The Los Angeles Clippers expected to get power forward Blake Griffin back soon from the torn quadriceps muscle that has sidelined him since late December, but those hopes are now dashed. Late on Monday night, ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Marc Stein reported that Griffin had apparently fractured his hand in a team-related incident.
The Clippers confirmed Tuesday that Griffin will be sidelined four to six weeks because of the injury, and that it occurred when he threw a punch Saturday in Toronto. ESPN's Michael Eaves reported the injury happened during a fight with a member of the team's equipment staff outside a restaurant.
Griffin's status raises a crucial question: Is this so bad for the Clippers? After all, Los Angeles has gone 11-3 with Griffin sidelined, solidifying its hold on home-court advantage in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Are the Clippers better off without Blake? Let's take a closer look at their performance to find out.
Clippers have been better without Blake
The schedule has certainly helped the Clippers deal with Griffin's absence. Nine of the first 10 games Los Angeles played without him were against sub-.500 teams. So while it is a surprise the Clippers went 9-1 in that stretch, it's not quite as impressive as it seems.
Even when we account for the schedule, however, the Clippers have simply been a better team without Griffin.
Using the Game Score component from ESPN's Basketball Power Index, which accounts for outcome, opponent, location and rest, the Clippers' average performance rated a 53.3 with Griffin and has improved to 68.8 in his absence.
At the same time, that's not entirely a fair comparison. Griffin went down only two games after coach Doc Rivers overhauled the Clippers' rotation, benching reserves Lance Stephenson and Josh Smith (since traded to the Houston Rockets) in favor of Pablo Prigioni and Cole Aldrich. That change deserves part of the credit for the Clippers' improved play.
Using data from NBA.com/Stats, we can break down just how much the new second unit has helped by looking at the Clippers' performance by various combinations of their three key starters: Chris Paul, J.J. Redick and DeAndre Jordan.
Indeed, the Clippers have performed much better with all-bench lineups on the court since Griffin's injury. That demonstrates the impact of Rivers' lineup changes, Griffin or no Griffin.
But that improvement pales in comparison to the jump they've made with all three healthy core players in the lineup.
No matter who else has filled out the last two spots among Wesley Johnson, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Paul Pierce, the Clippers are destroying opponents with the trio of Jordan, Paul and Redick. These lineups have posted a 121.6 offensive rating, better than the same group with Griffin this season (112.0) or last season (118.0).
How the Clippers succeed without Griffin
Before his injury, Griffin had the Clippers' highest usage rate, finishing almost 30 percent of the team's plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover. That's a lot of shots to redistribute, and among the team's core players, Paul and Jordan have increased their usage the most.
Content to play more of a pass-first role when teamed with Griffin, Paul has become a score-first point guard in Griffin's absence, posting a higher usage rate than any other season of his career. (Paul's career high is 27.5 percent in 2008-09 with New Orleans.)
Yet the chart shows his true shooting percentage (TS), a measure of scoring efficiency that factors in the value of 3-pointers and free throws, has barely dipped. That's a great sign for a player who has increased his usage rate.
Meanwhile, Jordan has become a bigger part of the offense and more efficient, similar to what happened last season when Griffin was sidelined by an infected elbow.
Oddly, Redick's usage rate has actually dipped ever so slightly despite the fact he's in the midst of the hottest stretch of his fine NBA career. A big reason the Clippers haven't missed Griffin is that Redick is making a torrid 55.4 percent of his 3-point attempts in that span, a rate that is surely impossible to sustain. Last season, Redick slumped a bit when Griffin was sidelined, so this doesn't appear to be a case of him benefiting from the Clippers refocusing their offense.
In general, though, the Clippers seem to benefit from improved floor spacing with Griffin out. While he has developed into a fine midrange shooter, Griffin still can't drag his defender to the 3-point line like Pierce, who has made 36.2 percent of his 3-point attempts since moving into the starting lineup.
Putting another 3-point shooter around Paul-Jordan pick-and-rolls makes it more difficult for defenses to bring an extra defender into the play to cut off Paul's drives and prevent Jordan from finishing at the rim, either by fouling him or forcing him to make a more skilled play.
None of this is an indictment of Griffin individually, but it's a reminder of the importance of floor spacing. A power forward who can make 3s can be as valuable offensively as one as phenomenally skilled as Griffin.
Clippers will eventually need Griffin
Before you run off to ESPN's Trade Machine to see what the Clippers could get for Griffin, remember there's a difference between surviving a short-term injury and playing without him altogether.
Notably, the Clippers have been mostly healthy besides Griffin. The only other starter to miss time since his injury is Jordan, who sat out two games because of pneumonia. The Clippers' only home loss without Griffin came with Jordan on the sidelines. In other words, Griffin's absence aside, the Clippers have been a bit fortunate -- and might need him if and when another player goes down.
Given his age and injury history, it's hard to imagine Paul maintaining a 30 percent usage rate for a full season. When Paul missed five games because of injury early in the season, it was Griffin who kept the team afloat -- just as he did during the first two games of last season's playoff series against the Houston Rockets with Paul unavailable.
In fact, the Clippers probably don't take advantage of Griffin's playmaking skills enough when both stars are healthy. One lesson of the team's success without Griffin is that Rivers would probably be wise to use Griffin more frequently with the second unit while Paul is resting, and give Pierce extra minutes as a stretch 4 with the starters.
The Clippers will need Griffin's contributions if they want to make a deep run in the Western Conference playoffs. But for the next few weeks, it appears they can survive Griffin's absence. And, if Paul and Redick can keep up their play, they might even be better off.