The Clippers have been flying under the radar this year. They are considered to be a step below the historically great Warriors and Spurs, and rightly so, especially since losing four of their last five games.
Yet what Chris Paul has done this season in Blake Griffin's absence is as worthy of appreciation as anything else going on in the league. He's been so good that if the Clippers manage to reintegrate Griffin in a slightly tweaked role while letting Paul continue to dominate the ball, they could find another gear at just the right time.
Paul has carried the Clippers
Paul was playing great before Griffin went down. For the season, he is assisting on 43 percent percent of the Clippers' buckets when he was on the court, fifth-best in the league. Since Griffin went down in late December, however, that number has climbed to 52 percent. No player has eclipsed 50 percent for a full season since Paul himself did it in 2008-09, when he led a starless New Orleans team to the playoffs.
He's the one shot creator the team has in a starting unit filled with finishers. As good as J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan have been on offense in Griffin's absence, they couldn't play their games without Paul setting them. During the post-Griffin stretch, Paul has assisted 59 percent of Redick's makes (139 of 237) and 46 percent of Jordan field goals (87 of 189). The latter is an impressive number considering Jordan gets unassisted buckets mostly from offensive rebounds, often off Paul's own misses.
Between the points he scores directly and the ones he creates through assists, Paul has been responsible for 47 of the Clippers' 104 points per game. He's done it while remaining efficient and avoiding turnovers. The numbers aren't hollow either, as Los Angeles has gone 26-13 in that time and they have been 16 points better per 100 possessions when Paul plays as opposed to when he's on the bench.
The Clippers lost one of the league's best offensive players and have actually done better on that end by a whopping five points per 100 possessions. The only reason why they have hung in there without Griffin is because Paul has taken complete control of the offense and played at a ridiculously high level, even by his standards.
Is it possible for Paul to keep playing at that level when Griffin returns?
Despite some claims to the contrary, the Clippers are better with Griffin available, or at least they should be. He's one of the best players in the league and someone who has sacrificed his numbers to adjust to the personnel around him. What has become clear, however, is that it might be time to find other ways to use him that allow Paul to still have as much control of the offense as he's enjoyed in Griffin's absence.
One option, which would actually solve two problems, would be to have Griffin sub out a little earlier than usual in the first quarter and check in with the bench unit when the starters rest. Even when Griffin was healthy, Doc Rivers used to run lineups with five bench players instead of leaving one of the starters in to anchor them offensively. Those all-bench units have been a huge drain for the Clippers all season long, no matter who has been a part of them.
The first iteration included Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith, both of whom were traded away when they proved to be poor fits. Rivers then settled on a lineup Pablo Prigioni, Austin Rivers, Jamal Crawford, Wesley Johnson and Cole Aldrich, who have been outscored by over 17 points per 100 possessions as a unit. The newest version, which features trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Green, is in the red by 12 points. Griffin could definitely prop up those units up while getting as many touches as he wants.
The other option would be for Griffin to spend some time playing center, which has been done sparingly during his career. Of the 1,048 minutes Griffin played this season, 982 came with either Jordan or Smith next to him. With Paul orchestrating the offense and three other shooters spotting up on the perimeter, Griffin could focus on being a dynamite finisher on pick and rolls, just like Jordan currently does. Griffin would be one of the league's deadliest weapons, as he can dive to the rim on pick and rolls, pop for open jumpers or take his man off the dribble and attack a suddenly vacated paint.
Defensively the Clippers would surely suffer, as Griffin lacks the length and anticipation to be a rim protector. He's mobile enough to switch onto perimeter players, however, which could help prevent dribble penetration. As long as the defense doesn't completely fall apart, in the aggregate the unit should come out ahead because it would be so dominating offensively.
The Clippers still need a boost and this is the only way they can get one
The Clippers have hung in there without Griffin, but the wheels are beginning to come off. Back-to-back losses to the injury-depleted Grizzlies and Pelicans revealed the team's flaws. Paul can only prop the rest of the roster up for so much longer.
But on the whole, the Clippers have survived Griffin's injury better than expected. They learned Paul should be the team's dominant offensive force. Now, they need to fit Griffin into that framework.
The goal of these proposed tweaks would be to allow Paul to dominate the offense like he has without Griffin, while also giving the star forward room to shine. Changing the rotation slightly comes with the risk of losing some of the familiarity the Clippers spent years building, but would be giving bench units a boost and would continue to get the most out of Paul.
On most years, a team as accomplished as Los Angeles shouldn't risk upsetting chemistry by changing anything, but it's pretty obvious that their current best is not enough to match the Warriors or Spurs. The only way they can approach that level is if the version of Paul we've seen without Griffin remains the dominant force once the big man returns.
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