Injury woes not biggest issue Clippers must overcome this season

Questions about L.A.'s status as a true title contender continue to follow it around

You can be curious about Blake Griffin and how long it’ll take for him to collect double-doubles again, now that he’s reportedly ready to be reactivated from knee surgery. And you can wonder how Chris Paul’s absence will damage or limit the LA Clippers in the short-term (he isn’t expected back from a bum thumb until March).

But the real question about the Clippers is this: even when they get fully healthy, will they still qualify as a title contender?

Maybe it’s weird to ask that of a team with Griffin, Paul and DeAndre Jordan in their prime, a team with its most productive bench in years and a team led by one of the NBA’s best coaches (Doc Rivers). Such is the reality with the Clippers, who have long overtaken Los Angeles — yet the rest of the NBA (or even the Western Conference) remains seemingly beyond their reach.

We’ll know more this spring when the season shifts in importance and the Clippers prepare yet another run for postseason respectability. Until then, this strange and somewhat frustrating season lurches forward, helped in part by Griffin’s impending return after him missing 18 straight games for a hamstring injury and hampered in part by Paul currently in medical lockdown.

“We know who we are,” said Rivers, before the Clippers won Monday in Atlanta. “We know when we’re healthy we’re as good as anyone. But we’re not healthy right now so you go into survival mode. We’ve gotten good at that over the last two-three years, unfortunately.”

“We’re trying to pick off as many wins as we can and when everyone comes back, you hope that this makes you a better team.”

LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers

Yes, there’s a sense of what-if when assessing the Clippers under Rivers.

What if Paul wasn’t limited by a hamstring two years ago in the playoffs, when they lost to the Rockets in seven? What if Griffin hadn’t punched a staff member last season and suffered a broken hand? What if he and Paul weren’t injured last year when the Portland Trail Blazers beat them in the first round?

“We’ve had a lot of stuff going on,” Rivers said.

Ordinarily, none of this would spread a sense of disappointment, at least not a terribly deep one. But it’s all about perspective. This is the Clippers, a franchise unfulfilled. The Clippers haven’t reached the conference finals, let alone the NBA Finals, with Griffin, Paul and Jordan. They’re undoubtedly one of the finest trios in the game, which is amplified once you add Rivers to the mix. They’re judged by that standard, which is not only fair, it’s how they want to be judged. A great player and future Hall of Famer, Paul has said countless times that if he doesn’t advance deep into the playoffs, it’s a failure.

The sense of urgency gets turned up a notch now, with Paul and Griffin approaching free agency. Neither is expected to leave the Clippers this summer, especially not with the sack full of cash surely coming their way. The salaries for Paul and Griffin are projected to start at around $25 and $30 million a year, respectively.

Yet each player does come with a degree of risk as they stretch into their 30s. Both have battled injuries — Griffin with hand and knee surgeries and Paul with a nagging hamstring issue that caused him to miss time earlier this season.

How much longer can these two All-Stars, and Jordan, send a chill through the teams on the other bench?

Rivers, who doubles as the team president, is willfully married to this core, for good reason. One: He wouldn’t get a fair return in any trade. Two: The Clippers are a 50-win team with them intact. Three: They’re entertaining and sell tickets. And Four: Why rebuild, or even reshape the team, with a risky experiment that involves a breakup of the trio?

It’s Griffin-Paul-Jordan or bust, then, and the trick is to stay healthy, then get hot in the playoffs, and also get a little lucky as well.

“Our team is really good,” said J.J. Redick. “Of course we haven’t shown we can get to the conference finals. So we have to show we can take another step when we get healthy. The potential is there, for sure.”

They can potentially beat any team — except for the Golden State Warriors. Even before Golden State added Kevin Durant, the Warriors spooked the Clippers. The Clippers beat the Warriors in the first round of the 2014 playoffs — a series fueled by the Donald Sterling comments – but since then, things have been one-sided for the Warriors. They have won eight of the the last nine regular season meetings and play the Clippers twice in the next week.

The Clippers began this season as though they were on a mission to, once and for all, declare themselves a favorite. They started 14-2 and whipped the San Antonio Spurs, beat the Toronto Raptors and slapped the Portland Trail Blazers by 31. They had the best record in the NBA and were winning by an average of 16 points. And even while they were without Griffin, they ripped through a seven-game win streak. Marresse Speights is providing a lift off the bench, and Austin Rivers is having a strong January (averaging 18.2 ppg, 48.8 percent shooting), maybe the best month of his NBA life.

The West once again is unforgiving, through, with the improved Utah Jazz, the James Harden-juiced Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook all having moments. While the Clippers are right in the midst of the playoff standings now, they could experience slippage without Paul.

“You want to win and at least keep home court advantage for the first round,” said Redick. “And you can go back to that Houston (playoff) series and say it would be great to have home court in the second round. Really, it’s about winning. Just keep winning as long as we can until he gets back.”

Our team is really good. Of course we haven’t shown we can get to the conference finals. So we have to show we can take another step when we get healthy. The potential is there, for sure.”

LA Clippers guard J.J. Redick

Rivers is going with a help-by-committee rescue unit, with Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton and even Jamal Crawford sharing the playmaking duties. Mostly, his players must create for themselves, which won’t be too difficult for Griffin or anyone else besides Jordan.

“We don’t change much about how we go about our business,” Rivers said. “We run the same sets, the same approach. Obviously it’s a little different without Chris on the floor but we don’t do any major changes. Everything’s the same. We’re trying to pick off as many wins as we can and when everyone comes back, you hope that this makes you a better team.”

And the good news is Paul’s injury isn’t season-ending; it’s season-interrupting. He’ll return and so, too, will the demands on the Clippers, followed by the questions: Is it their time, finally?

“Going into the playoffs,” promises Rivers, “we’re going to be a tough team.”

Between now and the time Paul’s projected return, the Clippers could play as many as 19 games against teams in the playoff picture. Thus, the season motto, until then, is: Stay the course.

And after that?

They hope it’s: Stay in contention.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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