Blake Griffin's injury, while devastating, doesn't pose any problems the Los Angeles Clippers didn't have or know about already. It merely compounds the flaw-filled roster that has threatened to derail Los Angeles all season.
The team announced on Sunday that Griffin will need surgery to remove a staph infection in his right elbow. Though no definitive timetable was provided, ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne provided some insight into a standard recovery timeline:
Four to six weeks is a long time for any team to soldier on without one of its three best players. But it's even longer in Clippers Land.
At minimum, Griffin will miss the next 11 games. If he's sidelined for six weeks, that total hits 19 and stands to climb even higher should his rehabilitation not go as planned.
Neither stretch is one the Clippers are equipped to handle. They were barely hanging onto their championship-contender status with Griffin. The idea that they can even tread water without him feels far-fetched.
Fourteen games over .500, they're clinging to sixth place in the cutthroat Western Conference. The seventh-place San Antonio Spurs are only a half-game behind them, and the 4.5-game gap separating them and the eighth-place Phoenix Suns no longer qualifies as insurmountably comfortable.
Nine of the Clippers' next 19 tilts pit them against the West's top five teams. While they're a combined 5-2 against the Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, that's with Griffin. Fourteen of their next 19 contests also seem them face squads with winning records, against which they're just 12-15 (12-14 with Griffin).
In their lone game this season without Griffin, the Clippers were pummeled by the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, losing 131-108, trailing by as many as 32 points. One game isn't enough to spell season-sinking doom, but the Clippers are no better fit to navigate Griffin's absence than they are Chris Paul's—or any other significant loss, for that matter.
Spencer Hawes started in Griffin's stead, posting a team-worst minus-28 through just over 35 minutes of action. After tallying 17 points in the first half, he was a nonfactor in the latter two quarters, shooting 0-of-4 from the floor as Los Angeles came completely undone.
That's the extent of the Clippers' depth at power forward. They have to rely on Hawes to soak up Griffin's starting role and minutes because they just have to. Hedo Turkoglu and Ekpe Udoh are last resorts unfit to be last resorts, and Glen Davis exited Sunday's loss with back spasms, leaving his status up in the air, per the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch:
Not one of those options adequately replaces Griffin. Even if everyone was healthy, Hawes remains the best alternative, if only because he's tall and can space the floor. But the similarities between him and Griffin stop there.
When Griffin rides pine, the Clippers are substantially worse. Their offensive and rebounding efficiency plummets, while their shaky defense remains virtually unchanged:
|Blake Griffin's On-Court Value|
|Clippers...||MP||Off. Rtg.||Rank (Equivalent)||Def. Rtg.||Rank||Net Rtg.||Rank||REB%||Rank|
Now, there are plenty of variable at play here. The Clippers average just 13.7 minutes per game without Griffin, and 91.6 percent of his total ticks (1,648) have come alongside Paul. Turbulent downturns are inevitable within small sample sizes that mostly exclude the presence of two superstars.
Then again, this speaks to the Clippers' reliance on their dynamic dyad. Paul isn't used to playing without Griffin. His effective field-goal percentage—cumulative measurement of two- and three-pointers—drops by 7.7 points when Griffin is on the bench. Even DeAndre Jordan's overall field-goal percentage falls by 8.8 points without his frontcourt partner.
Maintaining the current level of offensive success should prove impossible without Griffin. He's a featured scorer (22.5 points per game) and secondary playmaker (25.7 assist percentage). Maybe the Clippers are able to account for some or most of his scoring, but the latter part of his game is irreplaceable. LeBron James is the only other forward to assist on a greater number of his team's baskets when in the game.
LeBron. Freaking. James.
This is how important Griffin is to the offense. Just as the Clippers don't have a competent backup power forward, they do not have a tertiary floor general. There's Paul, and that's it. Griffin is doling out 5.1 assists per game, the second-most on the team and nearly double that of the third-most (Jamal Crawford, 2.6).
There's also a chance—an inevitable one—the defense suffers. The Clippers' defensive numbers are better with Griffin on the bench, but that's without Hawes defending starting power forwards. They're way worse when Hawes and Jordan share the floor, as they'll do for stretches at a time now.
None of this is especially new. It's indisputably unsettling to write and acknowledge, but the Clippers' lack of depth is a longstanding issue. Their bench ranks in the bottom six of offensive and defensive efficiency, per HoopsStats.com, so they've always been a starters-dependent convocation.
What makes this latest predicament worse is the Clippers' inability to find help. Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles even says they have no plans to tinker with the roster ahead of the All-Star break:
This is not to say the All-Star break will gift clarity or solutions. Griffin's timetable may be easier to project by then, but the Clippers won't magically gain the assets necessary to find outside help.
Coach and president Doc Rivers doesn't have any first-round picks to dangle until 2021, per RealGM. The team has obligations that preclude it from offering a second-rounder through 2021 as well.
Not that picks would be particularly helpful. The Clippers are hard capped with nearly $84.9 million in salary commitments, according to HoopsHype, and possess no expiring contracts that are both sizable and expendable. Their best trade pieces are J.J. Redick and Crawford, neither of whom will net any forward of serious value without draft selections attached.
Which means the Clippers are at the behest of midseason cuts.
As Sean Highkin writes for NBC Sports:
The Clippers’ best hope is to hit the buyout market. Reports have surfaced in recent days that Amar’e Stoudemire could ask the Knicks for a buyout, and he’d be a good short-term replacement for Griffin. But he can’t play the extended minutes Griffin does at his age and with his knees being what they are.
You know things are bad when Stoudemire is being mentioned, even as a speculative addition. If he asks the New York Knicks for a buyout—something he's considering, per Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears—he'll indeed be the most attractive name available.
But the Mavericks are considered favorites to land Stoudemire if that happens, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Tim MacMahon. Moreover, Stoudemire isn't likely to help much, or at all. Not only do degenerative knees limit his availability, but he's spent the entire season playing for the league's second-slowest team. The Clippers play with far more pace and would have to decelerate just to carve out a role for Stoudemire.
No matter what the Clippers do—assuming they can do anything—their immediate livelihood rests on the current roster. There's nothing and no one of note out there they can afford, pinning them to this precarious position in which they have demand without supply.
“There will be guys who play more minutes that haven’t played a lot,” Rivers said, via the Orange Country Register's Dan Woike. “If you can get through this, it can be a blessing in disguise. Or, it can go the other way for you.”
Without Griffin, expect the Clippers to go the other way. The wrong way.
Who they are is what they have, and what they have hasn't been good enough. There's no reason to believe that will change now, when they're shorthanded and inflexible as ever.
Just 2.5 games separate them and the West's No. 3 seed. Days ago, that might have mattered. Now another number matters more: 5.5—the number of games standing between them and a draft-pick-less lottery berth that could become much too real by the time Griffin returns.