Milos Teodosic

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DeAndre Jordan at center of multiple battles

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DETROIT – DeAndre Jordan says he didn’t stress Thursday’s trade deadline, which passed with him – despite frequent rumors and maybe a close call with the Cavaliers – remaining on the Clippers.

“They were talking about trading me for three years, so I don’t really care about it anymore,” Jordan said. “If it happens, it happens.

“I just want to be somewhere I’m wanted. If it’s here, it’s here. If it’s not, then, hey, it’s a business.”

Do you feel wanted by the Clippers?

Jordan looked around for nine seconds before answering.

“What do you think?” he said.

I contemplated for a moment then answered honestly: “I don’t know.”

“Me neither,” Jordan replied immediately.

Jordan is caught in a series of clashes, the results of which will determine how he spends the rest of his prime. One is a genuine mystery. In a couple others, he’s fighting an uphill battle. The combination creates for immense uncertainty.

Clippers winning now vs. Clippers rebuilding

When the Clippers traded Blake Griffin, they said they wanted to keep winning, add young talent and increase flexibility. Cool. So does every team.

More often, teams face forks in the road where they must decide to prioritize one goal over another. That’ll almost certainly be the case with Jordan this offseason.

He holds a $24,119,025 player option. If he exercise it, all the trade considerations reemerge. If he declines it, the Clippers must determine how much to invest in someone who turns 30 this summer.

The Clippers just extended the contract of Lou Williams, who’s a couple years older than Jordan. That could indicate their thinking with Jordan.

Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic, who’ve started every game they’ve played for the Clippers, are also older than Jordan. Another starter, Danilo Gallinari, is just a couple weeks younger.

It wouldn’t be simple to pivot into a new direction without Jordan.

That’s even more true after signing Williams. Even if the Clippers let Jordan walk in free agency, they’d project to have about the mid-level exception to sign a replacement. With a re-signed Jordan, they’d have… the mid-level exception to spend on free agents. They have so much money committed to next season already, losing Jordan wouldn’t make much difference without other moves.

But commit to Jordan long-term, and his salary would be an impediment in 2019, when Tobias Harris‘, Austin Rivers‘, Boban Marjanovic‘s, Teodosic’s, Wesley Johnson‘s and Beverley’s contracts expire. (Rivers, Teodosic and Johnson have player options for next season that only complicate planning, but the bet here is all three opt in.)

This team probably tops out as a low playoff seed with Jordan. Without him, the lottery looks more probable – not an ideal outcome for a team already locked into so many veterans.

That’s why Williams’ extension appears telling. That seems to be the Clippers accepting a short-term plan, prioritizing a window that matches Jordan’s.

Then again, Williams extension could just be a value play. He’ll earn $8 million each of the next two years and has just $1.5 million of $8  million guaranteed the third year. Clippers executive Jerry West predicted Williams would have earned $11 million on the open market.

“Yeah, it’s the truth,” Williams said.

Williams said he signed for the security and comfort with his teammates. But this is the same franchise that just fawned over Griffin then traded him. The Clippers could eventually deal Williams – or significantly change the roster he wanted to stay with.

Williams said he didn’t think about the possibility of getting Griffinned, nor did he get any assurances of the team keeping Jordan. West said the Clippers also offered Jordan a contract extension, but the center denied that.

“I can’t wait around,” Williams said. “Sometimes you’ve got to make decisions for yourself, do what’s best for your family, and hopefully everything else falls into place.”

Jordan could still sign a contract extension until he opts out, but that seems like a remote possibility. He and the Clippers can’t even agree on whether an extension was offered. They’re going to agree to specific terms?

From the outside, it’s also difficult to tell who’s running the Clippers. Lawrence Frank holds the highest front-office title, but West is influential. And then there’s Doc Rivers, who remains coach after getting stripped of his presidency last summer.

Jordan’s value probably plummeted as soon as that happened.

“D.J. means a lot to me,” Rivers said.

The Clippers now look like most organizations, where there’s an implicit tug-of-war between the coach trying to win now and the front office looking toward the future. Rivers’ years of team-building and exit from the Celtics show his aversion to rebuilding. That’s why Rivers was pleased Jordan stayed with L.A. past the trade deadline.

“He’s the anchor,” Rivers said, “and it’s nice to keep your anchor around.”

But for how long?

