LA Clippers: The impact of Blake Griffin’s surgery on the team

The LA Clippers will be without Blake Griffin for 3-6 weeks as he undergoes surgery on his right knee. Here’s a look at adjustments they can make to compete without him.

November 21, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers and forward Blake Griffin (32) are introduced before playing against the Toronto Raptors at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about taking a hit when you’re down. After earning what was easily their best start to a season in franchise history at 14-2 with smothering, league-leading defense, the LA Clippers have gone just 6-6 since then with a handful of disappointing losses to underwhelming teams. It’s been a heck of a crash from a historic start for the team. And now, to add insult to injury (no pun intended), it’s been reported that Blake Griffin needs to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and will miss between three and six weeks.

That news hurts for many reasons. It obviously hurts the Clippers, who are already enduring a down spell and need all the help they can get. It hurts fans, who want to enjoy their team at full strength and see Blake play on Christmas Day. It hurts Griffin’s future, too. For instance, how he recovers, whether mounting health issues create problems long term, and whether teams (including the Clippers) are any less willing to pay him max money when they take his health track record into account.

There’s plenty to think about. But, at least for now, let’s focus on how the team is going to change. To begin with, what will the starting lineup look like and how can Doc Rivers change his rotations in the best ways possible to cover for the loss of Griffin?

One thing going in the Clippers’ favor is their upcoming schedule. Griffin is expected to return at some point in January, and with their next 20 games taking them to the end of the month, the fact that they only face six teams with a winning record in this span — the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder (twice), Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, and Golden State Warriors on January 28th — is encouraging. After having one of the NBA’s densest, toughest schedules over the first month of the season, this scheduling improvement is at least a timely change for Griffin’s sudden surgery.

Anyway, let’s get back to the matters at hand and how the team can cope. First, the most obvious question: who will start at power forward?

April 20, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; LA Clippers forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (12) controls the ball against Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) during the second half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Who will start at power forward?

The Clippers will need to go small, and there’s no way of avoiding that now, given the makeup of their Griffin-less roster. Marreese Speights brings size, but there’s no way he’s quick enough to operate or try to defend at power forward against smaller, agile players. Brandon Bass could be used as a physical option, although he hasn’t exactly been Doc’s favorite option after only playing in 13 games so far this year. Plus, he can’t space the floor beyond the arc. Shooting more threes is one way to overcome losing Griffin’s scoring and playmaker as best as possible.

The most likely outcome in this new scenario could be for Doc to go with a small-ball lineup, surrounding the Chris Paul-DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll (something that will be heightened without Griffin) with a bunch of shooters, precisely as he did in Griffin’s absence last year.

One possibility is Austin Rivers or Wesley Johnson starting at small forward, with the two rotating depending on which matchups the Clippers faces. Johnson could well be the constant starter and his defense has really helped the team this year. Alternatively, going smaller, adding another ball handler and driver in Rivers when opposing teams have less size is something else Doc can play with.

If either or the two start, that leaves the option to move Luc Mbah a Moute, a position he’s always been natural at throughout his career, to shift to power forward. He maintains enough size at 6’8″ and he’s defended every position from one to four at a high level all season, which gives Jordan an elite complimentary defensive partner to complete the frontcourt. If a solid three-point shooter is at the three, Luc still hitting the occasional corner three should be enough to maintain decent spacing.

Of course, the other possibility is Paul Pierce starting at power forward, as he did for 38 games while Griffin was out. The Clippers’ starting lineup still operated at a high level thanks to the four pieces around him, but there’s no hiding Pierce’s blatant weakness. His defense is terrible both inside and out against either forward position (especially smaller guards), and he hasn’t been shooting well either, going 36.3 percent from the field since he arrived in L.A. (36.8 this season).

When he’s been on the floor this year, the Clippers’ net rating plummets from +9.7 without him to -10.7.

Thankfully, he’s only made seven appearances and one start this season, but there have been times when Doc has played him over Johnson and the possibility of favoring an old partner like Pierce could be damaging when significantly better options are available.

