The Los Angeles Clippers have won nine straight games, the last eight without superstar forward Blake Griffin, who – in case you hadn’t noticed over the past couple of seasons – has overtaken Chris Paul as the team’s best player.
When Griffin got hurt, the Clippers appeared to be in trouble. They had just lost three straight games to San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City to fall to 16-13. A Christmas win over the rival Lakers was mitigated by Griffin suffering a partially torn quadriceps tendon on the eve of a four-game road swing. But the Clippers have not lost since, climbing to fourth in the Western Conference standings.
“We’re happy that we’re winning games, and we want to continue to try to keep winning and build up the team as much as possible,” Paul said. “But this is not our team until 32 gets back.”
The Clippers aren’t better without Griffin, who is the only player averaging at least 23 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. But they are less cluttered, because while Griffin has worked hard to become a reliable jump shooter, he cannot quite take his game out to the arc.
So Rivers has replaced Griffin with a host of perimeter players. He uses Paul Pierce as a stretch forward, much the way he was used by Washington in last year’s playoffs. Wesley Johnson also spends some time in that slot. It is not uncommon to see the Clippers with giant center DeAndre Jordan surrounded by four wing players.
Paul often initiates the offense with a pick-and-roll with Jordan, and the perimeter spacing forces opposing defenses to either switch the pick-and-roll and have a guard try to stop Jordan from rolling for a lob slam or blitz it and bring a third defender off a shooter.
“He (Jordan) is just unreal now,” Paul said. “Setting screens, and knowing when to slip, he is the best big in the league at that.”
“Offensively, there is a lot of spacing, a lot of room to operate,” said guard J.J. Redick, who is shooting 49 percent from the arc this season. “The DeAndre Jordan-Chris Paul pick-and-roll has been really good. Having Paul (Pierce) as a stretch forward has been really good. It is a different look. It is not better per se than having Blake on the floor, but it is a different look and it has given teams problems.”
In Griffin’s absence, Jordan is averaging 14.0 points, more than a bucket above his season average, and Paul is averaging 11.5 assists, two more than his norm. And without Griffin’s get-outta-the-way rim attacks, the ball doesn’t stick as much.
“When you lose somebody as important as Blake, everybody knew they had to step up,” Paul said. “A lot of times we just throw it to him and watch him go to work, and now we’re having to do a lot more.”
Others are chipping in as well. Jamal Crawford appears to be snapping out of a season-long slump, averaging 15.7 points over the last seven games and scoring in double figures in each one. Austin Rivers has had a pair of 20-point games and finally looks like an NBA rotation player. Pablo Prigioni is averaging 16 minutes, making sure Paul doesn’t drop from exhaustion before the playoffs.
“It really opens up the floor a lot more on offensive end,” said swingman Wesley Johnson, who at times has been the team’s most consistent bench performer this season. “Whoever we put at (Griffin’s) position opens up the floor for the guards to come down, Chris, Austin and Pablo. It really just gives us the opportunity to get a lot of mismatches on the floor.”
The Clippers first played without Griffin on Dec. 26 at Utah. In that game, Rivers swapped power forward for power forward, starting Josh Smith in Griffin’s spot. That lasted five minutes, and Smith didn’t return to the game. In fact, Smith has only played seven minutes since, mopping up in a rout of Philadelphia.
Pierce started the second half at Utah and scored 20 points, opening up new possibilities for Rivers and the offense. But the 38-year-old also played 27 minutes, which wasn’t sustainable. So the rangy 6-7 Johnson began playing some at stretch forward as well.
That opened some minutes in the backcourt, virtually none of which have gone to combo guard Lance Stephenson. Born Ready’s new nickname should be Stay Ready. He played nine minutes at Utah, just six more over the next two games and 21 vs. Philly with four DNPs.
Smith and Stephenson were two of Rivers’ more prominent offseason acquisitions and were supposed to fortify a suspect bench. Smith, 30, was coming off a rejuvenation in Houston and was signed as a free agent to the veteran’s minimum with the express purpose of backing up Griffin. Stephenson, 25, was acquired in a trade that sent Spencer Hawes and Matt Barnes to Charlotte and began the season as the starting small forward. And now both are out of the rotation a month before the All-Star break.
You have to wonder where the Clippers would be had Rivers dealt Crawford, who has been mentioned in trade rumors since the end of last season. Or had Rivers cut Luc Mbah a Moute, who was given the 15th and final roster spot over Chuck Hayes.
There’s still more than half the season remaining for Rivers the coach to resurrect Smith and Stephenson as useful pieces and make Rivers the GM look good. But even when Griffin returns – he is scheduled to see a doctor this week – the first big off the bench is journeyman center Cole Aldrich.
But Rivers the GM is somewhat hamstrung. He isn’t going to trade any of his top four players. He could trade Stephenson, whose on-court value has plummeted and is only attractive because has an expiring contract worth $9 million. He could revisit dealing Crawford, who does have interest around the league. But moving him would put performance pressure on Stephenson and Austin Rivers. Pierce was signed to help in the postseason, so he’s not going anywhere. And everyone else is on a minimum salary.
If Smith and Stephenson continue to collect DNPs, the Clippers will look an awful lot like the group from last season, when Rivers the GM boxed Rivers the coach into a corner. The bench appeared to have some serviceable pieces in Hawes, Glen Davis, Hedo Turkoglu, Dahntay Jones, Ekpe Udoh and Lester Hudson. But in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals at Houston, those six played a combined eight minutes while four starters logged at least 39.
