This won’t come as a surprise but the Clippers without Chris Paul are a fine, if unspectacular Western Conference team. They’d make the playoffs but likely be bounced early without him — an exit befitting the team that lost to Toronto by 25, not the one that ran off 17 victories in a row when CP3 was in full, rare form. So it’s good news that not only could Paul return by Sunday’s game with the Knicks, but Jamal Crawford (shoulder), Blake Griffin (hamstring) and Chauncey Billups (tendinitis in his left foot) all could join the lineup by Sunday — if not a few of them also being available Friday at Miami. All four players practiced Thursday, the first time in two months that’s happend for Billups and Paul, ESPN reported.
Billups is reportedly the player with the best chance to return, according to both ESPN and the LA Times, a year and two days after he tore his Achilles in Orlando. Billups is the opposite of the young, athletic Eric Bledsoe the Clippers have plugged in in Paul’s stead with his injured right kneecap. Bledsoe, however, has openly admitted a week ago after a loss in Boston that he has struggled with his confidence lately, a phase Billups also endured as a young player before coming out the other side one of the NBA’s most poised point guards.
Griffin brings his usual rebounding and threat of scoring, and Paul’s effect is obvious not just on opponents but his teammates. Bledsoe is one of the biggest winners playing alongside CP3, though they often play in separate rotations. In their 138 minutes together this season, Bledsoe’s three-point percentage rises 8 points when Paul is in, and his overall shooting rises by nearly five points, per NBA.com statistics. That overall increase is largely due to an 11-percentage point spike in Bledsoe’s accuracy in the restricted area, where he shoots 57.8 percent alongside Paul.
Crawford is another Clipper who has played immensely better alongside Paul. The largest disparity is how he shoots 79 percent in the restricted area with Paul, far better than without (54 percent); 13 percentage points better from the corner three; and 42 percent on his mid-range jumper — the kind he loves after a shake-and-bake crossover — that is a weapon with Paul instead of a dud (26 percent in the same area without Paul) sans Paul.
Los Angeles still holds the best record in the Pacific Division and is still third in the West. It doesn’t take much of an imagination, however, to see how much better — and worse — this team will be with just the absence or arrival of a few players.
What do you think of this team’s shot for a title still?
Follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGreif.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.