PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — The sailing has been anything but smooth for the Los Angeles Clippers of late. They lost Chris Paul to a shoulder injury on the first Friday of 2014 and were rolled by the San Antonio Spurs on the road the very next night.
Even the aftermath of the Clippers' 101-81 win over the Orlando Magic at the Staples Center on Monday was whipped by the winds of change. L.A. opted to part ways with former Spurs swingman Stephen Jackson on Tuesday, four weeks to the day after his arrival.
Not because the team, led by head coach/personnel guru Doc Rivers, wanted to, but because Paul's absence necessitated the freeing of a roster spot.
"He was great. He was really, really great," Rivers said of Jackson before the opening of practice at the Clippers' team facility on Tuesday. "Once Chris went down, we needed guards—in my opinion, multiple guards."
To that end, the Clippers have already sprung into action, signing former Los Angeles Lakers draftee Darius Morris to a 10-day contract on Monday. Another former Laker, Sasha Vujacic, could be on Doc's radar, though Rivers figures to cast his net beyond the boundaries of downtown L.A. before settling on his next move.
Such is the life of an NBA title contender in January. Playoff hopefuls around the league are busy perusing the waiver wire like antsy fantasy basketball general managers, hoping to find short-term solutions to their immediate problems and perhaps happen upon a piece or two to keep for the remainder of the campaign. It was last January that the Miami Heat, still searching for a two-way forward to fill out their frontcourt, scooped Chris Andersen off the scrapheap.
This is when the rote refrain of "It's a business" tends to pop up ad nauseam, though not without cause. Watching guys shuffle into and out of a locker room can exact a human toll on even the most professional of squads, but having veterans who've seen it all certainly helps.
"It's not hard to stay focused," Jared Dudley remarked. "It's the nature of the business. Sometimes, you'll be sad...you kind of hope guys stick on, but that's why it's tough. It's tough in this business. You have to be prepared always."
The Clippers, to their credit, don't appear to have been caught flat-footed by the shifting of the tectonic plates beneath their feet. Darren Collison, in his second stint as CP3's understudy, stepped up to the plate with team highs in points (21) and steals (four), in addition to seven assists and three rebounds, against Orlando.
As great as Collison was in relief of Paul, the Clippers were even more encouraged by the extent to which Paul's playmaking duties were spread more evenly among the rest of the roster. Matt Barnes chipped in four assists off the bench. Jamal Crawford led the team with eight dimes. Blake Griffin scrounged up six of his own, despite being plagued by foul trouble throughout.
It's that sort of collective effort to move the ball on offense and band together on defense—not 10 days of Free Agent X, Y or Z or a month of empowering a career backup to play like an All-Star—that's going to carry the Clips through this rough patch without their MVP.
The absence of Paul's league-leading 11.2 assists per game didn't stop L.A. from racking up a sturdy 30 of them at Orlando's expense. As is the case with any good team, the Clippers were better than the sum of their parts and were strong enough as a unit to share CP3's responsibilities evenly and effectively.
"I just want them to know, without Chris, there is no one guy, and last night was a great example," Rivers added.
But just because the Clippers can handle being shorthanded at guard against a Magic team that's currently 14th in the Eastern Conference doesn't mean they'll be able to do the same this week against the Boston Celtics and the Lakers. After that, they'll face the Dallas Mavericks at home before embarking on their annual Grammy-related road trip.
Hence, Rivers says he's hardly considered bolstering L.A.'s thin corps of bigs, even with Andrew Bynum soon to loom over the market after being released by the Chicago Bulls on the heels of a blockbuster trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"We've had very few discussions about anyone big right now," said Rivers. "We're far more focused on the perimeter part of our team."
But all the turmoil and upheaval in the wake of Paul's devastating injury hasn't affected the core competency of these Clippers over the long haul of the 2013-14 season. "I like my team," Doc reiterated. "It's not like I'm out trying to change my team. I don't need to.
"Our team needs growth, not change. Obviously, if there was a change that you could make that would help the team, do it, but I like our team."
As well he should. At 24-13, his squad is four games back of last year's franchise-record pace, but it has done so against a significantly tougher schedule. His team is a top-10 outfit on both ends of the floor in terms of per-100-possession efficiency, according to NBA.com.
More importantly, with Doc aboard, the Clippers have themselves someone capable of captaining them through the league's stormy winter seas. That's particularly crucial with a floor general of Chris Paul's caliber sidelined for the time being and the choppy waters of championship contention as relentlessly challenging as ever for L.A.
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