Clippers’ Future Unclear in Wake of Blake Griffin’s Injury

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On April 22, the Los Angeles Clippers announced that Blake Griffin will miss the remainder of the postseason after suffering an injury to the plantar plate in his right foot in Game 3. This is the second year in a row in which Griffin suffers an injury in the first round of the playoffs that ends his season prematurely. It’s an unfortunate situation for both Griffin and the Clippers, which comes with serious short and long term implications.

First, losing Griffin (obviously) hurts the Clippers’ chances of making a deep playoff run. During the regular season, Griffin averaged 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists and one steal while shooting 49.3 percent from the field and 33.6 percent beyond the arc. He also registered a 22.5 player efficiency rating. Furthermore, two postseason games, Griffin was averaging 25 points, six rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 20-42 from the field and 3-5 from three-point range.

Griffin wasn’t exactly playing at his 2015 postseason level, where he was absolutely dominant against the San Antonio Spurs. However, he was proving to be a difficult cover for a Utah Jazz squad that has been without defensive anchor Rudy Gobert. Whether Griffin was playing at absolute peaks levels or not, simply replacing a player as productive as he had been will be a difficult task for Los Angeles (as it would be for any team that loses one of its star players, aside from the Golden State Warriors). The Clippers proved in the second half of Game 3 that it is capable of overcoming Utah even without Griffin, but it will take particularly strong performances from players like Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles, even if they advance to the second round of the playoffs, it’s difficult to imagine them advancing to the Western Conference Finals and even more difficult to see them making it to the NBA Finals. The Clippers were always underdogs this postseason, but at least with Griffin, Jordan and Paul, an argument could be made that if everything broke right, Los Angeles could have a puncher’s chance. The best case scenario is now seemingly off the table now that Griffin is out indefinitely and the Golden State Warriors are humming (despite missing Kevin Durant, who is sidelined with a calf injury).

Secondly, the Clippers now have some tough realities to face — realities that will have to be dealt with in the coming weeks and months. Since the arrival of Paul, the Clippers have perennially featured one of the league’s best offenses and collections of talent. Los Angeles has won 60 percent or more of their regular season games each season since Paul’s arrival and has had reason to believe they could make some serious noise in the playoffs. Those reasons have all been upended by a combination of injuries, lack of depth, bad trades, bad luck and self-inflicted disastrous collapses, among other things. With that history in mind and the knowledge that the core pieces of this team are only getting older, it would seem obvious that the Clippers should consider hitting the reset button. However, like most things in life, it’s not that simple.

The Clippers have to strongly pursue bringing this team back despite its seeming limitations. Simply letting Griffin and Paul walk in free agency doesn’t necessarily hit the reset button for the Clippers. The Clippers contractual commitments are significant enough that losing Griffin and Paul will not give them any sort of spending flexibility that will allow them to go after younger talent or significant free agents. Gutting the remainder of the roster wouldn’t necessarily lead to the acquisition of any significant trade assets either, so the Clippers can’t afford to simply have their star players walk away.

Bringing in a player like Carmelo Anthony — to bolster the talent the team currently has — will have to be explored, because this roster simply can’t be expected to keep pace with the NBA’s other top teams considering their collective age and injury history. Carmelo was rumored to be a trade target for the Clippers before this season’s trade deadline, but nothing ever materialized. Carmelo wouldn’t address the major areas of concern for the Clippers, but his talent and production is undeniable and having him on the roster right now would have given the Clippers a clear replacement option at power forward with Griffin sidelined.

Bringing back Paul, Griffin, Redick and finding more talent will be the aim for the Clippers this upcoming offseason. Whether the Clippers manage this depends on the players and whether they are all up for another shot at fighting for a championship with the same basic structure in place (assuming a deal for a player like Carmelo cannot be managed). A lot of factors will go into each player’s ultimate decision, but it’s very possible each will re-sign and give this roster another go. If it becomes exceedingly apparent that the team simply cannot contend, then the Clippers will at least have the option of trading away their star players for assets and players to start a rebuild around moving forward.

If these players decide to move on, however, it will leave the Clippers in a difficult position. The championship window will be closed and the franchise will be left with little financial flexibility and young talent to start over with. This is why this postseason and the injury to Griffin are so important. This was seemingly the last chance to prove that this team was and still is worth keeping together. With another season-ending injury for Griffin and a likely second-round exit appearing to be inevitable, it’s not clear this is the case for the Clippers.