When the news broke that Chris Paul would miss six weeks with a separated right shoulder, the prevailing theory was that Los Angeles Clippers’ chances of securing a top-four seed -- and thus having a realistic chance at competing for an NBA title -- were in jeopardy.
Nine games into Paul’s absence, that hasn’t been the case.
The Clippers have won six of nine -- they’re 7-3 without him overall -- and are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions, which is nearly identical to their season-long net rating of +5.7 points per 100 possessions.
How have they survived without him?
1. Redick’s return
Among Clippers that have played 250 or more minutes this season, J.J. Redick has the highest net rating (+10.0). With Redick on the floor, the Clippers’ offense is at its peak (112.8 offensive rating), a notably higher mark than when Paul (108.4 offensive rating), Blake Griffin (108.0) or DeAndre Jordan (107.9) take the hardwood.
Redick’s off-ball movement around baseline screens and pin-downs has to be accounted for at all times, effectively shifting defenses to allow Griffin room to operate from the left block or high post, or Darren Collison and Jordan to run high pick-and-rolls.
Often labeled as just a shooter, Redick is an underrated passer and secondary ball-handler, and has surprisingly been Los Angeles’ most consistent perimeter defender. He’s arguably been the team’s most valuable player statistically, which is saying a lot considering the seasons Paul and Griffin are having.
2. Griffin’s evolution
Without Paul, Griffin has taken on a superstar burden offensively.
Over the last nine games, he’s averaging 24.8 points and 5 assists and, despite his usage rate skyrocketing to a career-high 29.0 percent, has also managed to improve his field-goal percentage (FG%) from 52.4 percent to 53.9 percent.
Griffin’s free throw shooting -- once a clear weakness -- has become a strength. He’s shooting 75.8 percent since Dec. 1, which has given him the confidence to face up, leverage his speed and athleticism against slower defenders, and draw more fouls (he’s averaging 10.4 free-throw attempts without Paul).
Defensively, Griffin continues to develop under Rivers’ tutelage. His lateral quickness allows him to disrupt passing lanes and pickpocket ball-handlers when hedging on pick and rolls -- he’s averaging 1.8 steals over the last nine games. Already an underrated post defender, Griffin is finally beginning to grasp the intricacies of help defense and back line rotations, adding another layer to his versatile skill set.
3. Defensive improvement
Since Dec. 1, the Clippers have allowed 100.2 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark in the league. However, since Jan. 4 -- the first game they played without Paul -- the Clippers have allowed 103.0 points per 100 possessions, good for 10th-best over that span.
That has more to do with two blowout losses against the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers than anything else, as Los Angeles has actually been marginally better defensively with Paul off the floor this season -- they have a 100.6 defensive rating when he sits, and 101.5 defensive rating when he plays.
Regardless, Los Angeles’ newfound defensive competence has kept them in games in which their offense is struggling, and allowed them to withstand late rallies against Boston, Dallas and Detroit.
The bulk of the improvement stems from Jordan. Opponents are shooting 51.5 percent at the rim against him (still a slightly below-average number), which is a steep decline from the low 60s percentage he was allowing at the start of the season. His defense has improved on a weekly basis, and he’s now second behind Paul George in Defensive Win Shares (3.2).
The Clippers are undoubtedly outperforming expectations defensively. Outside of the Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Clippers are the only team ranked in the top eight of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
4. Adjusting the rotation
One of Doc Rivers’ greatest attributes as a coach is his foresight to admit when a rotation tweak isn’t working, and then make the proper adjustments.
Jared Dudley, who has struggled with inconsistent shooting all season, had started every game until Monday against Detroit, when Rivers chose to start Matt Barnes instead. It’s too early to know all the ramifications of the move, but Rivers believes it will pay off by adding off-ball movement to the starting lineup and shooting to the bench.
Additionally, even though Darren Collison -- who’s averaged 13.4 points, 6.4 assists and 1.6 steals on 50.0 percent shooting from the field and 39.1 percent shooting from deep in Paul’s place -- has played exceptionally well, Rivers has finished some games with Jamal Crawford at point guard to ensure Redick and either Dudley or Barnes are out there for defensive purposes.
In an attempt to limit the damage the second-unit big men have done defensively and on the glass, Rivers also recently cut Ryan Hollins’ minutes even further and took Antawn Jamison out of the rotation. Now, Dudley, Barnes or the newly acquired Hedo Turkoglu man the backup power forward position, and Griffin and Hollins back up Jordan in spot minutes.
5. A favorable schedule
If there were ever a preferred chunk of the schedule for Paul to miss 15 to 20 games, this would be it. Of the 20 games between Jan. 3 (when Paul was injured) and the All-Star break (his projected return date), 13 are against the Eastern Conference (only one against Miami and one against Indiana).
Despite the length of the Grammy road trip, only three of the seven teams -- Indiana, Chicago and Toronto -- are .500 or better. And Chicago (13-8) and Toronto (11-9) aren’t particularly dominant home teams.
The Clippers ran into two unfortunate “schedule losses” -- road games on the second night of a back-to-back -- in San Antonio and Indiana, but besides those two contests, they have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way.
Road games in Golden State and Denver will be tough, as well as home games against Miami and Portland, but the Clippers have a legitimate shot to go 7-4 or 8-3 over their next 11 games without Paul.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and Basketball-Reference.com.