State of the Clippers: Missing Chris Paul

For Clippers fans, it was a picture they would prefer not to see again – at least not over the long term.
When they took the court Monday in Washington and again in Orlando two nights later, the two most valuable pieces of their roster were missing. It was enough to make a fan shudder.
Not having Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in uniform was a scary glimpse at how the Clippers used to look – and what they could look like if Paul is allowed to leave after this season. The good news is that it’s possible both could be back Friday in Miami, along with two other disabled teammates, Chauncey Billups and Jamal Crawford. All four practiced Thursday.
Paul has missed the past nine games because of a bruised right kneecap, and the team has gone 3-6 during that span. A strained left hamstring put Griffin down for two games, ending his consecutive streak of games played at 197.
Under most circumstances, playing the Wizards and the  Magic, two teams with a collective 27-70 record, would be no big deal. But without their two All-Stars, the Clippers lost in Washington and needed a strong third quarter to pull away from Orlando.
With Paul, Griffin and a healthy roster, the Clippers are viable contenders to reach the NBA’s Western Conference finals. Without one or both of them, they’re looking at an early exit.
Already the Clippers have begun to drift back in the conference standings, going from first to third behind San Antonio and Oklahoma City. If the playoffs began today, they would face a first-round series against the Golden State Warriors, a team that has beaten them three times in four games this season.
“I think, fortunately, we took care of business earlier in the year, so we have a little bit of a cushion,” forward Grant Hill told the team’s website, “But all of a sudden you lose a couple of games and you could go from first to fourth in the West. It is tough, these dog days. You’re on the road, banged up, sick, hurt. You’ve just got to find a way.”
Long term, the Clippers must also find a way to re-sign Paul this summer. He will become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and although he has expressed a desire to stay in LA, he’ll most likely gauge his decision on how the Clippers evolve the remainder of this season and how they fare in the playoffs.
The Clippers signed Griffin to a five-year contract worth as much as $95 million in the hope it would convince Paul of their commitment to the future. The Clippers can offer Paul a five-year contract, while no other team would be able to offer more than four years. The difference in guaranteed money could be as much as a $25 million.
Having Paul healthy for the remainder of the season will keep the Clippers’ hopes alive for a long playoff run. And that, perhaps more than anything else, could be the best selling point to lure him back for the next five years.
Another good sign: The Clippers practiced with their full roster for the first time this season Thursday in Miami.
“First time, all the way in February,” Billups told Clippers TV. “That’s crazy. It felt good for everybody to be out there, getting those juices going against one another. That was fun.”
Maybe the fun is about to resume.
Who’s Hot: Eric Bledsoe, who has moved from Paul’s backup to a starter, continues growing as a point guard and leader. Bledsoe has scored in double figures in each of the past nine games that Paul has missed since Jan. 22, and he established a new career high with 27 points against Orlando after tying his previous high Sunday in Boston with 23. He also has had nine or more assists in three of his past six games and added six rebounds, six assists and three blocks against the Magic.
Who’s Not: Forward Matt Barnes is a key contributor off the bench, a player capable of hitting three-point shots and willing to mix it up under the basket. But he picked up his 10th technical foul of the season at Orlando, second-most in the NBA. Six more and he’ll receive a one-game suspension and $5,000 league fine. Barnes is far too valuable to miss any time, even though he has struggled with his shot of late, making just 6 of 27 over his past three games.
Three Thoughts
1. Center Ryan Hollins has seen very little time on the court this season, but he proved Wednesday in Orlando that he can play a role. With a depleted lineup, he played 24 minutes and totaled season highs in points (13) and rebounds (8). He also gives the Clippers a shot-blocking presence in the lane. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he could be a significant contributor the rest of the season.

2. Could Friday’s game in Miami be a preview of the NBA Finals? Maybe that question is a bit premature, but it sure looked like it in December when the Clippers put together an undefeated month, going 16-0 before falling back to earth. If Paul, Griffin, Billups and Crawford are back in uniform, however, it’s worth watching how the game transpires.

3. Grant Hill has only been healthy for a month and is still finding his place on the second unit, but there are times he looks like a bad fit. Hill can be a factor getting out on the break and scoring from outside, but he was only 2 of 8 against the Magic and seems slow to find his proper role when he’s on the court. Maybe it will change in time, maybe it won’t. At least the Clippers have some time to find out.
Quotes of the Week
“It’s like a car accident. You’ll feel stiff for days later. And it was really bothering me today. I couldn’t lift the ball over my head.”
Jamal Crawford, on his injured shoulder and the decision not to play Wednesday in Orlando
“The most important part is for us to stop the bleeding.”
  Grant Hill, on the Clippers’ three-game losing streak and 2-7 record from Jan. 21 to Monday
“I think we all kind of know how good we can be, but we know we’ve got to be a little lucky with health. We know the potential of the team, and it will be good to get guys healthy and begin to start working toward that.”
  Chauncey Billups, after the Clippers practiced with a full roster of players Thursday in Miami
What’s next?
The Clippers have three games left on their eight-game Grammy road trip, but they include two tough opponents: Miami on Friday night and the New York Knicks on Sunday. They close their trip Monday in Philadelphia, but with a 2-3 record so far, they’ll have to be content if they return home next week 3-5.
Tower of Power?
Blame it on injuries. With Chris Paul sidelined, the Clippers are just an average team, even with Blake Griffin in the lineup. But take away Paul, Griffin, Billups and Crawford and they wouldn’t be playoff-worthy. If all four of those players get back before the road trip ends, however, they’ll resume their Tower of Power bragging rights.