Centers vs. small ball

The Clippers trading Griffin was treated as them losing their only star. But Jordan has made three All-NBA teams, including a first team, since Griffin’s last All-Star selection.

The catch: Jordan’s All-NBA accolades came at center, essentially a protected class in All-NBA voting.

The league decreasingly values centers like the 6-foot-11, 265-pound Jordan. Teams are too good at exploiting traditional centers’ flaws – their lack of floor-spacing offensively, their slowness defensively. These bigs generally haven’t figured out how to exert their will in small-ball matchups, especially deep in the playoffs.

Jordan is a dinosaur, on the verge of extinction.

Of players averaging 32 minutes per game, just 8% are attempting fewer than one 3-point attempt per game. That mark has never been lower since the NBA added the 3-point arc:

image

Only Jordan, Steven Adams, Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons and Taj Gibson are doing it this season.

This hardly renders Jordan worthless, but he must excel in other areas to compensate for his hindrance on floor-spacing. The resulted are mixed.

Jordan remains an elite rebounder. He has excellent size, strength, hops, coordination and timing.

But many of those same attributes also make Jordan such a strong finisher, and there’s slippage there. He’s shooting just 68% in the restricted area – good, but well down from the 74% and 75% he shot the last two years:

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Maybe that’s just a consequence of no longer playing with Chris Paul, who excelled at setting up Jordan for lobs. Or maybe Jordan has lost explosion due to aging.

Neither potential explanation bodes well for Jordan’s value.

More troublingly, Jordan look doesn’t look nearly as agile defending the perimeter. Jordan was fairly nimble for his size. But even moderate decline there could be disastrous in the modern NBA.

It’s not because Jordan is just hanging low to protect the rim, either. Jordan is also averaging less than one block per game – a disturbing and once-unthinkable stat for him.

Maybe he just need to be reinvigorated. It can be tough going from aiming for a championship to just trying to sneak into the playoffs. Jordan and Austin Rivers are the only players left from the Clippers team that peaked with a seven-game, second-round loss to the Rockets in 2015.

But this also at least resembles age-related decline.

Jordan has plummeted to 22nd among centers in real plus-minus this season – down from third, third, fourth and sixth the previous four years. There’s already a stigma around centers like him. Only the best of that player type thrive anymore.

The pendulum could swing back. Size is still helpful. It’s just that other skills matter more now. Teams always adjust.

Maybe another team believes it could maximize Jordan’s contributions. But can that team afford him?

2018 and 2019 free agents vs. salary-cap reality

Jordan was heavily (and infamously) recruited during 2015 free agency. He has since produced the best seasons of his career.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Jordan expects even stronger courting next summer, especially considering the salary cap skyrocketed in 2016.

But teams are still burdened by long-term contracts signed that year, and the cap is only trickling up now. Free agents face harsh conditions the next two summers. Only a handful of teams project to have max cap space.

That’s especially tough on Jordan, who’d otherwise be in line to sign his last huge contract.

He ought to seriously consider opting in. He might not draw $24,119,025 next season if he opts out, though he might. It takes only team to value him that much. Or maybe he gets enough long-term security to outweigh a salary reduction next season.

His new agent, Jeff Schwartz, will have his work cut out assessing the market. Remember, Jordan must decide his player option before free agency even begins.

Teams can always trade to clear cap space, but will anyone be motivated to do that for Jordan, a traditional center in this league? His best bet to getting paid was ending the season with a team that values his Bird Rights. That way cap space wouldn’t be a concern.

Jordan will end the season with the Clippers. Are they that team?

Back to the original question: I don’t know.

Joel Embiid and Lonzo Ball headline Rising Stars rosters, but only one should

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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Joel Embiid is keenly aware people will eventually grow tired of him.

This oversaturation will contribute.

In his second season with the 76ers, Embiid is a – deserving – All-Star starter. He’s a very good player and a known commodity. He’ll be celebrated during the main even of All-Star weekend Sunday.

And also in a sideshow Friday.

The NBA released rosters for the Rising Stars Challenge, with rookies and sophomores divided into teams by nationality:

U.S.

World

NBA release:

The NBA’s assistant coaches chose the rosters … with each of the league’s 30 teams submitting one ballot per coaching staff.  Coaches selected four guards, four frontcourt players and two players at either position group for each team.  They also picked a minimum of three first-year NBA players and three second-year NBA players for each team.

