Where Do Los Angeles Clippers Go from Here After Latest Blake Griffin Injury?

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 21, 2016

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 18:  Blake Griffin #32 of the LA Clippers goes up for a dunk during a game against the Washington Wizards on December 18, 2016 at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
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PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Through all their years together, and all the twists and turns therein, the Los Angeles Clippers have, like Liam Neeson in Taken, acquired a particular set of skills, for better or worse.

Running pick-and-roll sets for lob after lob? Check.

Crumbling during the playoffs? Check.

Surviving without Blake Griffin? Check, check and check again.

"We don't want to get used to [playing without Griffin], I can tell you that," head coach Doc Rivers said.

That comment came a week before Griffin went back under the knife, this time to have "loose bodies" removed from his right knee. The latest procedure is expected to shelve him three to six weeks. In scheduling terms, that leaves the Clippers absent an All-Star for as few as 12 games but as many as 20.

For most teams, losing a player of Griffin's caliber for any period of time might be a crushing blow. But this Clippers group isn't most teams, to say the least.

"Unfortunately, we've done this before," Chris Paul said. "It's not like, 'Oh man, what do we do?'"

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Blake Griffin #32, Chris Paul #3 and DeAndre Jordan #6 of the LA Clippers show emotion on the bench during the game against the Toronto Raptors at STAPLES Center on November 21, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER:
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
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During 2015-16, the Clippers went 30-15 without Griffin while he recovered from a quad injury and served a four-game suspension for an off-court incident in which he injured his right (shooting) hand. The year before, they strung together nine wins in 15 games after he had midseason surgery on his right elbow.

And the Clippers' replenished depth now gives Rivers a slew of stopgaps to whom he can turn during Griffin's latest stint on the shelf.

They can break the emergency glass around Paul Pierce, who started 33 times in 36 appearances amid Griffin's recovery last season. The now-39-year-old wasn't a world-beater back then (7.2 points per game on 37.8 percent shooting from the field) but shot well enough from three (33.3 percent) to spread the floor for endless strings of Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls.

There are other, more sustainable options at L.A.'s disposal. The team is well equipped to go small and has made a point of working in three-guard lineups since training camp. Slide Luc Mbah a Moute to power forward, and a spot opens up on the wing for Austin Rivers or Ray Felton.

"We're still one of the few teams that I think can lose one of their main guys and still go into games expecting to win," Paul said.

Rivers looks like the best bet to start in spurts: He's been Doc's top option of late and has largely delivered in that role. During a stretch of three straight starts (with one DNP) in mid-December, Rivers averaged 16.7 points per game on 63 percent shooting, including 65 percent on 6.7 three-point attempts per game.

He dedicated himself to sharpening his outside stroke over the summer. And while his two-game stint as a starter during the latter half of L.A.'s 2016 playoff series loss to the Portland Trail Blazers didn't yield any wins, it did help the Duke product find the mindset he needs to be successful at this level.

"When everybody went down, I started, I was super aggressive," the younger Rivers said. "That's why this year, every game I've started, I've been super aggressive. It's worked. You've just got to be yourself."

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 16:  Austin Rivers #25 of the LA Clippers drives to the basket during a game against the Miami Heat on December 16, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
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Sizing down won't suit the Clippers against every opponent. If Doc decides to keep his starting five more conventional against bigger foes, he can tap Marreese Speights or Brandon Bass to fill the frontcourt next to Jordan.

Speights would give L.A. more scoring punch—but at the expense of disrupting one of the league's more effective second units. Bass, on the other hand, has been a spot player for the Clippers but a Doc Rivers confidant since the two were with the Boston Celtics.

Though he's not particularly adept as a ball-handler or passer at the NBA level, Bass can approximate Griffin's mid-range shooting, having hit well over 45 percent of his long twos during the course of his 12-year pro career, per Basketball Reference.

None of L.A.'s backup plans, though, can replace all that Griffin brings to the table. Nor do the Clippers expect them to.

"You can't replace a guy like that," Jordan said, "but whenever he does go down, we've just all got to step it up even more."

Jordan has typically been the one with the biggest uptick in production during Griffin's leaves. In 2014-15, he upped the ante to 14.9 points and 18.5 rebounds per game through the 15 contests Griffin missed. Last season, he settled in at 14.2 points and 14.4 boards per game in 42 games during Griffin's absence.

DeAndre Jordan Overall vs. Without Blake Griffin, 2015-16
Basketball Reference

But Jordan did that damage without absorbing too many more of Griffin's shot attempts. A swath of those will fall to Paul, who becomes more of a scorer on the ball in addition to handling his usual duties as the maestro of Rivers' offense.

Chris Paul Overall vs. Without Blake Griffin, 2015-16
Basketball Reference

It will take a village to make up the 21.2 points, 16.5 shots, 8.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists Griffin produced nightly prior to his latest setback. The Clippers, though, could use a collective call to action, whatever its root cause. Their defense, once the best in basketball, has ranked 23rd in points allowed per 100 possessions since mid-November, per NBA.com.

Griffin's recent grounding hasn't helped, but the problems aren't his alone to bear. Intermittent absences by Rivers, Felton and Wesley Johnson have disrupted the bench's once-impeccable defensive chemistry.

More than anything, L.A.'s defensive problem may be a mental rather than a physical one.

"I think we have to have a little bit more of an arrogance about ourselves on defense," Austin Rivers said. "I think the first 10, 15 games of the year, we were like, 'We're going to be the best defensive team.' We said that. Whether it was true or not, we believed it. We would defend that way."

Since then, the Clippers have relaxed back into a dangerous dependence on their offense. But piling up points won't come so naturally without a one-man wrecking crew like Griffin at their disposal, particularly in a pinch.

"Usually when we need a bucket or things are slow a little bit, we always play through Blake," Paul said. "Just the confidence that he gives us. Down the stretch, we have our two-man game. His presence of mind gives everybody a comfort level."

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 16:  Blake Griffin #32 and Chris Paul #3 of the LA Clippers take the court during a game against the Miami Heat on December 16, 2016 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees th
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Not that L.A. should expect an on-court drought without Griffin. According to NBA.com, the Clippers scored at a top-six rate without him last season. It's possible they will also push the tempo more without having Griffin to go iso down low.

"We'll be faster-paced just because we don't have that post presence of throwing it in and watching him do his thing," Austin Rivers said.

For all their experience playing shorthanded, the Clippers have plenty to sort out, and not much time in which to do so. They'll be home for the next week but will play five games during that seven-day span. Then comes a three-game, four-day road trip. They won't have more than one day off between games until after they host the Miami Heat on Jan. 8.

That means few shootarounds and even fewer (if any) practices for the coaching staff to tinker with tactics behind closed doors.

Still, there's no panic by these Clippers, not when they've been through this rigmarole more times than they care to recount—and certainly not with their eyes on the prize that is awarded in the spring, when Griffin should be back in full swing.


All stats accurate as of games played Dec. 19 and via NBA.com unless otherwise noted. All quotes obtained firsthand.

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and listen to his Hollywood Hoops podcast with B/R Lakers lead writer Eric Pincus.


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