Can Darren Collison Play Savior for Chris Paul Again?

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Can Darren Collison Play Savior for Chris Paul Again?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers hoped they wouldn't have to make a claim on their Chris Paul insurance policy.

But there's a reason they've been keeping up with their monthly premiums. Disasters sometimes happen, and there needs to be a safeguard in place.

Enter Darren Collison. The fifth-year point guard had been serving as Paul's backup, but his job title just changed. He'll now be serving as L.A.'s starting floor general, as a separated shoulder will reportedly shelve CP3 for the foreseeable future:

This season isn't the first time that CP3 and Collison have crossed basketball paths. It's not even the first time that a significant injury has forced Collison into Paul's shoes.

But their team is better this time around. The stakes are much higher, too.

History says Collison is the perfect man for the job. But he's never had an assignment quite like this.

 

Assessing the Damage

Maybe the three-to-five week return window doesn't sound so bad. Not when Rajon Rondo is closing in on the 12th month of his rehab and Derrick Rose has lost all but 10 games since the end of 2011-12.

But that timetable is worrisome for a couple different reasons.

For one, it's more of an educated guess than a diagnosis. More testing is needed to reveal the full extent of the injury:

B/R's injury expert Will Carroll offered his take on the injury and subsequent recovery:

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.

The sun shining in the long-term forecast should bring a big sigh of relief. Paul's obviously instrumental to any success the Clippers will have, but his importance goes beyond this fanbase.

He's one of the best players of this generation and a gift to hoops heads all over. The longer the league has CP3, the better off it will be.

For the short-term, though, what exactly does this mean for L.A.?

Let's assume that the initial call is correct. What are the Clippers really looking at for these next three-to-five weeks?

Assuming he's back in exactly three weeks, he'll lose 10 games. An extra week would cost him another four games. If he's out for the full five weeks, he'll wind up missing 18 games in all.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Again, over an 82-game schedule, even 18 games doesn't seem so bad.

But it could be a game-changer out West. The Clippers are only four games out of the top seed, but they're also just three games up on the No. 8 seed Dallas Mavericks. Only 6.5 games separate L.A. from the No. 11 seed Denver Nuggets.

Treading water won't cut. The Clippers need to keep moving forward.

L.A.'s upcoming schedule isn't brutal, but the Paul-less Clippers will be tested. Assuming CP3 is out for all 18 games, he'll miss a seven-game East Coast road trip, along with visits to the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors.

The home schedule is a bit easier, but it still features stopovers from the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.

So, how can L.A. survive without its MVP? Hopefully the same way the then-New Orleans Hornets did when Collison stepped into Paul's shoes back in 2010.

 

Same Story, Different Challenge

Collison should at least know what he's about to get into. He's been down this road before.

The former UCLA Bruin was just 40 games into his NBA career when Paul suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee midway through the 2009-10 season.

If the magnitude of the moment fazed the rookie, he didn't let his play show it. On the first night of what would eventually become a nearly two-month absence for Paul, Collison tallied 18 assists, 17 points and six rebounds.

He eventually logged 25 starts before Paul returned, never once looking in over his head. He averaged 19.3 points (with a .486/.397/.824 shooting slash), 9.8 assists and 1.6 steals during that stretch.

Great news for L.A., right? Just replace one superstar with another.

Only, it's not that easy.

Four seasons later and Collison has yet to capture that same magic. His rookie year assists average (5.7), field-goal (47.7) and three-point (40.0) percentages still stand as the highest marks of his career. He's only once topped the 12.4 points he averaged that season.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Besides, CP3 isn't the type of player that one man can replace. 

"Paul is the end-all-be-all of the Clippers offense," USA Today's Sam Amick wrote. "His individual value in respect to his team is up there with the likes of Miami's LeBron James."

The numbers reflect those statements. In fact, they even suggest those words might not be enough:

This offense plummets from elite to mediocre when Paul leaves the floor. With CP3, this offense is averaging 108.4 points per 100 possessions, good enough for the No. 3 spot in offensive efficiency. Without him, that number falls all the way to 102.0, No. 18 overall.

Scoring won't be the problem for Collison. He's averaging 16.2 points per 36 minutes on the season and went for a season-high 20 after Paul's early exit from L.A.'s 119-112 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

But Collison doesn't have Paul's vision or passing touch. He's averaging just 3.9 assists per 36 minutes—more than seven fewer than Paul managed during his 34.6 minutes a night (11.2).

Even worse, this offense is built around a playmaking point guard. There are lobs that need to be tossed, shooters that need to be found.

This will take something even better than what Collison showed the last time he was on fill-in duty. It's a brand new challenge, but not an impossible one.

 

Next Man Up

There's a good thing about playing under championship expectations. Usually, that means playing with a championship-caliber roster. (Although, as James Dolan showed us, that isn't always the case.)

Collison is one of the lucky ones. He has top-shelf pieces around him and a savvy coach to help him get through this process.

Can the Clippers keep a top-four seed without CP3?

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CP3 might be the best playmaker on the team, but he isn't the only one.

Blake Griffin is a tremendous passer for his size. Jamal Crawford has the handles to break down a defense, and the vision to pin-point its collapse.

The challenge for Collison is to not try to replace Paul. If he had CP3's game, he wouldn't be sitting behind him.

Collison needs to play his game—strong drives at one end, relentless defense at the other. He can be an off-ball threat, letting players like Griffin and Crawford control the flow.

He can't be CP3's savior. He just isn't that type of talent.

But he can be the one that steers this ship through these rocky waters and keeps L.A. in the championship race.

 

*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

 

 

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