After a torrid January elevated the LA Clippers back into the “contender” discussion out in the Western Conference, February has not been kind to the club. The Clippers started the month positioned third in the conference, looking to continue their quiet ascension and challenge Warriors and Grizzlies at the top of the conference.
Instead, Doc Rivers’ club hit a little slide. The Clippers lost their first four games of the month in seriously underwhelming fashion, then found out last weekend that they’d also be losing Blake Griffin indefinitely. The forward suffered a staph infection in his elbow, and after undergoing surgery during the weekend, the team said Griffin would miss a minimum of three weeks, including the almost week-long All-Star break.
The break helps cushion the blow of losing the team’s most important player aside from Chris Paul, but on the other hand, the timing of Griffin’s injury could be trouble considering LA is already in the middle of a slide.
In their first game without Griffin against Oklahoma City on Sunday, his absence showed, as Thunder rookie Mitch McGary worked over the Clippers’ front-court for 19 points and 11 rebounds in just 24 minutes. Spencer Hawes picked up the start in Blake’s absence, and while he shot the ball decently, he was a sieve on defense. While Griffin is no rim protector, he’s strong and athletic, and he has played in this defensive system for years, all of which goes to say he’s a solid team defender. Hawes and other defensively-challenged replacements like Hedo Turkoglu and Glen Davis have not only had to adjust to playing a new role, but handle the tall order of defending the power forward position out West, where Griffin takes on the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, or Zach Randolph on a nightly basis.
Monday night, the Los Angeles actually notched a win against Nowitzki’s Mavericks, another team currently trying to find its way without one of its crucial pieces (Rajon Rondo). In that game, Turkoglu played more than Hawes despite coming off the bench, DeAndre Jordan played almost 39 minutes, and Doc Rivers decided to utilize more small-ball in lieu of letting Big Baby see too much time on the floor. Expect to see more of this type of thing, small-ball lineups and heavy minute-loads for Jordan, until Griffin returns, or at least until Hawes becomes more consistent on both ends of the floor.
After looking out-of-sorts playing with his new frontline mates during the loss to Oklahoma City, Jordan played like a beast against Dallas on Monday night, with 22 points and 27 rebounds, including 11 offensive. Obviously, without Griffin, the pressure on Jordan as the last line of defense for this team will be amplified. In the last couple months, Jordan has been better than ever about staying down on pump fakes and not picking up silly fouls in other ways either. He’s come a long way as a team defender, and this team will need both his best team and individual defensive efforts in the coming weeks given all the defensive question marks surrounding LA’s Griffin replacements.
That’s not a bad thing for Jordan, however, as he’s in a contract year, and this will be an opportunity for him to demonstrate himself as a potential max-player and integral piece to this team’s future. Jordan’s potential has been something of an enigma for most of his current $40-million-and-change contract, but as I mentioned, he seems to have turned a corner this year, and playing under coach Rivers seems to have gone a long way toward refining Jordan as a defensive force, and even simply an effective offensive threat. If he excels, he could make himself a lot of money this offseason.
Losing Griffin exposes the Clips’ lack of depth, which underscores the dicey job Doc Rivers has done making personnel decisions for this team. Zach Lowe touched on it in his now-very-ironic-feeling piece last week about the Clippers’ recent resurgence, but his moves last offseason have not paid off for this team. LA badly needed a fourth big who could protect the rim on this team, and instead, Rivers signed Hawes to space the floor instead, which he saw as a viable alternative. That killed their cap flexibility, so the team had to pay a first-round pick to dump Jared Dudley, who has thrived in Milwaukee. The team hasn’t found an extra big man to protect the rim, nor has it found a wing to replace Dudley, and now without Griffin, those holes are costing the Clips even worse.
LA still has some minimum money to toss around, so in theory, they could find some help on the buyout market, which figures to be busy this season. Unfortunately for the Clippers, all their assets are gone after the still-confusing Austin Rivers trade, so it’s hard to envision them jumping into a trade before the deadline.
The Clippers will be trying to get Griffin back as soon as possible, but these types of injuries can be difficult to predict. No doubt it’s a bad stroke of luck for the Clippers, who are hoping their lack of flexibility won’t cost them a spot in the top-half of the Western Conference standings. Losing one of the league’s top-10 or -15 players, though, won’t make that easy. This team still has championship aspirations, but they need a fully-healthy Blake to actually have any hope, which makes balancing this team’s need for him versus his recovery a difficult dance for this team.