The head coaches for the…Rising Stars will be the lead assistant coaches from the 2018 NBA All-Star Game coaching staffs.

I renew my annual plea to exclude sophomores. They’re too established to draw interest in this exhibition simply by playing, and, for the same reason, they don’t care enough to compete entertainingly.

There’s still mystery about many rookies barely more than halfway into their first season, and that would draw interest. People would prefer to see more of players like De'Aaron Fox, Milos Teodosic, Jonathan Isaac, Bam Adebayo, Jordan Bell and Josh Jackson – who all got squeezed out for second-year players.

My dismay with the format is even stronger this year, with such an impressive rookie class. It’s a wasted opportunity for the league.

But if you want to see Embiid care even less than he will during the All-Star game, tune in Feb. 16.

Report: Clippers haven’t received any tempting offers for DeAndre Jordan

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A couple months ago, the Clippers had lost nine straight to fall out of the playoff picture. Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic were injured. Extension talks with DeAndre Jordan stalled.

So, teams were inquiring about trading for Jordan.

Apparently, none have made serious inroads.

Marc Stein of The York Times:

The league is oversaturated with centers. Almost everyone who used to be a power forward/center is now exclusively a center, and many former power forwards are now centers. Heck, some players who would have previously been viewed as small forwards now play center regularly.

Jordan is a good player, but not one teams are eager to break the bank for. Not in this era.

I also suspect the Clippers’ asking price has risen as they have turned around their season. They’re 23-22 and eighth in the Western Conference. It’s no longer quite as logical to get whatever possible for Jordan before he becomes a free agent. There’s value in keeping him for the rest of the season, winning as much as possible then figuring out Jordan’s player option/potential free agency next summer. Even just a playoff appearance could be satisfying in this post-Chris Paul era, and Jordan is essential to that pursuit.

NBA Power Rankings: Minnesota into top 3, Miami into top 10

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It should be a shock to nobody that Golden State and Boston remain locked in the top two slots, but after that things get interesting. Minnesota is finally defending and is up to No. 3, Miami has pushed its way into the top 10, and a disinterested Cavaliers team (which has some real flaws, too) has fallen to 12th.

Warriors small icon 1. Warriors (36-9 Last Week No. 1). The Warriors have now won 13 in a row with Stephen Curry in the lineup, and 13 in a row on the road. That includes wins this past week in Toronto (up by 27 at one point) and in Cleveland showed the gap between the best in the East and the top of the West. If you’re looking for something to point to as a flaw, the famed “death” lineup hasn’t played much or terribly well. Not that it’s mattered.

Celtics small icon 2. Celtics (34-11, LW 2). Boston is now 1-0 in London and on a 7-game winning streak — a run that includes wins over the Rockets, Cavaliers, and the Timberwolves. The amazing thing during this win streak is the offense has been an unimpressive 27th in the NBA, it’s just that their defense has been so dominant it has not mattered. That may raise questions come the playoffs, but in the regular season the Celtics keep on rolling.

3. Timberwolves (29-17, LW 4). Jimmy Butler has moved into the broad MVP conversation, averaging 21 points a game on 53.1% shooting in the last five Timberwolves wins, and he’s hitting 64.3% from three in those contests, with 6.2 assists and rebounds per game. Tuesday night’s unimpressive loss in Orlando was the first of 7-of-9 on the road, a test for the improving Timberwolves. One of those tests is Thursday’s game against the Rockets, which becomes far more fun to watch if Harden returns.

Raptors small icon 4. Raptors (29-13, LW 3). The comeback against the Warriors — from 27 down to make it a game late — without Kyle Lowry was impressive. However, a blowout win over the Cavaliers was the bigger deal, giving the Raptors some confidence as they look ahead to potential postseason matchups (and they did it without Lowry or Serge Ibaka). More than the improved offense, having rookie OG Anunoby doing a credible job defending LeBron James is crucial, allowing other guys to stay home on shooters. Toronto should have hope.

Rockets small icon 5. Rockets (30-12, LW 5). As good as Chris Paul is at knowing back tunnels and instigating trouble in the Clippers locker room, on the court the Rockets need James Harden — they have gone 4-3 without him (hamstring issue). Harden could return as early as Thursday night in a big televised game against Minnesota. Saturday night comes a nationally televised showdown with the Warriors and you know The Beard wants to suit up for that.