While we can’t know for sure at this stage and Doc will likely change his lineups around over the few weeks Griffin is out, Luc moving to power forward next to a shooter at the three could be the best, most seamless option.

Dec 14, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; LA Clippers center Marreese Speights (5) reacts after he made a three pointer against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. LA Clippers defeated the Orlando Magic 113-108. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Time for mo’ Mo

Mo’ Buckets. Whenever Marreese Speights checks in and starts making shots, that’s a phrase LA Clippers fans have enjoyed tweeting, saying, and gleefully thinking to themselves. Knowing that a player outside of Jamal Crawford and sometimes Austin Rivers can catch fire and provide 15 points on any given night is a welcome addition to the bench. Especially when that player can operate at center and stretch the floor from three-point range.

While I’ve already touched on Speights being held to playing at center in the upcoming absence of Blake Griffin, he still has an opportunity to get more minutes. Even though it hasn’t been much, Griffin has still spent some time at center this season in smaller lineups, and with him out the picture, there are going to be a few more minutes available at backup center behind DeAndre Jordan. We could expect to see a slight increase from Speights’ current average of 15.5 minutes per game.

Beyond that, seeing as Griffin is the Clippers’ leading scorer and all that, the simple opportunity for Speights to provide more of what he does best arises: bury mo’ buckets.

Without Griffin to anchor the offense at times and be that go-to scorer, the ball will be in Chris Paul’s hands even more and he’ll be looking to involve shooters as much as possible. Speights can be prepared for an uptick in the looks he’ll get, and as their best big to stretch defenses from mid-range with Griffin gone, not to mention from three, the Clippers’ guards are likely going to be looking to him with pick-and-pop plays and kick out passes more often.

Speights has a chance to step up and show how much value he can bring to this team. The defensive weakness won’t go away and that concern won’t change, but if he can keep improving his efficiency and handle some extra shots well, he’ll be one of the key pieces in keeping the Clippers moving without their superstar big man.

Dec 16, 2016; Miami, FL, USA; LA Clippers guard Alan Anderson (9) warms up before a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Step up, AA

With guys like Wesley Johnson and Luc Mbah a Moute set to spend more minutes at power forward to help compensate for the hole left by Griffin, time is going to open up for others at small forward.

Enter Alan Anderson. Less so than others after only cracking into the rotation and receiving some reasonable playing time over the last five games (12.9 minutes a night), Anderson is one of a handful of players to help fill out the Clippers’ core of wing players. He can move between the two and three, he’s been a decent enough three-point shooter over his career at 34.6 percent, he’s a better driver than most wings on the roster, and he brings some energy on defense.

Anderson has a skill set to offer and he (and everyone else) is certainly better than Paul Pierce, but Anderson has only made seven appearances all season and hasn’t had a chance to contribute much beyond his enthusiastic hype man role on the bench. Now, with everyone needing to collectively chip in and make up for the loss of Griffin’s elite offensive abilities, in particular the forward rotation, Anderson has a new opportunity to not only grab some extra minutes, but prove himself for a larger role going forward.

From how the new starting lineup will look to this chance for Anderson, there is plenty of change in store for how the Clippers will manage the upcoming three to six week stretch. There’s also the factor of what changes Chris Paul will need to make. He’ll be dominating the ball, dishing to extra shooters at the arc, and being more aggressive as a scorer and mid-range shooter himself, precisely as he was last season without Griffin.

Paul should increase his pick-and-roll play with DeAndre Jordan as well, which can help the latter up his offensive production along with grabbing additional rebounds while Griffin is off the court.

One of our writers here at Clipperholics, Andrew Miller, will be releasing an article soon about just that, focusing on how Paul and Jordan will approach this stretch. With that in mind, I won’t delve into them much now.

The rest of the changes to the team are relatively straight forward, though, and Doc Rivers has experience directly from last season to make adjustments. The biggest differences are the new forwards he has at his disposal, and for the sake of his LA Clippers being as secure as possible, (ideally) less play from Paul Pierce than we saw last year.

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The next month or so is one of the biggest regular season chances for this team to show their resolve, intensity, and rediscover their defensive dominance when they need it most.

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