Rising superstar Blake Griffin had other intentions, though.
With a stat sheet as stunning as any of his best aerial work, Griffin has the Paul-less Clippers making splashes of their own.
L.A. seemed on the brink of losing its championship ceiling. Instead, it's managed to raise the roof, fortify the walls and even prop up the basement above potential flood waters.
Paul won't return to the same situation he left behind. Despite our initial worry, that's actually a good thing.
More than a clever commercial campaign, it's also the best way to describe Griffin's elite-level emergence in the wake of Paul's absence.
To be clear, long before he lost his floor general, the high flier was much more than the dunk specialist his critics try to label him. But the work he's done without his All-Star running mate borders on ridiculousness.
|Answering the Call: Griffin Soaring without Paul|
|First 35 Games||24.5||53.7||73.9||4.9||1.9||34.6|
|Last 8 Games||22.1||52.0||70.4||3.1||1.0||36.6|
The Clippers didn't just lose their starting point guard, but they also lost their offensive identity.
CP3 was the motor, the accelerator and the brake system all in one. He poured in 19.6 points a night on his own (on a sweet .464/.356/.870 shooting slash) and created another 25.3 points off his assists, most in the NBA.
The offense should have collapsed without his steady hand leading the way.
It hasn't. It's been even better than it was before.
In the eight games since Paul's injury, the Clippers have averaged 110.0 points per 100 possessions. Not only is that 3.5 better than they'd done in their first 35 games, but it would also stand as the second-best offensive rating in the league if stretched out over the entire season.
Why is this offense surviving and thriving without its driver? Because Griffin has embraced his time at the wheel.
He's always been a gifted passer (career 3.6 assists per game), but these eight games have shown just how powerful that weapon can be (4.9). Griffin has been a safety valve both for head coach Doc Rivers and stand-in point guard Darren Collison, showing patience and poise in the low post that has allowed this team to grow without its brightest star.
He attacks when the defense allows it, either exploiting his quickness advantage or making the most of a low-post game that's far more developed than people think. He can initiate offense from the low block or the high post with the vision to spot shooters and slashers alike. He'll still punish the rim when given the chance or sprint the floor when the transition game is there.
He's doing whatever it takes, just like he said he would when Paul first went down.
"Sometimes getting to the free-throw line, sometimes hitting jumpers, sometimes being in the post, sometimes doing it assist-wise,” he said, via NBA.com's Jeff Caplan. “Just trying to keep that sharp and not become methodical and do the same things over and over.”
Funny that his goal would be to avoid being methodical, since his execution looks mechanical.
But the Clippers are floating on more than Griffin's wings alone.
Help from All Angles
The Clippers couldn't just swap one ball-dominant offensive weapon for another.
Griffin's been a special piece of holding things together, but he isn't the only one.
Collison isn't making people forget about Paul, but he's doing a lot to replace the production. He's averaging 13.6 points on 50.7 percent shooting and 6.6 assists since joining the starting lineup.
Jamal Crawford has chipped in to help with the playmaking duties and managed to keep himself as a scoring threat. He's bumped his assists up to 5.0 (he's averaging 2.9 on the season) despite a similar increase in his scoring (20.9, 17.3 on the year) and an almost identical workload (31.7, 30.4).
Sharpshooter J.J. Redick has provided a spark since returning from his own injury. He's tossed in 18.4 points on .455/.387/.870 shooting and dished out 3.6 assists.
Redick's a smart player, a knockdown shooter and someone who can carry the offense when he finds his rhythm. For a team searching for an offensive identity, he's been a monstrous lift:
L.A. lost the game's premier setup artist, but it added some intrigue in the process. There were no surprises when CP3 was on the floor—at least outside of his are-you-kidding-me deliveries.
This group can still attack in waves, and the defense doesn't know where they'll strike.
"We’re running more of a motion system at times and just let the pass find the open guy instead of allowing Chris to find the open guy," Rivers said, via Conrad Brunner of NBA.com.
The Clippers are working to help each other instead of waiting for Paul to help them. That development could have far-reaching effects once the perennial All-Star makes it back to the hardwood.
Contender or Pretender?
No matter where you had the Clippers slotted in the championship race before Paul's injury, their position has clearly improved since.
This might have started off as a survival tale, but it's since changed to being one of evolution. There are strides being made now that will continue paying dividends down the line.
Paul's still the biggest asset this team holds, but L.A.'s collection of talent may be deeper than it realized. At the very least, this team should have a more colorful offense than it did before—a scary thought considering the previous version was good enough to have its own nickname.
If Rivers strikes the right balance, he'll maximize Paul's gifts but let enough hands into the pot to keep defenses off balance.
As for championship contention, that will hinge on this club's ability to see similar growth at the opposite end. The Clippers are on their way toward joining elite defensive company, but they still find themselves on the outside looking in for now (101.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, eighth).
Paul might not need to make a heroic return, but he'll still be a critical addition to this success-starved franchise when he's ready to go.
If he looks like he did before the injury and his teammates keep up with their midseason makeovers, the Clippers won't be hungry for much longer.
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