Desperately seeking a silver lining in Chris Paul’s thumb injury

For much of the early part of the season, the Los Angeles Clippers were the hottest team in basketball with one of the best defenses in the league. A rough patch took off some of their shine, but the Clippers had rebounded to win a league-best seven games in a row as of January 17th. It looked like the Clippers were going to charge their way back into the top three of the Western Conference standings.

Then Dan Woike of the Orange County Register reported yesterday that starting point guard Chris Paul would have to undergo surgery on his left thumb to repair a torn ligament. This surgery will sideline Paul for the next six to eight weeks. Add in that power forward Blake Griffin is still out after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery and the Clippers could plummet in the standings.

Playing without your two best players for a significant portion of the season is never a good thing. However, it’s what is facing the Clippers right now.

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Through the Clippers’ first 43 games, they were 29-14 on the season and in fourth place in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, they were on a collision course to get steamrolled by Pacific Division arch rival Golden State in the Western Conference Semifinals. However, Los Angeles’ playoff trajectory has changed, perhaps for the better?

At full strength, Los Angeles is a top-five team in the NBA. The Clippers are a team capable of contending for an NBA Championship should a few lucky breaks go their way. While they weren’t the breaks they envisioned, the Paul and Griffin injuries may result in the Clippers falling to either the No. 6 or No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.

Sure, losing home-court advantage in the first round stinks for the Clippers, but what’s the point of them getting the No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the West? In a best-case scenario they were still going to have to face the presumed top-seeded Warriors in the second round without home court advantage.

Let somebody else take that hellacious second-round beatdown. The Utah Jazz, the Oklahoma City, or the Memphis Grizzlies could all leapfrog an injury riddled Clippers team in the Western Conference standings. This is important for the Clippers because they can beat the two other top teams in the Western Conference on the other side of the playoff bracket in a best-of-seven series: the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets.

How do we know this? Because the 2014-15 Clippers beat the Spurs in Game 7 at San Antonio in round one and took the No. 2 Rockets to seven games in the Western Conference Semifinals. Los Angeles blew a 3-1 lead on the Rockets that year. The Clippers had them.

Unless the Clippers nosedive sans Paul, they won’t fall out of the playoff picture nor will they be the No. 8 seed. Teams that are several games under .500 like the Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets, and the Sacramento Kings will duke it out for the right to get annihilated in their first round series against Golden State.

By taking their punches now and fall back in the standings, the Clippers are unintentionally setting themselves up to be better positioned to win come playoff time. They’ll still likely have to get through the Warriors to reach their ultimate goal but sliding in the standings gives them a chance to push that off as long as possible and provides an opportunity for them to try and build up a playoff rhythm with a hypothetically healthy Paul and Griffin.

Having Paul and Griffin out gives way to more playing time for rotational players for head coach/president of basketball operations Doc Rivers to evaluate. Rivers could get a better assessment of his bench and see if he needs to make an upgrade to a rotational spot before the NBA trade deadline.

So what does the path to the NBA Finals look like for the Clippers as a No. 6/No. 7 seed? Beat the Spurs and Rockets in back-to-back series and hope either the Jazz, the Thunder, or the Grizzlies can shock the Warriors in the other Western Conference Semifinals.

Beating Houston and San Antonio in succession seems tough, but it might be a more plausible road to the Finals than having to face the same second-round roadblock in Golden State who has owned them the last three seasons.

As silver linings go, this one is pretty thing and pretty gray. But it’s what is facing the Clippers right now.

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