The next five or six weeks are going to go by very, very slowly for the Los Angeles Clippers.
That's the amount of time Chris Paul is slated to be out with a shoulder injury, and that's the amount of time for which head coach Doc Rivers has to find ways for his team to survive in a loaded Western Conference.
It doesn't look like there will be much help coming from the outside, either. The Clippers waived and re-signed backup point guard Maalik Wayns, and they also signed Darius Morris to a 10-day contract. Barring a magical Jeremy Lin-like emergence from one of those two, the Clippers' existing role players will have to step up in a serious way and hold down the fort.
It's not as simple as replacing points and assists, though. Based on what Blake Griffin told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, the Clippers are plenty aware of this: "No one can replace Chris. Not his voice. Not his game. Nothing. Everybody does things differently. We don't have any other guys that talk like Chris."
Perhaps no team has relied more heavily on one player to make things work than the Clippers have with Chris Paul. He's at the center of everything, by design, and so the Clippers are now tasked with basically reinventing themselves on the fly.
Darren Collison is a decent backup point guard, but he can't reasonably be asked to do the same things Paul does with the ball.
The Clippers have to become much more heavily scripted offensively, and as we've seen in the first few games without Paul, they have to run just about everything through Griffin on the block.
That's both good and bad.
The extra attention defenses will give Griffin will make his life much more difficult, but it will also provide important reps. While it's almost a certainty that the Clippers would be toast in the playoffs without Paul's services, it's good practice in case he's ever in foul trouble or if he's getting the ball forced out of his hands in a situation similar to what the San Antonio Spurs did to him in the playoffs two years ago.
It's worth noting that Griffin has never been a great scorer in the fourth quarter, largely because he's deferred to Paul. The removal of that safety blanket has forced him to be more aggressive throughout the entire game, as we saw in the win over the Boston Celtics. That sustained mentality to attack has led Griffin to play some of the best basketball we've ever seen from him.
Looking at the adversity of losing your best player as an opportunity to grow is all well and good, but the cold reality of the situation is that the Clippers are going to struggle to keep up with the league's elite teams.
That's particularly true on defense, where Collison is a matador and the Clippers are sometimes prone to communication breakdowns.
Paul should end up missing a total of about 20 games, which is manageable if that's all it is. Luckily, since the injury didn't require surgery and it's not in the lower body, Paul should be able to hit the ground running and stay in good shape while he's out. That's important.
The offense will need to step up big-time while Paul prepares to come back. Over the course of this season, the Clippers are about seven points worse offensively per 100 possessions while Paul is off the floor, which is a pretty substantial amount. Collison has never thrived creating open shots for others, but don't sleep on Griffin as the Clippers' primary playmaker and distributor.
In the last four games without Paul (if you count the game against the Dallas Mavericks in which Paul was injured), Griffin has averaged 5.2 assists a game. He's a very capable passer out of either post.
While it may sound strange, the Sacramento Kings actually provide a pretty good blueprint for how the Clippers can survive without CP3, at least offensively.
Sacramento is just slightly above average on offense (14th in efficiency), but DeMarcus Cousins is fed relentlessly and Isaiah Thomas is used as a bailout option late in the shot clock. The Clippers will operate much in the same way with Griffin and Jamal Crawford, who will be needed more than ever to create looks for himself under pressure. Anything the Clippers can get from spot-up guys like Jared Dudley will be a bonus.
What might help more than any strategy or game plan, though, is getting back a serious offensive weapon in J.J. Redick. Although he carries the reputation of being just a shooter, Redick is a very capable pick-and-roll player who will give the Clippers a crucial piece once he's fully recovered from his wrist injury.
But even if Redick returns soon, the Clippers should expect to slide in the standings without Paul.
As it stands right now, the Clippers are barely holding on to home-court advantage and the fourth seed. And while it's a long season, it does seem likely that nearly every single game will matter. With the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors both healthy and nipping at the Clippers' heels, it's not unreasonable to think that the Clippers could fall to the sixth seed while Paul is out.
The Rockets and Warriors are just too good to hold off without the services of the league's best point guard.
That said, there should be a limit to the slide.
The Dallas Mavericks don't have the look of a team that can sustain long winning streaks. Back-to-back games are a killer for such an old, veteran-heavy team.
Aside from those teams, the Clippers shouldn't have too much to worry about. The Minnesota Timberwolves should be significantly better than a below-.500 team. The Wolves should make up some ground, but picking up seven games over the next 16 or so that Paul will miss is going to be awfully difficult.
Point being, barring a complete collapse, the Clippers should be able to at least hang on to playoff positioning while Paul is sidelined. The Clippers likely won't thrive without their star, but they should survive.
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