Spurs small icon 6. Spurs (29-16, LW 6). Just when you thought the Spurs would get healthy, Kawhi Leonard is out again with his quad issue. At least Rudy Gay should be back soon. The Spurs are where they are because of the second best defense in the NBA this season, then getting enough offense when they need it (13th in the league), mostly in the half court (Spurs are 28th in NBA in percentage of points in transition). If they can get healthy the offense should improve.

Wizards small icon 7. Wizards (25-19, LW 7). Washington’s offense has been good this season — 11th in the NBA overall, seventh in the league in percentage of their points in transition — but they have struggled to get to the rim. Only 31% of the Wizards shots are at the rim, 26th in the NBA (for comparison, the Lakers and Grizzlies get more than 40% of their shots there). Washington finishes well when it does get to the rim, shooting 65.5% (7th in the league) but instead they take more midrange shots (41% of shot attempts) which is less efficient. The Wizards could use to get to the rim for shots and to draw fouls more often.

Thunder small icon 8. Thunder (24-20 LW 8).. The Thunder starting five when healthy — Steven Adams, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Andre Roberson (out right now), and Russell Westbrook — have outscored teams by 11.3 points per 100 possessions. Start to dip into that bench and things get worse — sub Terrence Ferguson in for Roberson and the lineup is -9.1 per 100. Coach Billy Donovan is throwing a lot of different bench lineups against the wall trying to find something that sticks right now.

Heat small icon 9. Heat (25-18, LW 12). Miami’s loss to Chicago Monday was the first game of 9-of-11 on the road — a real test for the Heat, who had won 7 in a row before that (but only the last one by double digits). A test because the Heat have a negative point differential (outscored by 32 points this season), and that tends to catch up with teams. Part of the recent rise of Miami is that rookie Bam Adebayo is making a real contribution to the team nightly, he was a real find in the draft.

Bucks small icon 10. Bucks (23-20 LW 11). Just how big a threat is Milwaukee come the playoffs? We don’t know. Not just because it’s early, but we don’t yet know: 1) What this team looks like with Jabari Parker in the lineup (that’s a month away); 2) What moves the Bucks may make at the trade deadline. They have been one of the more aggressive teams in talks, but to land someone like DeAndre Jordan would require sending Parker out, and that doesn’t seem likely. This is a good team, but how dangerous remains to be seen.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (24-20, LW 17). If there’s one end-of-season award that seems a lock, it’s Victor Oladipo winning Most Improved Player. He played a major role in the 22-point comeback the Pacers had to beat the Cavaliers this past week as the Pacers went 3-1 on a homestand. Now they head out on the road with tough games at Portland and San Antonio this week.

Cavaliers small icon 12. Cavaliers (26-17 LW 7). Losers of four in a row (all against good teams), including the one game they really got up and focused on in Golden State. The Cavaliers need to do something at the trade deadline up upgrade (both for Warriors and ensure getting out of the East) but the options are not great in a tight trade market: DeAndre Jordan would help, as would Nikola Mitotic in a different way. The shooting of Evan Fournier could help. But if the Cavs will not give up the Nets pick (I hear they will not) then how good a player can they really land?

Pelicans small icon 13. Pelicans (23-20, LW 15). Anthony Davis, already a name floating around the second tier of the MVP race, has been flat out dominant the past week, dropping 48 in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, then turning around and putting up 45 in the Boston Garden Tuesday. However, under the radar in those games Jrue Holiday has been fantastic with his defense and knocking down midrange shots. The Pelicans enter a soft week in the schedule, they need to add wins to pad their playoff slot.

Clippers small icon 14. Clippers (22-21 LW 18). The Clippers — despite no Chris Paul and a rash of injuries to key players such as Blake Griffin, Patrick Beverley, and Danilo Gallinari — are just half a game out of the playoffs as of today in the crowded back end of the West. Insane. Doc Rivers deserves some Coach of the Year consideration. ESPN’s Kevin Pelton had a stat that shows just how much health matters to this team: The Clippers are 12-4 and plus-9.2 per 100 possessions when Milos Teodosic plays and 10-17 with a minus-4.3 differential when he is out.

