Los Angeles Clippers: Chris Paul Returns At The Right Time

Dec 16, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; LA Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) dribbles the ball up court during the first half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Paul returned from a thumb injury in Friday’s loss to the Spurs. With the Los Angeles Clippers in a heated battle for home court advantage in the playoffs, his timing is perfect.

Chris Paul injured his thumb on Jan. 16 in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. At the time of his injury, the Los Angeles Clippers were 29-14. They were fourth in the Western Conference and three games behind the Houston Rockets.

The Clippers went 6-8 in their next 14 games. In that time, they lost to the Denver Nuggets by 25, the Philadelphia 76ers by 11 and the Golden State Warriors by 46 points. While Blake Griffin missed three of those games, most of the rest of the Clippers roster was healthy.

Paul proved his value to the team almost immediately after his return. He put up 17 points along with six rebounds and five assists against the Spurs. Paul exceeded that against the Charlotte Hornets with a masterful performance–15 points and 17 assists with zero turnovers.

He then put up 16 points and 11 assists with one turnover against the Rockets.

The Clippers are currently in fifth place in the West, half a game behind the Utah Jazz. Chris Paul will need to play exceptionally down the stretch for the Clippers to secure home court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs.

Passing Wizardry

Chris Paul has been one of the league’s best playmakers for quite a while. He is currently averaging 9.8 assists per game and has a decent chance at averaging 10 assists per game for the fourth straight season.

He would be fourth in the league in assists per game if he met the minimum playing time requirements.

His return does help space the floor horizontally through his shooting touch, but the main benefit of his return is the improved vertical spacing. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can jump out of the gym, but that only helps if you have a player who can make those difficult lob passes:

The window for this pass is minuscule, but Paul puts it right on the money for the slam. Austin Rivers was quite solid with Paul out, but he does not have the passing acumen to complete this play.

The other major beneficiary from Paul’s return is J.J. Redick. Despite his injury absence, Paul has assisted on 91 of Redick’s baskets this season–28 more than any other Clipper per NBA.com’s shot tracking data. Paul has mastered the art of leading Redick to a spot with pinpoint passes.

That in turn gives J.J. more of an opening to rain in shots from deep:

Paul’s return will limit Blake Griffin’s chances to run the offense. Even though Doc Rivers has resisted this in the past, the Clippers may want to look at staggering their minutes somewhat so Blake can run the second-unit offense.

Either way, the team’s offensive flow will improve dramatically with Paul back in the fold.

Playoff Push

The loss to the Houston Rockets on Wednesday was a big blow to the Clippers’ chances of getting the third seed in the West. However, the fourth seed is still very much in play for them. Earning that fourth seed and thus home-court advantage will be almost necessary.

All three of their possible matchups in that first-round series (the Jazz, the Grizzlies or the Thunder) will be a tough battle for Los Angeles.

Given their struggles with Golden State, the Clippers might be better off by falling to the sixth seed. However, the Kevin Durant injury might allow the Spurs to surpass them for the top seed in the West.

Since the Clippers match up far better with San Antonio, they may want to just try to gear up for the playoffs and avoid playing the seeding game.

The return of Chris Paul will help the Clippers across the board. Their already-solid offense is stellar with him on the floor. Furthermore, he is an All-Defense caliber guard who hounds opposing guards. His 2.2 steals per game would lead the league if he played more minutes.

The Clippers slumped through late January and early February due to the absence of Chris Paul. His return will probably carry them to home court advantage in the playoffs.

Even though they might never recover the magic from their incredible start, Paul will make them a threat in late April and possibly beyond.

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