On the road to an NBA championship, the margin for error is slim. A few blown defensive possessions and a few bad decisions with the ball, and all of a sudden you're watching another team raise the trophy. We saw as much last year.
It's something to consider when evaluating the Los Angeles Clippers' title hopes and the loss of J.J. Redick to injury. While it's not yet clear how long Redick will be out with a bulging disc in his back, he's missed the last 11 games. Doubt of his return this year may be starting to seep in, as evidenced by Doc Rivers' conversation with Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
There still is no timetable for his return, and Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was asked Tuesday night if he feared that Redick could be out for the rest of the season.
"I don't know," Rivers said before the game against the Suns. "I haven't had that fear yet. I don't want that fear, maybe would be a better way of putting it. But I don't know. I just keep getting updates.
The uncertainty of Redick's return certainly casts a shadow on the current proceedings, even though the Clippers have managed to keep things rolling without his services.
This season, the Clippers are 21-9 with Redick in the lineup and 21-11 without him, which seems to diminish his overall importance. If a team maintains a similar winning percentage without a player as they did with him in a similar sample size, how crucial could he really be?
It's an interesting point, but it's hard to argue that the Clippers aren't significantly better off with Redick healthy and playing a starter's share of minutes.
This season when Redick is on the floor, the Clippers have an offensive rating of 118.8. For context, the highest offensive rating that a team has posted in NBA history was 115.6 by the Showtime Lakers. The Clippers haven't been just great offense with Redick on the floor—they've been unstoppable.
Overall, the Clippers are 3.1 points per 100 possessions better with Redick on the floor this season, which is a pretty hefty number.
Jamal Crawford has proven to be plenty capable in Redick's absence and has been a big reason for why the Clippers have kept playing well; but by comparison, the Clippers have only been .4 points better with him on the floor as opposed to off.
On/off is far from a perfect stat though, which is why it's important to consider lineup data as well. The three best Clippers lineups this year (at least 75 minutes played) in terms of net rating (the difference between a team's offensive and defensive rating) all involve Crawford instead of Redick.
Part of that has to do with Crawford playing more minutes and getting more time with Matt Barnes instead of Jared Dudley, but it's noteworthy nonetheless.
This has probably been the best season of Crawford's 14-year career, and Darren Collison is providing valuable minutes as well. It's been a "next man up" approach for the Clippers on the wing this year, and it's a testament to Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers that the offense hasn't missed a beat as other players have shuttled in and out of action.
Again, though, this isn't about whether the Clippers can survive without Redick. They've already proven they can. It's about whether they can thrive and make a run through a loaded Western Conference without him.
That's where things get a little dicier. Although the rotation will shorten up a bit in the postseason, the prospect of giving Willie Green, Danny Granger and even Collison substantial minutes on the wing against elite competition is a little scary. Each player presents their own matchup issues, and Crawford is prone to streaky games and shaky defense.
Redick doesn't often get a lot of recognition for it, but he may honestly be the team's best perimeter defender outside of Matt Barnes, which makes him more of a necessity than a luxury. The Clippers are ninth in defensive efficiency this year, but there are questions as to whether they can hold up against the league's elite on that end. After witnessing what the Memphis Grizzlies did to the Clippers last year in the playoffs, perhaps that's a fair concern. Matt Moore at CBSSports.com echoed that sentiment here:
Basically, the Clippers have beat up on terrible teams and struggled against most teams with a pulse. Worse still, they're sliding backwards. (...) Rivers is right that they need help, and there's certainly time to fix it. But the Clippers aren't title contenders this season because their defense hasn't made the leap.
The conclusion that the Clippers aren't title contenders may be a little harsh, particularly since the Miami Heat just won an NBA championship with the ninth-ranked defensive efficiency during the regular season. Of course, we know the Heat are capable of "flipping the switch" and defending at an elite level, which is something we just haven't seen from the Clippers quite yet.
That's ultimately the issue with losing Redick. The Clippers won't be at their best if he isn't in the lineup, and we know what teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs are capable of when operating at full strength, which both should be.
The Clippers don't have the same benefit of past performance to inspire confidence, but it's a bit reckless to completely write off one of the best teams in the league, with or without Redick. We've seen teams catch lightning in a bottle in the past, like the Dallas Mavericks did in 2011, even when the loss of Caron Butler looked like a damning one.
The odds are certainly against the Clippers if Redick can't suit up for the postseason, but a team with two of the best players in the league and one of the best coaches will always have a puncher's chance at a title.
All stats via basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats.