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With Chris Paul's Thumb Injury, the Clippers Are at a Crossroads

Chris Paul's thumb injury is proof the Clippers are cursed, but what repercussions does it have for the team's playoff hopes this season, and beyond?
Photo by Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers didn't need any more bad news to cement their reputation as an unlucky, borderline-cursed organization, but on Tuesday night they got some. All-NBA point guard Chris Paul, the Clippers' best, most important, and highest-paid player, will undergo surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb; he'll be sidelined for six to eight weeks. It's a potentially devastating timetable for a franchise that should view February's trade deadline as a pivotal moment.


But before we dive into the big-picture consequences, let's talk about Paul. You already know that he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but before he went down, Paul appeared to be in the middle of a late-career renaissance, averaging 17.5 points and 9.7 assists per game with career-best efforts in True Shooting percentage and Win Shares per 48 minutes. He leads the entire NBA in Real Plus-Minus and was an obvious choice to play in his tenth straight All-Star Game next month.

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Paul's minutes are down this year—that's by design, since he turns 32 in May—but his influence on the floor hasn't declined in any perceptible way. He's the same "oh right, I forgot about him" MVP candidate he has been for nearly a decade, still able to pull strings and manipulate defensive schemes with unparalleled, ruthless efficiency.

More to the point, Paul may mean more to the Clippers than any other player does to any other team. With Paul on the floor, the Clippers play like the best team in the league. Without him, they're atrocious, with the offensive rating, defensive rating, and net rating of a lottery team, not a playoff contender. And with Blake Griffin, the Clippers' other star, out since December as he recovers from knee surgery, Paul is the single most significant reason why the team would still hold home court in a first-round series if the season ended today.


Chris Paul is the Clippers' master puppeteer. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

But the season doesn't end today, and with Paul set to miss at least the next 16 to 24 games, the Clippers could be in trouble. They're looking at a road-heavy slate that features three games against the Golden State Warriors, and tough matchups against the Toronto Raptors, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Boston Celtics, and Utah Jazz, and they're up only two games on the Jazz—and four games on the Memphis Grizzlies and the Oklahoma City Thunder—in the Western Conference. The only reason head coach Doc Rivers has room to exhale is that eighth place is currently occupied by the 18-25 Portland Trail Blazers, a convenient 11-game cushion. The Clippers won't stumble out of the playoffs, but it's a virtual certainty that they also won't have home-court advantage in the opening round for the first time since Paul, Griffin, and Rivers joined forces nearly four seasons ago. There are games to play, but it might be time to take a grander view of what all this means for the team's longer-term future.

Assuming the Clippers fail to run the table, next year's roster should inspire lower expectations. Paul, Griffin, Luc Mbah a Moute, J.J. Redick, and a few other rotation players will all enter unrestricted free agency this summer, and it's unclear how things will shake out. Griffin's knee injury will keep him off the All-NBA team, which means he won't qualify for the Designated Player Exception, and Paul is also ineligible because he was traded after spending his first six seasons with the team that drafted him.


The Clippers still have Bird Rights on almost everybody, and just may be content to stay above the cap and run it back for another year. Given the talented players involved, there's no shame in that, but the payroll and luxury tax bill would climb to unprecedented heights for an aging and injury-prone team that isn't going to win the championship. The Clippers don't need to rebuild—plenty of teams would kill for Griffin and Paul—but the deeper they go with this core, the harsher the long-term repercussions will be. Since they don't have any draft picks or cap space, the only way to kickstart a rejuvenation is via trade. That's where things get very interesting.

When the curse strikes again. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Redick isn't the sexiest name to shop, but the Clippers should start making calls just to see what kind of interest is out there. He's also 32, and on an expiring deal, but Redick is shooting 43.5 percent from deep on a career-high 6.2 three-point attempts per game. The Cleveland Cavaliers just surrendered a first-round pick for Kyle Korver, who does much the same stuff Redick does. It would be interesting to see how desperate some teams around the league would get for Redick's Bird Rights. In the Eastern Conference, the Orlando Magic, Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, and Indiana Pacers would all bite. Out west, where Rivers would be less inclined to strike a deal, the Sacramento Kings, Grizzlies, Thunder, and Minnesota Timberwolves would love to add him.

As entertaining as that auction would be, nothing is more fascinating than the question of what to do with Griffin. There's a chance the five-time All-Star has already entered the lead-balloon phase of his career. Surgery has become the norm for Griffin, and his field-goal percentage around the basket was at an all-time low before he went under the knife in December. When healthy, however, Griffin is still one of the most dominant power forwards in the league, a true bully who demands double teams and also might be the best passer at his position.

Griffin will be back in action before the February 23 trade deadline, but his market value on an expiring deal won't square with Rivers' asking price. Given his injury history and ongoing physical decline, Griffin's financial advisors will be thrilled if the Clippers offer him a five-year max contract. Which they will definitely do.

Ultimately, it's hard to picture Rivers signing off on any deal that improves the long-term outlook while slicing into the 2.0 percent chance they have to win the title this year. Intentionally taking a step back is hard for a team that's come so close, and entered this season with such high hopes. But if the Clippers do nothing, they risk becoming the first team in NBA history to ride the treadmill of mediocrity with three All-NBA-caliber talents onboard. Paul's thumb injury may be what finally closes the window on this core's run as a fearsome playoff opponent and legitimate championship contender. Rivers didn't come to Los Angeles to rebuild, but if the Clippers stand pat things will likely get worse before they get better.

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