For a brief moment on Monday, it appeared the Los Angeles Clippers finally had an open window.
After it was announced that Stephen Curry will be out two weeks with a knee sprain, it looked as if the Clippers, up 2-1 in their first-round series with the Trail Blazers, could finally advance to the Western Conference Finals, a round they have never reached.
Curry might not be back in two weeks; it could be longer. The Clippers could conceivably take a series lead in the second-round over the Warriors before Curry came back, forcing the Warriors to play from behind. There’s no guarantee the Clippers could beat a Curry-less Warriors team, but at full health, they’d certainly have the advantage.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe noted at the time of the Curry prognosis, this is why it’s shortsighted to break up a team as good as the Clippers — that is, a very good team, but a step below the league’s championship contenders. An injury can change everything.
Then, disaster struck the Clippers Monday night. Chris Paul broke his right hand, and the Clippers lost as the Blazers tied the series at 2-2. According to ESPN’s Arash Markazi, Paul will be re-evaluated. But barring a better X-ray, the prognosis is a three- to six-week recovery, which would likely keep Paul out for the rest of the season.
Furthermore, Blake Griffin left Game 4 with a quad injury. Griffin had torn his quad early in the season, then missed several months before breaking his hand in an altercation with an equipment staffer.
The Clippers’ path to the conference finals becomes all the more challenging, and perhaps impossible, without Paul and with an injured Griffin. For as quickly as the Clippers’ window seemed open, it closed just as swiftly.
This dose of terrible luck also recalls what coach Doc Rivers told Lowe before the season about the Clippers future, hinting that there could be major moves ahead if the Clippers don’t make progress:
“We’re right on the borderline. I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. … We’re all on that edge together. I believe we’re gonna be really good. But if we’re not, it depends on how we play, and what the reason is. That’s what would make you make a big decision.”
This is the Clippers’ fifth year with the Paul-Griffin-DeAndre Jordan triumvirate. While they have proven to be among the NBA’s best teams during those four years, they haven’t been able to get over the hump. That hump just grew significantly steeper in the absence of Paul.
Assuming the Clippers can still beat the Blazers — a task that also just grew harder — they would simply be outmatched against the Warriors, even if Curry misses half the series. If Curry returns for the second half of that series, it’s likely over.
It raises questions about the Clippers’ future. At full health, they haven’t gotten the breaks to seriously contend for a championship. Losing Paul and potentially Griffin on the verge of a breakthrough has to be demoralising.
With Paul entering the back-nine of his prime, and Griffin, oft-injured and hitting free agency in 2017, the Clippers might consider breaking up their core. As Rivers himself said, teams can stagnate, and the Clippers haven’t made significant steps to reaching the next level.
It’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Clippers, and one that could potentially alter an entire organisation’s future.