When Paul separated his shoulder earlier in the season, the outlook for the Los Angeles Clippers appeared to be bleak. In the Western Conference, simply treading water wouldn't be enough. Lose a few extra games you should win, and there goes your home-court advantage.
Surprisingly enough, however, the Clippers did more than just stay afloat with their floor general sidelined. Paul was missed, to be certain, but the offense didn't collapse without him in the least.
The primary reason for that, aside from a good coaching effort by Doc Rivers and very nice contributions from Jamal Crawford and Darren Collison, was the play of Griffin.
Kevin Arnovitz summed it up nicely at ESPN.com:
Griffin has been a revelation over the past month, and with Paul out, he now occupies the focal point of the Clippers’ offense. The ball lands in Griffin’s hands earlier and more often, and the choreography rotates around him.
The carping from the gallery that Griffin couldn't suffice as a No. 1 option has quieted in recent days, but as much as Griffin has impressed the critics on the set, the most important observer is on the Clippers’ bench. Paul has spent the past month watching Griffin house-sit the offense. The Clippers have learned some illuminating things about themselves and Griffin in Paul’s absence...
A clear emphasis was placed on Griffin getting the ball in multiple spots all over the court (high post, extended elbow, low block), allowing him to use his unique blend of size, athleticism and vision to shred opposing defenses. In Paul's absence, Griffin became the primary creator and offensive linchpin.
What we saw during that time with Griffin occupying that role was unequivocally the best basketball of his young career. According to the advanced stats site NBAwowy.com here were Griffin's numbers this year in the 35 games before Paul's injury and his numbers in the 18 games while Paul was sidelined:
Before Paul's injury (35 games): 56.9 true shooting percentage, 1.09 points per possession, 27.8 usage percentage, .46 free-throw rate, 13 assist percentage.
While Paul was injured (18 games): 60.4 true shooting percentage, 1.19 points per possession, 32.8 usage percentage, .60 free-throw rate, 18.4 assist percentage.
Griffin's raw numbers improved drastically, and so did the efficiency. That brought about some interesting questions, though.
Would Paul siphon away Griffin's touches and have him take a back seat once he returned? Would Griffin revert back to his less productive (albeit still great) level of play? Could the best version of Griffin and the best version of Paul exist on the floor at the same time?
Preliminary answers to those questions have been provided in the last 13 games with Paul back in the lineup. Here are Griffin's numbers during that time:
With Paul back (13 games): 59.5 true shooting percentage, 1.12 points per possession, 32.7 usage percentage, .47 free-throw rate, 14.3 assist percentage.
While the majority of those numbers fall more in line with Griffin's stats before Paul's injury, perhaps the most important one of them all has stayed the same. That Griffin's usage percentage has stayed right in line with where it was during the best stretch of his career, which would be the second-highest in the league over a full season (behind Russell Westbrook), is a positive sign going forward.
With Griffin's emergence and the Clippers' play, Paul sounds ready to do whatever is necessary going forward to lead his team, as he told ESPN.com's Arash Markazi:
"I don't know, it's just different this year," Paul said. "We have a special team and a special opportunity that doesn't come around very often and I have to do my part."
Paul has always had a penchant for picking his spots and pacing himself over the course of a game, and now he can do that even more than before.
To that point, since Paul has returned, his usage percentage is just 22.2. That's down from his usage rate of 24.9 earlier in the season.
One would expect that number to climb in the playoffs (Paul has a 26 percent career playoff usage), but the point remains. The Clippers are more dynamic and less predictable than ever before with Griffin generating so much of the offense.
Two seasons ago in the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs begged anyone else but Paul to beat them, and no one could. Griffin was passive and uncomfortable, even in clear 4-on-3 situations. That's simply not the case anymore.
Alongside an improving defense, that's a big reason why the Clippers look like a legitimate title contender for maybe the first time ever. Teams didn't really have to pick their poison before, as it was all about getting the ball out of Paul's hands however humanly possible. Now that Paul doesn't have to be directly involved in every productive possession, he should see more relaxed defenses and better scoring opportunities. That's a scary thought, especially since the Clippers are already first in the league in offensive efficiency this season.
The Clippers are also winners of nine straight games, registering victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors, despite not being at full strength with J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford both missing time. With the season nearly over, this is a team that's peaking at the right time.
The Clippers had flirted with offensive greatness in the past primarily because of Paul's brilliance with the basketball. But now with a little more ingenuity and design, a little more time and chemistry, and the intelligence of Paul and abilities of Griffin better maximized, the Clippers appear to have achieved it.
All stats courtesy of NBAwowy.com are accurate as of 3/13.