When Chris Paul went down with a separated AC joint in early January, the prognosis seemed bleak for the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers thrived, winning 12-of-18 games in Paul’s absence. Now that Paul is back, how is he acclimating himself back into the rotation? How is the team responding? Equally important, how is Blake Griffin responding?
Albeit has only been a few games since his return, the results are promising. For a guy that missed over a month of basketball and had little opportunity to work on his game during that time off, Paul looks pretty good. His vision will always be elite, as evidenced by his 9.7 assists per game since returning, according to NBA.com. Obviously, not quite the same as his season average of over 11 per game, but right under his 9.9 career mark. Still, his decision-making remains strong, despite his slight increase in turnovers.
To his credit, Paul looks to have stayed in shape during his time off, playing 1.4 minutes less than his season average. The one area where Paul has yet to assert himself is with his shot attempts. Paul certainly has seen enough of the team playing without him on the floor to recognize that Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford have both been on a tear.
Paul seems to be attempting to set up his teammates in order to keep the fluidity they developed with Paul injured. Regardless, expect Paul’s shot attempts to slowly rise from his 10.3 since returning back to his 14.1 season average.
The rest of the team has adjusted quite well to Paul’s presence. Jamal Crawford is thriving on the added space, knocking down 2.3 threes and scoring 23.7 points per game, according to NBA.com. Darren Collison’s role has been reduced, but he still is doing a good job running the second unit. DeAndre Jordan rounds out the final player averaging double-digits, but is seeing even easier looks at the rim, shooting 78.6 percent from the floor. The remaining players all have settled into their offensive roles, but as they get used to darting to the rim and fading to corners while Paul has the ball, they will see their offensive production increase.
The final grade on Paul’s return will come on the defensive side of the ball. Darren Collison and Jamal Crawford did a solid job defending opposing guards, but like Doc Rivers mentioned to ESPN’s Arash Markazi, Paul makes a world of difference defensively.
What Brett said after the game was right, Rivers said. He said, As much as you scored, it was your defense that changed the game. That's what I kept saying with Chris. People are talking about offense, but we miss Chris defensively. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the league, defensively. Not having that hurts us and having that, you could see what happens.
The one player most impacted by Paul’s injury was Griffin. Since Paul arrived in Los Angeles, Griffin had not had to shoulder the scoring load. That all changed on January 3. Griffin has always had the green light to shoot or attack the rim, but he has not been relied upon as the go-to option since his rookie season. To say the least, Griffin has shined.
Griffin’s season averages were extraordinary, but not many expected him to dominate the way he did without Paul: 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 54.5 percent from the field and 70.2 percent from the line. Anyone that questioned Griffin’s resolve or did not think he was capable of carrying the Clippers, has now been silenced.
While previous criticizers have been quick to praise Griffin’s offensive development, the compliments about his defense are still lagging. Without Paul, the Clippers struggled defensively, but improvements were made. Griffin realized the team needed him on both ends of the floor. While he has bought in defensively, he still has some strides to make, one scout told the Los Angeles Times’ Broderick Turner.
"He lets players get into his body instead of bumping them first," one scout said. "He's strong enough to hold his own down low and he can be a better weak-side defender because of his leaping ability."
Now that Paul is back in the fold, things have changed for Griffin; they are getting easier. Obviously, with Paul on the floor, defenses have one more option to occupy the defense, which has opened up more space for Griffin to work. Since Paul’s return, Griffin is averaging an astounding 32.3 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.7 assists and is shooting 64.4 percent from the field.
Paul’s overall impact has already been seen, discussed and quantified. He is clearly one of the best point guards in the league, has been the engine that runs the Clippers and always makes his teammates better. While the extent of his impact post-injury has yet to be defined, that has more to do with Griffin’s development rather than Paul overcoming his injury.
Paul can only make things easier for the rest of his teammates. Sure he will overdribble at times, but his primary focus has always been to create easy looks for the other four players on the floor with him. Considering the way Blake Griffin has been playing this season, especially during Paul’s injury, the Clippers are in the best shape they have been in years. As long as Griffin and Paul are healthy, the Clippers will be a team to fear in the playoffs.
Still, grading Paul’s return is a difficult one. It seems not much has changed in his return, but in fact things have. Paul is still playing his same game, just not taking as many shots as earlier in the season. His defense is still solid, he jumps passing lanes just like he used to and will always be one of the fiercest competitors in the league.
The truth is, Paul’s teammates have adjusted, and now Paul must adjust to them. His final grade must be postponed, mainly because nobody knows which version of Paul the Clippers will need to close out the regular season. The Paul who thrives setting up his teammates and not focusing on scoring, or the version that needs to serve as the go-to guy because he is the only one on the roster capable of sustaining that type of play.