The Los Angeles Clippers are slumping, and at the worst possible time, as they’re preparing to go into a tough two-week stretch that begins tomorrow night in Miami (8 PM ET, ESPN). The Clippers have lost six of their last nine. The easy and understandable thing to do is quickly point out that Chris Paul has been out with a knee injury for all of those games, and that his return is imminent. But the Clippers’ strength was supposed to be the deepest bench in the league and the schedule they played during this time was manageable. So can we just dismiss Los Angeles’ recent rough stretch, or should it at least make us wonder? With that in mind, we’ll break down the Clippers’ personnel and their play during this recent bad run.
Paul’s value to the team shows up in the stat sheet, as the 27-year-old point guard averages 17 points and 10 assists per game, while still shooting a solid 48 percent from the floor. That’s the definition of offensive efficiency at the point guard spot and it’s easy to see why he merits the title of “best point guard in the league” and why one would be inclined to simply assume his team would struggle in his absence.
There is talent at the other spots though, and a lot of it. Paul’s running mate in the backcourt—though he comes off the bench—is Jamal Crawford, who’s also knocking down 17 a night. Eric Bledsoe has gotten increased playing time in light of the injury situation and averages 10 ppg, while being a consistent shooter both inside the arc and from beyond it.
And if you need to win games in the frontcourt, the Clippers can oblige. Blake Griffin is having a big year, with 19 points/9 rebounds per night at the power forward spot and he’s surrounded by a very well-balanced cast. DeAndre Jordan hits the boards and blocks a few shots. Lamar Odom can come off the bench to provide some rebounding and veteran leadership. Caron Butler and Matt Barnes can both score from the perimeter, and Barnes has assumed the role of the team’s enforcer when things get a little nasty.
No one is suggesting that this frontcourt, coupled with Bledsoe and Crawford in the backcourt should beat the elite teams in the league, but is it unreasonable to suggest they should beat Phoenix, Portland, Toronto, Boston and Washington? Those are five of the six opponents the Clippers have lost to since Paul went out. We give them a pass for losing to Oklahoma City, but all of these five games—even allowing that every single one was on the road, was against a beatable opponent.
It should be further noted that the Boston game, the one people might be inclined to forgive, came after Rajon Rondo’s injury. That the Celtics have thrived without their star while the Clippers have struggled is, in part, a testament to how good Paul really is. But it also makes you wonder about the Los Angeles depth that was so heralded when the Clippers got off to a fast start. Let’s walk through the five losses and identify the main causes, and see how much might be traced back to the absence of Paul…
at Phoenix (88-93): The Suns consistently get to the line and outscore the Clippers here 28-16. And we can’t blame the absence of Paul for the fact that Phoenix’s frontcourt people, Luis Scola and Marcin Gorat had big nights.
at Portland (100-101): This time it was perimeter defense that was the problem—or maybe just an opponent having a hot night, as the Blazers knocked down 11 treys. The free throw line was again an issue, with the Clippers losing here by a margin of 20-13.
at Toronto (73-98): Los Angeles stunk the joint out in every possible way.
at Boston (104-106): Both teams shot the ball well, Los Angeles rebounded better, but Boston got to the free throw line, winning this area 23-15.
at Washington (90-94): The Clippers commit 20 turnovers, with the frontcourt people, Odom and Butler, being the primary culprits. And while the free throw edge wasn’t huge, Los Angeles again lost it by a margin greater than the final margin of victory, 17-12.
The free-throw differential was the common denominator woven throughout this stretch. Los Angeles’ season-long average has been to run about even with its opponents in this area. Keep in mind two things—that season-long average factors in this above stretch, so the dropoff is a little bigger in reality. And that this stretch came against subpar competition, where superior teams generally are the ones getting to the free throw line.
I don’t have the luxury of breaking down game tape of all eight games, but am I being unreasonable in thinking that the lack of Paul’s ability to break down defenses off the dribble is resulting in fewer free throw opportunities for his team. Or that his absence on the defensive side is allowing opposing teams to consistently shoot better—even just being down a body in the rotation means legs aren’t as fresh across the board.
Therefore, I’m drawing some mixed conclusions about how good the Clippers are. The positive is this—there’s some clear, albeit not overwhelming evidence on a purely statistical level that suggest Paul’s presence turns five losses into three or four wins. That evidence doesn’t even factor in Paul’s high leadership skills or the intangible impact on the offensive flow that he brings to the table. So the obvious answer—that they’ll win more when Paul comes back is fair enough.
I think the negative side has to be when you consider Los Angeles’ championship mettle. If they’re going to go through San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Miami—the likely last three playoff opponents they would face, Chris Paul isn’t going to be enough. The early returns told us Los Angeles had the depth to match San Antonio’s and combined with the star power of Oklahoma City or Miami. Now we see some very clear evidence that tells us the Clippers have six players who are heavily dependent on Chris Paul, unable to pick up the slack if he gets in foul trouble or has an off-night.
There’s still plenty of regular season left to try and get things worked out. Although the next two weeks aren’t a time for thinking about anything other than winning games. After the game with the Heat on Friday night, the Clippers visit New York on Sunday (1 PM ET, ABC), then go to Philadelphia on Monday and come back home to play Houston and the Lakers on consecutive nights in midweek. Games with San Antonio and Utah follow. As of now, Paul is listed as questionable. Griffin and Crawford area also nursing wounds and listed as day-to-day. Head coach Vinny del Negro has to play it smart, but in a competitive Western Conference he doesn’t’ want to throw away a chance at a #2 seed or more. The Clippers are three back of Oklahoma City for second and 4 ½ games behind San Antonio for the top spot, while Denver comes barreling down in their rearview mirror. It’s time for all that depth to start showing its face again.