The Los Angeles Clippers went from rising up the Western Conference standings with a quickly improving defense to feeling panicked and worried, all in the time it took for a point guard to fall to the floor on Jan. 3 at Dallas.
When Chris Paul emerged from the locker room with a sling on his right arm, the collective heart of the Clippers fans skipped a beat. It stopped when Doc Rivers made his announcement:
Doc Rivers just announced that Chris Paul is likely out three to five weeks at the least with a separated shoulder— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) January 4, 2014
This is certainly the last thing the Clippers needed at this point in the season, especially since the injury came on what looked like an innocent play. As you can see below, CP3 was just going around a screen and driving toward the basket when he fell and landed awkwardly on that right shoulder:
If you thought it was one of his trademark flops, just with a bit more selling than normal, don't feel too bad. This didn't look like a play that could cause a major injury.
Seeing as ESPN's Marc Stein gave a three-to-five-week recovery period and then added on "at least," let's go ahead and assume that he misses the full five weeks.
Obviously, the team is going to be much weaker without the point guard that B/R's Patrick Clarke referred to as "a perennial MVP candidate and the engine that drives the Pacific Division-leading Clippers." Unfortunately, he'd be missing 19 games, and the schedule isn't exactly easy.
That portion of the 2013-14 slate features six games against the Western Conference, but it also includes a lengthy Eastern Conference road trip, one that will test the team despite the ease of playing against teams from the lesser conference. Oh, and there's a home game against the Miami Heat.
All of a sudden, there's a lot of pressure on Blake Griffin.
Losing CP3 could knock the Clippers down to the bottom of the playoff picture. The Minnesota Timberwolves, sitting in the No. 9 spot in the West, are only 5.5 games behind L.A., and that's a gap that could easily be overcome during a 19-game stretch.
Darren Collison is not CP3.
That much should be obvious, even if the speedy floor general is capable of providing a little offensive spark in the injured All-Star's stead. He's not going to be a leader, and that means Griffin has to step up and become the star he's shown flashes of in the past.
The 24-year-old power forward has been enjoying a fantastic season, one that has left no doubt he's one of the top-five players at his position. While LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love are in a class of their own this season, Griffin, Anthony Davis and Dirk Nowitzki have occupied the next tier.
Going into the fateful contest with the Dallas Mavericks, Griffin was averaging 22.0 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 52.5 percent from the field. He was even taking three-pointers and making them at a 38.9 percent clip while improving at the charity stripe.
But that was all with CP3 helping him out. Now he's on his own.
Unfortunately, that hasn't gone so well during the pre-injury portion of the 2013-14 campaign. According to NBA.com's statistical databases, Griffin has fared much worse without his All-Star point guard making his life easier:
His percentages don't look as strong either:
The jump in free-throw percentage is irrelevant, a fluke created by a small sample size. What's significant is everything else, especially the work Griffin does creating points for the Clippers.
Not only does he score fewer points. Not only does he generate fewer assists. He does both those things while experiencing shooting percentages that decline rather significantly.
Despite the obvious improvements that he's making as a scorer, Griffin still doesn't have the ability to consistently go to work with his back to the basket. Having a player like CP3 create offense for him is highly beneficial, and you can see that reflected in the possession stats for the Clippers big man.
The SportVU data on NBA.com reveals that Griffin touches the ball 80.1 times per game, a mark that trails only 16 players in the league. Kevin Love is the lone non-point guard to finish above him on that leaderboard, and it reflects how heavily involved the 24-year-old is in L.A.'s offense.
However, he doesn't touch the rock as often in the frontcourt, as much of his involvement comes from rebounding, setting up an outlet pass and inbounding the ball. With 51.1 frontcourt touches per game, Griffin falls down to No. 45 in the league.
This isn't what's going to change now that CP3 is out for a while, though. It's the length of Griffin's touches that will grow.
Despite the gaudy numbers in the previous two categories (and a power forward checking in at No. 45 in frontcourt touches is still considered gaudy), Griffin only possesses the ball for two minutes per game.
He averages only 2.35 seconds per frontcourt touch. For comparison's sake, Al Jefferson, a noted back-to-the-basket player, averages 2.85 seconds. Greg Monroe checks in at 2.91.
Griffin is actually behind alley-oop finishers like Andre Drummond (2.46) and Tyson Chandler (2.56), simply because he makes skip and swing passes with such high frequency.
I bet that changes in...oh...three to five weeks.
Here's a dirty little secret that few casual fans seem to be grasping: Griffin is actually becoming an increasingly solid post-up player. You can see that below, courtesy of Synergy Sports (subscription required):
|Year||Post-Ups per Game||Points per Possession||NBA Rank||FG%||Foul%||Turnover%|
How can you deny that progress?
Griffin is admittedly getting more selective with his post-up plays, choosing instead to utilize his improved mid-range jumper. But that's allowed him to become much more efficient with his back to the basket, improving dramatically to the point that he's one of the more effective players in the NBA in that situation.
The other big takeaway from the chart up above is the fouls that Griffin is drawing. He's getting to the charity stripe much more frequently while posting up, and he's converting the ensuing shots from the line.
Now that CP3 is out and the offensive burden shifts to Griffin, we're going to see the numbers in the second column go up, and it's important that the healthy All-Star doesn't experience corresponding declines in the next four.
Fortunately, this is only key for those next five weeks. Via email, B/R's Will Carroll, our noted injury expert, explained that we shouldn't have any long-term concerns about CP3:
Bad luck. Bad for a guy that needs to dribble, drive and distribute. The worry is making sure the shoulder is stable and that he's functional. Balancing those will be tough task for medical staff. Big drop off to backup, so not losing more games than needed will be key for Clippers. Long term should be no concern.
Clippers fans can breathe easy about that.
But they still have to be a little concerned in the interim.
Can Blake Griffin carry the Clippers while Chris Paul is out?
The pressure is on Griffin to take on more offensive responsibility than he's ever shouldered during his NBA career. LAC is still expected to advance into the postseason, and it can't experience a huge decline over the next five weeks (again, assuming the worst for Paul). To avoid one, Griffin has to become more of a go-to offensive player, one who can create for himself without breaking a sweat.
Well, it's OK if Griffin breaks a sweat. So long as he produces.
This power forward is by no means overrated at this stage of his career. He's been enjoying resurgent season, posting impressive offensive numbers while letting Doc Rivers help out his defense.
Now he has a chance to become massively underrated. The Clippers better hope he does.