Will Chris Paul's Injury Be Death Blow to LA Clippers Season?

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Will Chris Paul's Injury Be Death Blow to LA Clippers Season?
USA Today

Chris Paul's bum shoulder won't bury the Los Angeles Clippers. But in an absurdly competitive Western Conference, his absence could dig them into a hole that won't be easy to climb out of.

Per Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times

An MRI test Sunday revealed that Chris Paul has a Grade 3 acromioclavicular (or AC) joint separation in his right shoulder, an injury the Clippers said would sideline their All-Star guard up to six weeks.

But Paul will not require surgery on his shoulder, the team announced.

The Clippers are a very good team, have plenty of talent throughout the roster and will almost certainly play winning basketball without Paul. Their remaining January schedule is relatively benign but becomes immensely more difficult toward the end of Paul's projected absence.

For what it's worth, CP3 himself is confident his mates can soldier on without him.

According to Arash Markazi of ESPN, Paul said: "I'm not worried about us. That's the thing about our team, since training camp; we've done everything in case somebody goes down."

Paul should be saying things like that. If he can't contribute on the court for a while, at least he can offer some moral support and confidence to his able-bodied teammates. But make no mistake, the Clippers are going to miss their best player.

 

Paul's Impact

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The numbers show Paul's value to L.A.'s attack, as the Clippers' offensive rating dips by nearly seven points per 100 possessions without him on the floor, per NBA.com.

Looking deeper, it's easy to understand why Paul means so much to his team's offense. Put simply, he completely controls everything L.A. does when he's on the court.

That's obvious if you've ever seen a Clippers game, but the degree to which Paul is responsible for his team's offensive success is truly remarkable. The most striking statistic: He ranks No. 1 in the NBA in assist percentage with a rate of 51 percent, per NBA.com.

So, in addition to his own scoring, Paul is the man who directly facilitates more than half of his teammates' baskets. For reference, John Wall is a mile behind him among qualified players at 39.2 percent.

In addition to personally generating such a huge portion of the Clippers' points, Paul is also in charge of protecting the most important thing to an NBA offense: the basketball.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

CP3 ranks third in the NBA with an average of 97.1 touches per game, per data from SportVU (via NBA.com). Only Wall and Kemba Walker have their hands on the rock more frequently during NBA games. The fact that Paul's turnover ratio is so much lower than either Wall's or Walker's proves that there's no safer place for the ball to be than in Paul's hands.

All right, enough with the numbers. Let's talk CP3's value in broader terms.

Basically, there's no single player who has more influence on his team's offense than Paul. He's the conductor, the driver, the pilot—whatever metaphor you want to use to convey his complete control works.

L.A.'s devastating pick-and-roll functions well because he's an expert at operating it. Plus, he's the guy who manages late-game possessions, finding teammates in space or working his way to the elbows for easy jumpers.

The Clippers are going to struggle to produce throughout games—and especially when it matters most—without him.

 

Backup Measures

Andrew Fielding-USA TODAY Sports

In Paul's stead, Darren Collison will have to assume a much bigger role. So far, so good, as Collison has averaged 17.5 points and 6.5 assists on 14-of-20 shooting in the two full games he's played since becoming a starter. More than anyone else, he'll determine how well the Clippers weather the storm without their best player.

Blake Griffin will have to find ways to score without picture-perfect assists from Paul, something he's much better equipped to do now that his post game has improved so significantly.

More broadly, the Clippers will have to rely on their defense to limit opponents for a while. Los Angeles currently boasts the NBA's eighth-best defensive rating, thanks in large part to Doc Rivers' influence and DeAndre Jordan's rapid growth on that end. For the next few weeks, the Clips will have to become a defense-first outfit.

Fortunately, they're better prepared to do that than ever before.

Per B/R's Josh Martin, Rivers understands that surviving without Paul has to be a team effort. Rivers said: "I just want them to know, without Chris, there is no one guy, and last night was a great example."

That all sounds promising, doesn't it? Surely, L.A.'s deep roster, remaining star power and defensive tenacity will be enough to sustain it for the next 20 Paul-less games.

Right?

 

The Stakes

Here's the problem: Merely surviving won't be enough to avoid serious conference slippage.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are cruising along atop the standings, proving they've got more than enough to remain elite without Russell Westbrook. The San Antonio Spurs essentially never stop winning, the Portland Trail Blazers are getting healthier and showing no signs of slowing down, and the Golden State Warriors are the hottest team in the NBA.

Treading water will actually be more like sinking as the rest of the stupidly good West keeps rising around the Clippers.

Even the tiniest misstep will drop Los Angeles into the fifth spot behind the Warriors, who are currently just a half-game out of the No. 4 position. That would entail the Clippers paying a postseason visit to a Warriors team with a massive home-court advantage in the first round.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Per Sam Amick of USA Today, it's not a stretch to expect exactly that:

The likely price to be paid here for the Clippers is home-court advantage in the playoffs, and that's no small cost considering the lofty expectations these Clippers had with new coach Doc Rivers entering the season.

Suddenly, a one-and-done season looks like a real possibility. And that's just one example of the dangers L.A. could face if the next six weeks don't go smoothly.

Worse still, suppose the Clips drop a little further, leading to a road matchup against the Blazers, Spurs or Thunder? With a healthy Paul, they'd be competitive against any of those teams, but losing home-court advantage in the first round certainly wouldn't make the road to a championship any easier.

Realistically, the Clippers aren't likely to fall all the way out of playoff position. But the path to their ultimate goal is going to get much, much tougher.

To its credit, L.A. is angling for help. Waiving Maalik Wayns and Stephen Jackson opens up a couple of roster spots, and it has had feelers out for everyone from Andrew Bynum to Hedo Turkoglu to Sasha Vujacic. No matter what additions the Clips make, though, they're not going to come close to replacing Paul.

Ultimately, the best case for the Clippers is CP3 returns ahead of schedule and the team pulls together well enough while he's gone to preserve the status quo in the standings. The worst-case scenario features CP3 missing the full six weeks, his team slipping down the conference ladder and his bum shoulder hampering him for the rest of the season.

The Clippers project as a championship contender when whole, and they're good enough to play well at less than full strength. But this year, in this conference, "playing well" isn't enough to avoid a potentially precipitous drop.

 

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