The last two weeks have been tempestuous at best for the Los Angeles Clippers. In just 14 days the team, considered a contender at season’s start, has watched the sports-media complex digest and collectively go haywire over the news that Blake Griffin, the Clippers’ leading scorer and endorsement magnet, will remain out of the lineup for at least another month after fracturing his shooting hand punching an assistant equipment manager in the face.
Remarkably, Los Angeles has beaten three would-be Eastern Conference playoff teams without Griffin and is 15-4 this season when he isn’t active. Over the last 15 games, the Clippers’ plus-9.1 net rating is the third highest of any team in the league, trailing only the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, both of whom are playing at historic levels.
In the absence of the five-time all-star, center DeAndre Jordan has elevated his on-court production, posting ostentatious stat lines on nightly box scores, just as he did around this time a season ago.
Over the last 10 games, Jordan has cleaned the glass on both ends, snaring 18 rebounds per contest, 4.2 rebounds more per contest than any other player in the league over that stretch.
“DeAndre is an amazing talent and one of the leaders on our team,” then-Los Angeles power forward Glen Davis told me last year. “He can impact the game on both sides of the floor. He takes his craft very seriously and approaches every game with the same focus and intensity.”
However, while Jordan has been a behemoth on the boards — and the Clippers are churning out unexpected victories — there’s cause for concern in Los Angeles.
Each of the last four times Los Angeles has been eliminated from the postseason, they lost the rebounding battle in that series. Each time, Los Angeles’ offensive firepower was mitigated by a playoff-level defense and the Clippers couldn’t corral the second-chance opportunities that were readily available throughout the regular season.
Over the past 15 games — all of which were played without Griffin’s services — the Clippers are pulling down 42.8 rebounds per 100 possessions, the 22nd most in the league. Los Angeles’ season average of 42.9 rebounds per 100 possessions is the lowest since Doc Rivers accepted the head-coaching job. Furthermore, the Clippers have the third-worst rebound differential per game (-4.2) of any team this season, considerably worse than season’s past.
While the franchise has been, at least since Rivers arrived, one of the top shooting teams in the league, ranking no lower than fourth in effective field goal percentage the past three seasons, they’re relying heavily on J.J. Redick, who is in the midst of a career year. When he’s on the court, Los Angeles’ team effective field goal percentage is 55; when he leaves, it drops to 48. The same holds true for Griffin, but the disparity is less stark. And yet: Los Angeles is shooting a high percentage from the field and winning games.
Worth noting, then, are the defenses that Los Angeles has been winning against in Griffin’s absence. Is the team flourishing without Griffin in the fold, capable of scorching the nets with Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the starting rotation?
Just six of the 15 teams the Clippers have beaten without Griffin rank in the top half of the league in defensive rating, and the Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans (who the Clippers have beaten twice) and Los Angeles Lakers all rank in the bottom four. What this tells us is that Los Angeles’ wins and high shooting percentages from the field in the wins sans Griffin are mostly coming against haphazard competition, teams belly-flopping on the defensive end, and thus the Clippers’ shooting averages are most likely unsustainable moving forward.
Jordan needs help on the glass, too: He has put in no fewer than 32 minutes in each of the past six games and grabbed no less than 38 percent of the team’s total rebounds. Los Angeles was out-rebounded in all but one of the games, which has become a recurring theme in team losses this season. For context, the team is pulling down nearly four fewer rebounds per game in losses this season relative wins.
Without a serviceable rebounder adjacent Jordan, someone who can snare opportunities when shots stop falling, someone who isn’t named Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Clippers won’t have the luxury of second chances at buckets.
The Clippers are certainly making the most of their time without Griffin, generating wins and staying near the top of the Western Conference leader board. However, a roster brimming with inconsistent shooters (Read: Lance Stephenson, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson) might not be able to tread water against stiffer competition. Without another body on the roster to grab second-chance scoring opportunities alongside Jordan, it’s unlikely that the team will be able to sustain its otherworldly shooting figures.