Here’s the good news from Tuesday’s announcement that Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul will miss the next several weeks because of a torn ligament in his left thumb: The Clippers have little to no chance of finishing on the same side of the Western Conference playoff bracket as the Golden State Warriors.
That is the end of the good news.
The bad news? Well, let’s just say there’s a lot of it.
The worst of it is that the Clippers will be without Paul, one of the league’s best players, for an extended period of time. Paul has quietly been playing at an MVP level for the Clippers, averaging 17.5 points, 9.7 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 steals in 36 games while compiling an absurd four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio and remaining arguably the best defensive player at his position in the NBA.
Losing a player of that caliber would hurt any team, but it is especially injurious for a Clippers team that will be without Blake Griffin for at least the next several days, as he continues to recover from surgery to remove “loose bodies” from his right knee. While Griffin has reportedly been recovering nicely, the four-to-six-week timetable for his recovery had only reached four weeks by Tuesday, making it unlikely — though not impossible — he will return in the next several days. Given the amount of injuries Griffin has already gone through in his career, and in particular the past year, Los Angeles is likely to be extra cautious with his return.
Regardless of when Griffin comes back, however, Paul is going to be out for at least the next six weeks — just as the Clippers are entering a daunting stretch in their schedule. Nine of the 16 games the Clippers have on their schedule between now and March 1, the earliest projected date for Paul’s return, will come against playoff-bound teams, including their final three regular season matchups against the Warriors, plus games against the San Antonio Spurs at home and the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Utah Jazz on the road.
If Paul’s return comes at the back end of his projected timeline, he would miss 24 games total, which would include an additional six at the start of March against playoff teams. With 16 of those games taking place away from the friendly confines of Staples Center, there couldn’t be a worse stretch for Paul to sit out from a competitive standpoint.
That’s why the chances of the Clippers remaining in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round seems highly unlikely. As it stands now, the Clippers are three games behind the Houston Rockets for third in the Western Conference, and they sit two games ahead of the fifth-place Jazz and four games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder, which are tied for sixth. Los Angeles is currently on a seven-game winning streak and remains in contact with the Spurs and Rockets for the second and third seeds in the West — which would allow the Clippers to avoid the Warriors until the Western Conference finals. Getting into one of those spots now looks next to impossible without Paul’s services for the next several weeks.
According to Dan Woike of the Southern California News Group, who broke the news of Paul’s surgery, the Clippers have won 69 percent of their games with Paul over the past two years and just 29 percent without him. Assuming the Clippers play somewhere near that level, they would go between 5-11 and 7-17 without Paul, assuming he falls into the expected recovery range. That kind of stretch would likely mean the Clippers would slip in the standings and end up fighting with the Grizzlies and Thunder to determine who will travel to San Antonio or Houston in the first round. And perhaps more distressing, it would mean, in order to make the NBA Finals, Los Angeles would almost certainly have to go through all three of the West’s top teams — without home-court advantage in any series.
Good luck with that. At least the pathetic nature of the race for the eighth seed — with the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets entering Tuesday’s action trailing the Clippers by 11 games — should prevent the Clippers from coming anywhere close to the absolute worst-case scenario, which would be falling into a first round matchup with the first-place Warriors.
Tuesday’s news will all have an effect on the Western Conference all-star roster. Paul was a lock to make the team as one of the reserve guards, likely alongside Stephen Curry and behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the frontrunners for MVP this season. Now, while Paul will still make the team, his injury will open up another roster spot for someone to step in and claim. Given the first 10 spots on the team seem virtually locked up — those four guards, plus Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol — Paul’s injury will give one more of the remaining group of players battling for the final two wild-card spots (Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Gordon Hayward, Rudy Gobert and LaMarcus Aldridge) a chance to make the team in his place.
At the moment, however, the Clippers are just focused on Paul’s surgery, and the impending time table for his return. After a 14-2 start, things had already changed drastically for the Clippers. That trend should only continue now that their floor general is out for the next several weeks.