When it comes to controversial statements in today's NBA, "the Los Angeles Clippers are better with Chris Paul" has to rank near the bottom of the list, right next to "LeBron James is talented," "Kevin Durant can score" and "J.R. Smith likes to party."
But how much better are the Clips when their superstar point guard is in the lineup?
L.A.'s 104-96 road win over the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday night wouldn't seem to make much of a case in CP3's favor. After all, Paul's contributions to the result (14 points on 4-of-14 shooting, nine assists, five turnovers in 37 minutes) were meager by his lofty standards. Heck, Darren Collison, CP3's longtime understudy, outscored Paul and registered a better assist-to-turnover ratio while starting alongside him for the second game in a row.
Paul's value over his replacement, though, isn't something that can be judged by a single game, even one that extends the Clippers' current winning streak to five games and runs their record since CP3 returned from a separated shoulder to 7-2.
The Clippers fared quite well without him during the five weeks he spent in recovery. They went 12-6 while scoring a blistering 112.3 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would rank as the league's best, by far, and that's propelled the Clips to No. 2 in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com.
That pace hasn't slowed since Paul returned to his rightful place in Doc Rivers' starting five. If anything, the Clips have only ratcheted up their excellence on both ends in the last three-and-a-half weeks. According to NBA.com, the Clippers have averaged 112.7 points per 100 possessions with Paul back in the saddle. More importantly, they've held their opponents to a paltry 99.5 points per 100 possessions—fewer than the Oklahoma City Thunder's fourth-ranked defense.
And it's not as though L.A. has done such impressive work against a bunch of patsies. Of the nine games they've played upon Paul's return, six have come against teams either in or on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff picture, including wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, the Thunder, the Houston Rockets and now the Suns.
Compare that to the aforementioned 18-game stretch sans CP3, during which the Clippers played teams with winning records half the time; L.A. went just 4-5 in those nine games.
You could say, then, that the quality of competition has ramped up a bit of late. Luckily for the Clips, so, too, has the talent on hand. The Clippers now count Hedo Turkoglu, Danny Granger and Glen Davis among their reserves, along with a healthy Reggie Bullock. The former two are far from the stars they once were and might not even be useful members of a championship-caliber rotation, but the latter two should prove effective to some degree once they work their way into Rivers' flow.
Of greater interest are those Clippers who stepped up their respective games while Paul was out and the extent to which they've kept their rolls going since he returned. Collison, who started every game while Paul was out, has scored in double figures six times in his last nine games, with an average of 16 points per night over his last four.
Matt Barnes, who assumed the starting position at small forward during CP3's hiatus, scored a season-high 28 points in Phoenix on Tuesday. "Whenever the basket is that big, you want to keep getting looks," Barnes told NBA.com's Mike Tulumello after his hot-shooting night.
DeAndre Jordan registered 11.2 points (on 65.5 percent shooting), 15 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in Paul's absence and, as a result, moved to the head of the league-wide pack in field-goal percentage and rebounding, and toward the top in swats. Jordan hasn't scored (10.9 points) or boarded (13.7 rebounds) quite as much in L.A.'s last nine games, though he's upped the ante in field-goal percentage (.712) and blocks (3.1).
Likewise, Blake Griffin's productivity has slipped in some regards and shot up in others next to a healthy CP3. Griffin came of age while Paul was sidelined, with his nightly line (27.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.4 assists, .554 from the field) merely scratching the surface of his excellence. He showed off his underrated ball-handling and passing skills and put his fast-improving mid-range jump shot to good use, all the while flying through the air with the ease to which we've all become accustomed.
Griffin has continued to do all those things (and more) with his fellow superstar in the mix—just not as often as he did between January and February. In his last nine games, Griffin has registered 25.8 points (on 52.7 percent shooting), 9.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists in the same share of minutes (35.6) and just under one shot more per contest.
In truth, those numbers hardly read like bad news for Blake. Those scoring and assist averages still best the ones he's put together on the season, and he's actually cleaning the glass more frequently now than he did while Paul was incapacitated.
Such a shift is to be expected on Griffin's part. After all, the Clips don't need him to run the offense as much (if at all) so long as Paul's in control. Instead, Griffin can recommit himself to becoming the Karl Malone to CP3's John Stockton, to playing big next to Jordan rather than operating on the perimeter.
But it's good to know that Griffin's capable of taking over to the extent that he did without Paul. The same goes for Jordan, Barnes and Collison. J.J. Redick might even merit a more substantial mention here if not for his nonconsecutive stints on the trainer's table.
Which Clipper benefited the most from Chris Paul's absence?
As such, it shouldn't be controversial to suggest that the Clippers, while not better off without CP3, are certainly better for having forged ahead without him for more than a month. The added confidence and competence built up by the rest of L.A.'s core will come in handy down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, particularly during those inevitable instances when Paul won't be able to save the team's proverbial bacon by himself.
At the moment, Paul has plenty of his own work to do to get back to where he was before he landed awkwardly on his shoulder in Dallas. He's been dropping plenty of dimes (10.4 assists to 2.1 turnovers) but has seen his scoring slip (15.8 points) right along with his shooting accuracy, from the field overall (.433), but especially from deep (.154).
That's what makes the Clippers so scary. They're not yet operating at peak efficiency and won't be until Paul's regained confidence in his shooting stroke and Redick's brought his own back into the fold. And yet, they're playing better ball now, even against tougher competition, simply by virtue of having Paul back in action to assume the duties that'd been distributed to his teammates while he was away.
Once Paul is clicking alongside L.A.'s other crucial cogs, it may not be controversial at all to say that the Clippers belong in the championship conversation.
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