The NBA playoffs are being ruined by injuries.
First it was Utah big man Rudy Gobert going down with a left knee injury that has kept him out of the Jazz’s first round series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Then the Chicago Bulls announced that point guard Rajon Rondo had a thumb injury that would put a halt to his renaissance story against the Boston Celtics.
But the worst one yet came on Saturday morning, when the Clippers announced that forward Blake Griffin is out for the entire postseason with an injury to the plantar plate of his right big toe. The five-time All-Star suffered the injury in Friday night’s game against the Jazz that gave the Clippers a 2-1 series lead.
And just like that, with the Clippers already facing so much scrutiny because Griffin, point guard Chris Paul and shooting guard J.J. Redick are set to be free agents this summer, their hopes of shocking the basketball world by winning a title with this core are dashed.
It was a year ago that Griffin and Paul both suffered season-ending injuries four games into a first-round playoff series against Portland. Then and now, the Clippers had a wave of momentum at the right time only to see it all come to a stunning end.
The Clippers were rolling when it mattered most, having survived significant regular season injuries to Griffin (right knee surgery cost him 18 games) and Paul (a thumb injury sidelined him for five weeks) to win 11 of their last 13 regular season games and finish fourth in the loaded Western Conference (51-31). It was enough to leave Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers feeling good about the idea that maybe, just maybe, this was their year. What’s more, it was enough to remind him why he didn’t have any desire to break up this talented bunch.
“Let’s say we don’t win this year — which I think we will, (but) let’s say we don’t,” Rivers, whose team has the NBA’s third-best regular season winning percentage since he came to town from Boston in 2013, told USA TODAY Sports heading into the playoffs. “Do you give up on a 50-win team that has proven that they’re really close (to winning it all), or do you hang in there and keep trying to maybe make changes around (the core)?
“I always use Utah as a great (example). Thank God Karl Malone and (John) Stockton didn’t listen to people, you know what I mean? They fell (in the playoffs), and kept trying and kept trying. And finally, late in their careers, they finally broke through to the Finals. They didn’t win it (all). But you know, that’s the pursuit. I just think it’s so easy to (say), ‘Hey, they should break up,’ from the outside. And I think that’s such an easy opinion.”
Nonetheless, the possibility remains that Griffin has played his last game for the Clippers.
While Rivers made his stance known when it comes to the looming free agency for Griffin, Paul, and Redick, it’s Clippers owner Steve Ballmer who would have to cut that enormous check to bring them all back. Based on projections that are known to be in line with the Clippers’ analysis, the payroll would be approximately $196 million if they re-signed the three free agents and added five players on minimum salary contracts to fill out the roster ($56 million of which would come from luxury tax). In that scenario, Paul and Griffin would both get the maximum-salary deals that they’re expected to receive and Redick’s deal would start at approximately $18 million annually.
Only Ballmer knows if it’s a price he’s willing to play.
Even if the Clippers survive this series against Utah, the prospect of them beating Golden State in the second round without Griffin is dim (assuming, of course, that the Warriors finish the job against Portland in the series that they lead 2-0). Add that to all the other postseason failings, with these Clippers still unable to reach the conference finals since their core came together when they traded with New Orleans for Paul in 2011, and Ballmer’s vision may be entirely different from that of Rivers.
Griffin, who averaged 21.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists in 61 games this season, is a tremendous talent when he’s healthy. But the injury history, and the possible impact it might have on how the Clippers see his future, is impossible to ignore.
Last season, he suffered a quadriceps injury that cost him significant time early on only to make matters worse by breaking his hand in a dinner-in-Toronto fight with the then-assistant equipment manager of the team. In all, Griffin played just 35 regular season games and returned in time for the playoffs.
Fair or not, these are the sorts of developments that sometimes change the course of a player’s career. Yet those are questions that will be answered when free agency arrives in July. For now, the Clippers and every other team that has taken an unforeseen hit on the health front will simply try to forge on with a little less.