ORLANDO, Fla. -- On paper, depth hasn't been an issue for the Los Angeles Clippers.
The problem for the Clippers this season is their projected depth chart has never been healthy. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has had to cross out at least one key name before every game this season. On Monday he was forced to cross out three-fifths of his starting lineup.
Chris Paul has missed 11 games this season with a bruised right kneecap. Chauncey Billups has been able to play only three games this season because of peroneal tendinitis in his left foot. And on Monday, Blake Griffin missed his first start in 197 games with a strained left hamstring; he is listed as day to day.
After jumping out to a 32-9 record at the midpoint of the season, tied for the best record in the league, the Clippers have lost seven of their last nine games and now have the fourth-best record in the league, just two games above Memphis for the third best in the West.
Things don’t get any easier for the Clippers, with road games against Orlando, Miami, New York and Philadelphia looming. If the Clippers don’t turn things around quick, they might find themselves in the unthinkable position of trailing the Golden State Warriors in the Pacific Division at the All-Star break.
“It’s frustrating, because we are giving back a lot of what we built up in the beginning of the season,” Del Negro told reporters after Monday's game. “But you can’t control the injuries, you can’t control the schedule, you can’t control so many guys being out. But we can’t use that as an excuse. We have to play the game, we have to play hard, and we have to try to give some guys some minutes who usually don’t have that many.”
The Clippers' depth is only effective when used in moderation and is at its best when used to complement the starters. In other words, Eric Bledsoe is one of the most efficient point guards in basketball when he’s playing 18 minutes a game, giving Paul a breather and helping the Clippers turn a two-point lead into a 10-point lead. He is also more than capable of starting in place of Paul for three games, as he did earlier this season on the road, leading the Clippers to a 3-0 record and beating Memphis, Houston and Minnesota by an average margin of 14.6 points.
Where starting Bledsoe (as well as Willie Green and Lamar Odom) becomes a problem is when you have to lean on them for an extended period of time. Not only does the starting unit take a hit, but that once-vaunted second unit is almost nonexistent now with so many role players playing starter’s minutes.
“We’ve got strong character guys in here, guys who have been through things,” Odom, who started in place of Griffin on Monday, told reporters after the loss. “Our lack of experiences isn’t our problem, but our time together has been short. We’ll learn.”
One of the biggest problems for the Clippers without Paul and Billups in the backcourt has been turnovers. In the last two games alone the Clippers have turned the ball over 41 times and amazingly still had a chance to win both games in the fourth quarter. You have to imagine having Paul and Billups handling the ball instead of Bledsoe and Green will cut those turnover numbers in half.
“Everybody has to step up a little bit more,” DeAndre Jordan told reporters Monday. “I think, honestly, we’ve done a pretty good job of guys having to step in. Eric Bledsoe is playing crazy minutes, and he’s not really used to that. He’s learning to be a starting point guard. ... These guys are just out for a limited period of time. So we just have to adjust while they’re gone, and guys will come back healthy. It’s a long race, so we’ll be all right.”
While trade rumors may swirl around the Clippers heading into the Feb. 21 trade deadline, most of the players believe this group will stay intact and get a chance to show how good they are when they are back at full strength, perhaps as early as this week.
“I refuse to get too low,” Jamal Crawford told reporters Monday. “I didn’t get too high when we won 17 games, and I won’t get too low now; it’s just part of the process.”