How Have the Los Angeles Clippers Survived Without Blake Griffin?
On February 8th, the Los Angeles Clippers announced superstar power forward Blake Griffin would undergo surgery to remove a staph infection from his right elbow. He was projected to miss from three to six weeks. At the time, the Clippers were 33-18 and sitting in the 6 seed, only one game behind Portland and Dallas for the 4 and 5 seed, respectively.
Many feared that, without Blake, the Clips would struggle mightily and fall from possibly the 4 seed all the way to 8 seed or even out of the playoffs. In reality, Los Angeles, as our algorithms suggested, has managed to maintain its winning ways, going 9-5 in the 14 games Griffin has missed. More impressive is that 11 of those 14 games have been against potential playoff teams that hold a combined winning percentage of 65%.
In the nearly six weeks without Griffin, the Clippers have actually climbed up to the 5 seed out West. How is that possible? Let’s take a look.
Defensive Addition by Subtraction
Blake Griffin never really hung his hat on the defensive end of the floor and neither did the Clippers. While not a turnstile at power forward, Griffin’s replacements, Spencer Hawes and Glen Davis, each hold a better defensive rating, 104 and 103 respectively, than Griffin at 106.
How has the team performed with and without Griffin on the floor?
|Points Allowed||Defensive Rating||Opp. FG %|
|With Blake Griffin||100.3 (20th)||104.0 (18th)||45.2% (19th)|
|Without Blake Griffin||99.7 (18th)||99.9 (8th)||41.5% (3rd)|
So by mere subtraction, the Clippers’ Defensive Efficiency was bound to improve. Which, as you can see above, is exactly what it did.
Is DeAndre Possibly the Defensive Player of the Year?
The jump in field goal percentage defense over the past 14 games can be attributed in large part to one of the contenders in the Defensive Player of the Year race, DeAndre Jordan. The improved defense of Hawes and Davis -- based on Defensive Rating -- over Griffin has, in theory, freed up DeAndre Jordan to focus on his man instead of being forced to help out Griffin. With Griffin out, Jordan has held opponents to a 47% shooting percentage on shots closer than 10 feet. In games with Griffin, opponents were making 52% of the shots in that range against on Jordan. That five-point improvement almost single-handedly explains the reason for the Clippers jump from 19th in opponent field goal percentage to their lofty rank behind only Indiana and Utah.
The extra missed shots and the 7.5 rebounds per game that Griffin was grabbing had to go somewhere. Again, DeAndre Jordan was the beneficiary. In the past 14 games, Jordan is averaging an unheard of 18.5 rebounds per game. He has posted four 20-plus rebound games in the past six weeks, including 26 boards against the Bulls on March 1st and a 27-rebound effort against the Mavericks February 9th that established a new season-high for the entire NBA.
So with the defense humming along, the question became could the offense manage to keep up?
Filling the Void on Offense
The offense was destined to take the biggest hit without Blake. He was the leading scorer, at 22.5 points per game, attempted the most field goals per game at 17.5 attempts, and was even second in the club in assists with 5.1 per game. With a 29% usage rate, Griffin led the team there, too.
What has the impact been?
|Points Scored||Offensive Rating||FG %||PACE|
|With Blake Griffin||106.5 (3rd)||110.4 (T-1st)||47.3% (2nd)||96.22 (14th)|
|Without Blake Griffin||105.2 (3rd)||105.9 (4th)||46.0% (3rd)||98.88 (7th)|
In the absence of Griffin, how was Los Angeles essentially able to maintain their high-powered offense?
When Griffin went down, many expected Jordan’s offense would have to improve in order to help lighten the load off of Hawes and Davis. While both are nice complimentary players, neither were going replace Blake single-handedly. In reality, Jordan fulfilled expectations, as his 4.3 point per game increase without Griffin is the same amount of points Hawes and Davis managed to add, combined. But even with the additional contributions of Jordan, Hawes, and Davis, the frontcourt was not going to add up to what they had with Griffin.
So if the points were not coming from the frontcourt, that means the Clippers’ offense had to evolve, which it did by picking up the pace. The team’s pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes) increased by more than 2.6 possessions per 48 minutes. More possessions means more pressure on the primary ball handler, Chris Paul. So how did Paul do with more responsibility on his shoulders?
While Jordan, Jamal Crawford (before he got injured March 2nd), and J.J. Redick have all seen their per-game average increase by at least four points during the Griffin-less stretch, there is really only one man keeping the offense together: Chris Paul.
Check out Paul’s splits with and without Griffin.
A perennial All-Star, Paul was up to the challenge. But to the level with which Paul has raised his game in Griffin’s absence has vaulted him from elite player status to arguably the MVP of the entire league. Not just because he is scoring more, but because of how he is doing it.
Taking three more shots per game would cause many players’ shooting percentage to drop, especially with the majority of the extra attempts coming from pull-up jumpers (Paul is averaging 2.1 more per game). In fact, more than 80 percent of Paul’s shots come from farther than 10 feet, but he has managed to maintain a shooting percentage better than 50% even while putting up over 16 attempts per game.
Scoring numbers aside, the real amazement comes when looking at Paul’s assist numbers without Griffin. The point guard has not only increased his assist total by 30 percent, but also he has managed to maintain his already impressive, league-leading 4.25 assist to turnover ratio. Not an easy feat. His assist percentage, an estimate of the percentage of teammates’ field goals he has assisted to while on the floor, with Griffin out is off the charts, too. Paul’s 59.3% assist percentage during the last 14 games extrapolated for an entire season would represent an NBA record. Better than Steve Nash, better than John Stockton, better than anyone who has ever played the game. That’s how impressive we are talking.
The Final Say
Losing their top scorer would signal the death knell for most teams but not the Clippers. With the re-focused defensive presence of Defensive Player of the Year hopeful DeAndre Jordan and the play-making ability of MVP candidate Chris Paul, the second-best team in our power rankings have maintained their standing in the tough Western Conference.
We even have them projected as the third most likely squad to take home the title. Having survived the loss of one of their superstars, the Clippers may have even emerged from the initial despair as a more dangerous and complete unit than before.