Even with their recent surge, the Clippers are still seven games out of second place in the West. They are a collective 1-7 vs. Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston and also have lost to East contenders Toronto, Indiana and Chicago. They have gotten fat by beating bad teams, very few of whom will be in the postseason.
And if Rivers the coach is shortening the bench now, imagine how short it will be when the Clippers face the Warriors and/or the Spurs in the playoffs.
TRIVIA: Of all the players who changed teams during the offseason, which one has the highest scoring average? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: This week, Boston Celtics swingman Evan Turner was seen sporting a T-shirt with a redesigned NBA logo featuring a silhouette of himself.
“None of you all even know what that means. Don’t even try, it might explode your head.”
There is a vertiginous reference in our latest MVP rankings, by the way.
TANKS A LOT!: Billy King’s scorched earth policy as GM of the Brooklyn Nets doesn’t leave his successor a whole lot of options. To rebuild quickly, you need a young stud or multiple draft picks, and the Nets have neither. What they have is Brook Lopez maxed out through 2018, Thaddeus Young at eight figures through 2019, Deron Williams remaining on the payroll through 2020 and control of their first-round pick belonging to Boston for the next three years. It will be a long time before the Nets are good again.
LINE OF THE WEEK: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento at Oklahoma City, Jan. 4: 38 minutes, 11-27 FGs, 2-4 3-pointers, 9-10 FTs, 19 rebounds, one assist, two blocks, one turnover, 33 points in a 116-104 win. In five January games, Boogie is averaging 32.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.3 steals. Say whatever you want about Cousins, but no other center is capable of these numbers. None. Those are Shaq numbers.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Dwyane Wade, Miami at Utah, Jan. 9: 33 minutes, 3-17 FGs, 0-0 3-pointers, 2-5 FTs, five rebounds, four assists, one steal, zero blocks, four turnovers, eight points in a 98-83 loss. Perhaps it was the effects of a back-to-back, but Wade was also minus-14 in perhaps his worst effort of the season.
TRILLION WATCH: This was a week for quality rather than quantity, with two more crashing the season leaderboard. Oklahoma City forward Mitch McGary had a 2 trillion Monday and Dallas Mavericks rookie Justin Anderson notched a 4 trillion Friday. Cleveland forward James Jones topped that with a 5 trillion Friday at Minnesota but was unseated himself by New Orleans forward Alonzo Gee and his 6 trillion Sunday at the LA Clippers. There are now a baker’s dozen of players this season with at least a 5 trillion, still led by Atlanta rookie Lamar Patterson’s 8 trillion at Miami on Nov. 3.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Cleveland at San Antonio, Jan. 14. The Cavaliers have won seven in a row, the last five by an average of nearly 15 points. The Spurs have won seven in a row by an average of 17.6 points and have yet to lose at home. And both teams have the previous day off. This one should be pretty damn good.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Phoenix at Minnesota, Jan. 17. Both the Suns and Timberwolves have lost 10 of their lsst 11 games. Phoenix is 4-15 on the road while Minnesota is 5-15 at home. And it’s a matinee. Yeah, you can skip this one for the NFL playoffs.
TWO MINUTES: Until squeaking past the New York Knicks by one point on Friday, the San Antonio Spurs owned the best point differential in NBA history, according to Elias. After 38 games, they are plus-527, or 13.87 points per game. The 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers were plus-534, or 14.05 points, through 38 games. … The Pistons are 4-2 with three straight wins since the return of point guard Brandon Jennings, who has fortified a bench that has been near the bottom of the league in scoring all season. Jennings is a free agent this summer, and the Pistons committed $80 million over five years to Reggie Jackson last summer. “I’ve said all along, our plan right now is that Brandon can help us make a playoff push, and that’s what we’re going to do,” coach and GM Stan Van Gundy said. “If something changes in the next five weeks, then we’ll look at it. But right now, he’s a very good player who can help us, and that’s the only way we’re looking at it.” … Bulls forward Pau Gasol has a level of refinement not seen in most NBA players that was on display again Thursday, when he played in front of Spanish countryman, friend and world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo. Gasol went for 17 points and 18 boards in a win over Boston, then went to dinner afterward with Domingo, who was in Chicago for a performance. “He’s a basketball fan, he’s a sports fan,” Gasol said. “He’s here for a performance. I wish he was just here to visit me, but that doesn’t work that way. He’s a guy that I truly admire. I have a great friendship, relationship, with him.” … When Dallas edged Sacramento in double overtime on Tuesday, it was the 22nd straight home regular season victory by the Mavericks over the Kings dating to Feb. 27, 2003. That is the second-longest active streak behind San Antonio’s 32-game home streak over Golden State that dates to Feb. 14, 1997, when Tim Duncan was still in college and Stephen Curry was 9 years old. The Warriors get two shots this season – Mar. 19 and April 10. … As the calendar changed to 2016, the Magic were sitting pretty with a 19-13 record, having bought in to the defense-first mantra of quick-fixer coach Scott Skiles. But the new year has been unkind as Orlando has dropped five of six, beating only Brooklyn. Point guard Elfrid Payton’s injury doesn’t help, but another bigger issue is the collective inability to get to the line; foes have made 665 free throws, or as many as the Magic have attempted. Now Orlando heads across the pond to play Toronto in London, a potentially draining trek. “This trip could help us or hurt us because it’s a long trip,” guard Evan Fournier said. “Toronto’s a very good team and if we lose the game, it can kind of break our spirit. We really have to take this trip seriously as professionals.”
Trivia Answer: Nicolas Batum. … Happy 59th Birthday in Heaven, Darryl Dawkins. … In case you have a short memory, Billy King wrecked the Sixers, too.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.