his play to date surely merits one – this injury will keep him out through the break, and it creates a roster spot for players who would otherwise have been snubbed. SI.com’s All-Star selections, to be released in full on Wednesday, will include Jordan, San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge, Utah’s Gordon Hayward, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns among the top snubs.
If Paul isn’t selected by the coaches, they will effectively choose his replacement. If Paul is selected by the coaches, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will get to name an injury replacement. Jordan, an All-NBA selection who has never previously been selected as an All-Star, could get the nod as a designated Clippers representative. Lillard, who was snubbed in each of the last two seasons, is the next man up on the point guard totem pole, assuming James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry all earn spots as expected.