The Clippers might be stuck in no man's land

The Los Angeles Clippers were dealt another blow on Tuesday when they announced that Chris Paul would undergo surgery on his right thumb to repair a torn ligament.

Paul is expected to miss six to eight weeks while he recovers from the surgery.

For the Clippers, it’s yet another setback, as they were preparing for the return of Blake Griffin in the coming weeks as he makes his way back from a knee scope that’s kept him out since mid-December.

It’s an all-too familiar situation for the Clippers. Last season, they saw their door instantly shut after both Paul and Griffin suffered season-ending injuries in the first round of the playoffs. They lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in six games.

The latest setback will again put into question how much longer the Clippers can continue to spin the wheels on their current core of players. At 29-14, the Clippers are fourth in the Western Conference. When healthy, they can challenge the San Antonio Spurs for the second seed in the West. But the Clippers are a middle-of-the-road playoff team with only one of Griffin or Paul, and they’re a lottery team without either — they have gone 2-5 this season in games Paul and Griffin have both missed.

Depending on when Griffin returns, the next month could be a tough one for the Clippers. They’re just two games ahead of the Utah Jazz for fourth place and four games ahead of the Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder. Going less than .500 as their stars recover could put them in seventh place, with an uphill battle to regain home-court advantage in the playoffs (a top-four seed).

As SB Nation’s Tom Ziller notes, the Clippers’ championship path may already be blocked, with little proof that they can beat the Warriors once, let alone four times in seven games. If they fail to secure home-court advantage in the playoffs, getting to the Western Conference Finals alone may be an unreasonable task — they’d have to beat some combination of the Spurs, Rockets, Jazz, Grizzlies, and Thunder on the road.

NBA teams fear being a middle-of-the-road playoff team, which, if the Clippers cannot get and stay healthy, may be their ceiling. But what’s the alternative? As ESPN’s Zach Lowe has written and stated numerous times, blowing up a perennial 50-win playoff contender is a gambit. Keeping two top-10 players (when healthy) in Paul and Griffin with two perfect side-kicks in Redick and Jordan ensures the Clippers will compete for a playoff spot every year.

And there’s no easy path to a rebuild for the Clippers. They’re without a promising young player to build around and they own just two first-round picks over the next four years. With Paul, Griffin, and Redick approaching free agency this summer, the Clippers could look to trade them for assets, but at the moment, all three players’ trade value would likely be at a minimum, simply because of their health and impending free agency. The Clippers can’t afford to let them walk in free agency, as they’d get no return on their investments, and they would be forced to rebuild through free agency, which is a risk in its own right.

If Griffin and Paul recover as expected and the rest of the team can stay healthy, the Clippers could make a second-half run to get better playoff seeding. Even then, will they have enough to beat the Rockets or Spurs to get a crack at the Warriors? It could result in yet another second-round exit.

This summer will raise questions about how much the Clippers value 50-win regular seasons and playoff appearances when it comes time to re-sign Paul, Griffin, and Redick. While they could understandably decide to hit reset, the other option may be a lengthy rebuild, similar to what the Brooklyn Nets are going through — scraping the bottom barrels of free agency while waiting for their draft picks to reset.

A middle-of-the-road playoff team may not be inspiring, but for the Clippers, it may be a lot better than the alternative.

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