Los Angeles Clippers' coach Doc Rivers informed the media Chris Paul separated his shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks Friday night after his team's victory. Paul is expected to miss at least three-to-five weeks and there are already murmurs this timeframe could be pretty optimistic. We won't know the severity of the injury until he undergoes an MRI. In the meantime, it looks like the playoff hopes of the Clippers just took a huge hit.
It's not that the Clippers can't make the playoffs because of this injury. If Paul misses roughly a month of basketball, this team is still talented enough to be a top 6 seed in the West. It seems unlikely they'd fall below the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, or whatever combination of these teams rounds out the playoff scene out West. Even the loss of Paul won't cause the Clippers to fall into the lottery they used to know so well.
But after acquiring Rivers to be their coach and beefing up the role players surrounding Paul and Blake Griffin this summer, making the playoffs is no longer the end game. This team is made to contend, whether their detractors laugh at that notion or not. When they brought in Paul two years ago, the Clippers were supposed to be something in the West. With Rivers replacing Vinny Del Negro, the championship aspirations aren't supposed to be laughable anymore.
That's why missing a month in the middle of the season could cripple the Clippers' chances of even making it past the first round. The top of the West seems more competitive than ever, or at least in recent memory. The San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the standards out West; everybody else is trying to get to that level. It seemed before the season that a solid defense could get the Clippers within shouting distance of that tier.
With the unexpected emergence of the Portland Trail Blazers and the cohesion projects of the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, that contending crowd is getting pretty crowded. Crowded is fine when you're at full strength or at least have the services of your best players. But lose your top guy and one of the three best players in the NBA for a month and you'll be lucky to stick around the top 4 to secure homecourt advantage in the first round. With the West so top heavy this season, not having homecourt advantage in the first round could be a hopeful team's undoing.
Even with homecourt advantage in the opening round of the 2013 playoffs, the Clippers couldn't find a way to take care of the Memphis Grizzlies. They were done in six games because of poor execution and Blake Griffin's ankle injury. This year, they'll possibly have to tussle with the Blazers, Rockets, or Warriors. These three teams have excelled at home this season, but more importantly, home is where the Clippers are so dominant.
They've posted a 14-3 home record so far and are a .500 team on the road.
If the Clippers are lucky and Paul misses a month of action, the schedule coming up is favorable for absorbing the blow to their team. They have an East heavy schedule coming up and only play three Western Conference playoff teams (Spurs, Mavericks, Warriors). However, 10 of their 17 games over the next month are on the road, including a tough seven-game, 11-day road trip to the East. The Clippers will call on Darren Collison to take the point guard duties, which didn't go so well when he was supposed to be the point guard for the Mavs last season.
Collison eventually lost his starting job to Mike James and had to settle for a backup point guard role this summer with the Clippers. He's been a capable point guard in the past, but his inconsistent career will have to be righted if he's going to fill Paul's shoes. The Clippers have the talent to help him out but they only hold onto homecourt advantage by one game right now. The Rockets and Warriors are right behind them and the Warriors are riding an eight-game winning streak.
The Clippers aren't done by any means and they can still get a bit of good news with the MRI that could mean Paul isn't out for very long. If he is, they'll have to rely on their depth in order to continue their stellar play this season. But finding a way to compete with the top of the West will be tricky without their star, their leader. Paul's separated shoulder could separate the Clippers from hosting series at the Staples Center this postseason.
That could be a disaster for them.