The Los Angeles Clippers were dealt a startling blow on Tuesday, when it was reported that All-Star point guard Chris Paul had torn a ligament in his left thumb. Paul, who will undergo surgery today to repair the tear, is expected to be out 6-8 weeks.
Chris Paul to undergo surgery for torn ligament in left thumb. Expected to miss 6-8 weeks. https://t.co/3OzbzKiAFa
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 18, 2017
How the Injury Occurred
Paul sustained his injury during the second quarter of the Clippers 22-point victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night. Paul was fighting over the top of a screen set by Thunder center Joffrey Lauvergne when he collided awkwardly with Thunder MVP-candidate Russell Westbrook. Westbrook had stopped on a dime, as he often does, to launch a shot from behind the arc and Paul simply could not stop his defensive momentum to avoid the contact.
It was immediately apparent after the collision that Paul was seriously hurt. During a subsequent Clipper time-out, Paul headed straight back to the locker room with team trainer Jasen Powell for x-rays. Although reports soon surfaced that the x-rays were negative, Paul did not return to the Clippers’ bench. Prior to his untimely exit, Paul had 8 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 1 steal in 13 minutes of play.
Flashback to Game 4 of the Portland Series
Paul’s reaction to Monday’s injury and agitated behavior leaving the court should have been a red flag that bad news was forthcoming. Paul kicked a chair and was visibly upset, giving fans a very vivid flashback to Game 4 of the Clippers playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers last post-season. Paul left that game in a similar fashion after sustaining a hand injury. It would later be revealed that Paul had fractured his right hand. With that injury, the Clippers’ hopes of a Western Conference Championship were destroyed.
Can the Clippers Survive Without Paul?
The Clippers have been hot lately, winning seven straight to remain undefeated in 2017. Of course, this win streak comes with two significant caveats: (1) the seven wins follow six very embarrassing losses, a number of which were to sub-.500 teams; and (2) the Clippers have had a relatively easy schedule these last few weeks, with a majority of their games played at home.
The 6-game losing streak at the end of 2016 was undoubtedly related to Paul’s unavailability. Paul, who is averaging 17.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 9.7 assists this season, did not play in five of the Clippers six losses due to a strained right hamstring. Without Paul’s leadership, defensive prowess, scoring threat and ability to distribute the ball, the Clippers really struggled. The offense stuttered, and relied too heavily on isolation ball by inconsistent shooters like Jamal Crawford. The defense also had its share of difficulties. The Clippers gave up 110.5 points per game without Paul, as compare to the 93 points they give up with Paul on the floor.
The difference Paul makes on both ends of the court will be glaringly obvious over the course of the next two months as he recovers from surgery. The Clippers are facing one of the tougher schedules moving forward towards the playoffs. Of the Clippers’ 33 games between now and March 29, 2017, 20 are on the road and 20 are part of back to back match ups. Notably, this stretch includes three games against the Golden State Warriors, contests with the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets, and a number of other tough match-ups with top seeded teams from the Western and Eastern conferences. Paul’s absence during this period will understandably be significant.
So what are the keys to the Clippers staying on track in Paul’s absence? Here are my thoughts:
Bench Players Must Exceed Expectations
Veteran point guard Raymond Felton has consistently demonstrated his value to the Clippers franchise since the season’s start. A player many thought to be past his prime, Felton has been highly successful in his role as back-up point guard to Paul. Felton contributed 15 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block in 27 minutes against the Thunder Monday night, and looked energized and aggressive off the bench. This high level of play must continue for the Clippers to avoid a backwards slide.
Ray goes 🔁🔁🔁 to start off the 2nd half on @NBAonTNT!
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 17, 2017
Marreese Speights started the season off a bit inconsistent, but as of late has really come on strong for the Clippers. Speights is averaging 10.3 points and 5 rebounds per game, and came up big against the Thunder Monday night, contributing 23 points 10 rebounds and 3 assists.
With the NBA trade deadline approaching there has been some social media chatter regarding trading Speights, but I believe that would be a horrible move for the Clippers. Speights is solid fit within the Clippers offense. He provides a viable scoring option, and his 3-point shooting ability helps spread opposing defenses to facilitate successful high pick-and-rolls. Speights will be a major key to the Clippers’ offense during Paul’s absence.
Mo' threes to start the 4th. 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/YfKzvuSCQz
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) January 17, 2017
Jordan Must Continue to Evolve as an Elite Player and Team Leader
DeAndre Jordan has had a banner season so far. Jordan recorded the seventh 20-point, 20-rebound game of his career against the Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday, tying Elton Brand for the most in the Clippers’ history. It also was the 37th 20-plus rebound game of his career. Jordan is averaging 12.3 points and 13.9 rebounds per game and proving himself to be the most athletic center in the NBA. Jordan needs to continue his growth and leadership on the court with the Clippers. He has the abilities to be an elite player; they just need to be coaxed out of him. Notably, in Griffin’s absence, Jordan has flourished. Let’s see if he is able to continue doing so once Griffin returns. Jordan must perform at an extremely high level for the Clippers to have continued success in Paul’s absence. He is of particular benefit to the Clippers in playing teams like the Warriors, who are not terribly strong in the paint.
Griffin Must Remain Healthy and Find His Niche
Clippers’ All-Star power forward Blake Griffin is expected to return to the Clippers roster by the end of January, after recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery. Reports are positive with regards to Griffin, with coach Doc Rivers recently commenting that “[h]e looks like he’s explosive again.” Although this is clearly good news for the Clippers, Griffin’s return may not be entirely smooth. The Clippers have found ways to win without Griffin in the line-up this season, as well as during the past two seasons. Are the Clippers a stronger team with Griffin on the floor? Absolutely. Will there be growing pains as he works his way back in to the offense? No doubt. Bumpy roads may be ahead, particularly with Paul out as Griffin transitions back into the lineup.
As with Speights, trade rumors are currently swirling around Griffin. Most notably, rumors regarding a Griffin – Carmelo Anthony trade. Anthony might very well provide the boost the Clippers need to seriously compete with the Warriors and Cavaliers come playoffs. On paper he appears to be a better fit than Griffin with the Clippers’ style of offense. However, assuming the most favorable of outcomes, Anthony is only short term fix for the Clippers franchise. With Paul likely to opt out of his contract at the end of the season, a Griffin-Anthony trade could result in the Clippers losing both Griffin and Paul, an outcome no one wants. It makes more practical sense for the Clippers to remain intact through this season, make the best lemonade they can out of the lemons they have been handed, and re-evaluate all options come summer.