The Los Angeles Clippers can’t afford another injury. Not after losing dynamic starting point guard Milos Teodosic to a left foot injury in the first week of the season. Not after premier offseason trade acquisition Danilo Gallinari went down with a strained right glute nine games into the campaign. And not after learning of All-Defensive guard Patrick Beverley’s season-ending right knee injury last week.
Yet, here we are, less than a quarter of the way into 2017-18, and there the Clippers were, waiting with bated breath on Tuesday in hope that the left knee injury Blake Griffin suffered during Monday night’s win over the Los Angeles Lakers wasn’t as bad as it seemed when teammate Austin Rivers collided with Griffin’s leg on a scramble for the ball:
No official word yet on the severity of Blake Griffin’s knee injury, but – um – the video does not look good. pic.twitter.com/sUTHGml3do
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) November 28, 2017
Griffin and Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball converged on the ball after Clippers wing Wesley Johnson knocked it loose in the paint with less than five minutes left in a 110-105 game, but Ball’s legs got tied up with Rivers, who stumbled into his teammate’s knee. It happened in an instant; as the Clips know all too well from the past handful of years, that’s all it can take to sink a season.
The Clippers hoped for the best, but braced for the worst:
“It didn’t look good obviously, but we just have to wait and see,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers told reporters after the game, via the Los Angeles Times. “Lonzo was just trying to make a play. Lonzo knocked somebody into Blake. And there was a trigger effect. What can you say?”
In this case, at least, the Clippers and their fans can breathe a slight sigh of relief:
Sprained MCL for Blake Griffin, per source. Will be out a while, but Clips are relieved it wasn't worse.
— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) November 28, 2017
No structural damage in left knee with sprained MCL for Clippers All-Star Blake Griffin, league source tells ESPN. Recovery could take two months, source says.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 28, 2017
If nothing else, L.A. has avoided the worst-case scenario.
After a nine-game losing streak that already had pundits wondering whether Doc Rivers would keep his coaching job, the Clippers are now riding a three-game win streak against the lowly Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers, despite losing both Beverley and Griffin during that stretch.
The Clips (8-11) are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder at one game back from the Utah Jazz — another team battling significant injury — for eighth place in the Western Conference. So, there’s plenty of time to compete for the road playoff seed everyone suspected they could capture this year, even after trading perennial All-Star point guard Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets this summer.
While Griffin’s injury isn’t as severe as initially feared, the fact remains that if he’s out for any significant stretch, the Clippers can likely kiss another season goodbye.
Already without Teodosic and Beverley, everything flowed through Griffin offensively. The five-time All-Star was the Clippers’ leading scorer and playmaker, averaging team-highs of 23.6 points and 5.1 assists per game. He was also their second-leading rebounder, and if they found their way into the playoff hunt, Griffin’s name would surely join the league’s long list of MVP candidates this season.
The Clips still have All-Star center DeAndre Jordan, and Gallinari should be back in the mix soon enough, but you can’t plug holes left by All-Defensive and All-NBA talents with Lou Williams and rookie Sindarius Thornwell and expect to win in the loaded West. Between now and Christmas, they play eight of their 13 games on the road, including home-and-home series with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Washington Wizards and nine games in all against expected playoff contenders.
It’s a heartbreaking reminder of the past half-decade in Clippers history. After their 2014 meltdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, they lost Paul for two games to a hamstring injury in a conference semifinal loss to the Rockets that went the distance in 2015. Paul and Griffin suffered hand and quad injuries, respectively, in a first-round loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in 2016. And a toe injury cost Griffin the final four games of a first-round loss to the Utah Jazz this past spring.
You have to feel especially bad for Griffin, insofar as you can feel for a guy who just signed a five-year, $171.2 million extension. He is the rare player who embraced the possibility of being “a lifelong Clipper,” and this was finally his season to prove he could lead a reworked roster in Paul’s absence.
But Griffin can’t shake the injury bug, especially to his left leg, where a fractured kneecap cost him the first year of his NBA career and the issues have only compounded on themselves in the decade since:
Blake Griffin has suffered many injuries to his left leg over his career: sprained MCL, broken kneecap, meniscus tear, partially torn quadriceps, high ankle sprain, knee bone bruise, sprained knee, and strained hamstring. https://t.co/UU9QazcfnG
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) November 28, 2017
Now, his Clippers are at a crossroads, and there may be little Griffin can do about it. Should they fall out of the playoff race in the months leading up to the trade deadline, they have to make a decision on Jordan, who can opt into free agency come July 1 and who could fetch a hefty haul in return.
Teams were already circling like sharks and inquiring about Jordan’s availability during the Clips’ early struggles, per The Washington Post’s Tim Bontemps, and the Cleveland Cavaliers are reportedly among the teams who would be bidding for his services. Those calls will only increase given Griffin’s injury.
And then what? The Clippers are moving into next decade with Griffin and Gallinari — two guys who’ve missed a total of 441 games (more than five seasons combined) since being selected in back-to-back lotteries in 2008 and 2009 — making a combined $57 million in 2019-20. But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves. The Clippers are still hoping for the best, even as the worst always seems to come … and even when what comes isn’t the worst, it’s tough to maintain hope that what comes next will be much better.
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