Sixers small icon 15. 76ers (20-20, LW 14). J.J. Redick is out for a couple of weeks with a leg injury and that’s a concern because the Sixers offense is 7.8 points per 100 possessions worse when the sharpshooter is not on the court. Tough stretch for Philly coming up without Redick, with a game at Boston Thursday starting 7-of-10 on the road — Philly is a game out of the playoffs as that stretch starts, they have to stay in touch with Detroit and Milwaukee to keep the dream of the postseason alive.

Pistons small icon 16. Pistons (22-20, LW 16). The Pistons have been one of the more active teams seeking a trade as the deadline approaches — Stan Van Gunny wants to win now (or at least win more). With Andre Drummond in the fold they won’t want DeAndre Jordan, but wing depth and scoring — Tyreke Evans, Lou Williams — would be a priority, the question is will Van Gundy pay the price to get those guys? After a tough game vs. Toronto Wednesday, the Pistons have 13-of-15 at home.

Blazers small icon 17. Trail Blazers (23-21, LW 13). The good news, Portland has finally found its missing offense — they have averaged 110.1 points per 100 possessions over their last 10 games. The bad news, their stout defense for most of the season went away in that same stretch, giving up 111.8 per 100 (so the Blazers are 5-5 in that stretch). Starting next Monday in Denver (a key game in a tight playoff race) Portland has 7-of-10 on the road.

Nuggets small icon 18. Nuggets (23-21, LW 10). Nikola Jokic snapped out of his recent scoring slump to drop 29 points (with 18 boards and 7 assists) on the Mavericks Tuesday. Denver needs more of that, as it is in the middle of the brutally tight back end of the Western Conference (1.5 games separates the 5 seed Thunder and the 9 seed Clippers). Along those lines, the Nuggets game at the Clippers’ Wednesday feels important.

Knicks small icon 19. Knicks (20-24, LW 19). Tim Hardaway Jr. is back healthy and in the rotation, and they needed him. The Knicks are 5-15 away from home and Monday’s win at Brooklyn was the first of 7 in a row and 9-of-10 away from Madison Square Garden. The Knicks are currently three games out of the playoffs and if they don’t do well on this upcoming road test they could be out of the race by the time Justin Timberlake is dancing on the halftime stage at the Super Bowl.

Bulls small icon 20. Bulls (17-27 LW 22).. Zach LaVine is finally healthy and made his debut as a member of the Bulls over the weekend — and he has looked good. He has 32 points in two games, but more importantly looks comfortable and quick attacking the basket — his athleticism has always been the key to his game and he seems to have a lot of that back. The Bulls face the Warriors Wednesday then head out for three on the road — it’s a tough week.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (17-25, LW 20). Steve Clifford is back on the sidelines, and that’s a very good thing. But over the next few weeks the Hornets have some big-picture decisions to make about this team (which is 5 games out of the playoffs) — is it time to trade Kemba Walker and start a rebuild? This team simply isn’t as good as ownership imagined, and there’s no clear path to being more than just a 7/8 seed if things go right in future years. Blowing it up in a small market where the team has struggled is no easy call, but the Hornets need to at least consider it from a basketball perspective.

Jazz small icon 22. Jazz (17-26, LW 23). Thabo Sefolosha is now out for the rest of the season with knee surgery, and Rudy Gobert will be out at least another week. Utah is one of the leading suitors for Nicola Mirotic and they also are shopping around Derrick Favors (Cleveland may be interested), a Mirotic/Favors trade will work but the Bulls want a first-round pick in the deal. Is Utah willing to throw that in? Expect some Utah movement at the trade deadline.

Mavericks small icon 23. Mavericks (15-30 LW 25). Dennis Smith Jr. has shown promise at the point and has taken over at the end of the last two big Dallas comebacks (they fell short in those games, but you have to like what you see in Smith). There is some buzz that Dallas will go hard at DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season, and that sounds like a very Mark Cuban move. If New Orleans comes in big it may be hard to pry Boogie out of the Big Easy, but him and another high draft pick (Dallas would enter the lottery fifth right now) likely has the Mavs back in the playoffs in a year.

Nets small icon 24. Nets (16-28, LW 21). We could see the return of D’Angelo Russell this week, which is good for the Nets evaluation process, but what will it do to the minutes of Spencer Dinwiddie, who has become a really fun player to watch. So have the Nets as a whole — they are scrappy, and they keep games close with their effort. Then at the end of games Dinwiddie tries to take over and… he’s not exactly efficient, but he’ll hit the occasional game winner (ask the Hawks).

Grizzlies small icon 25. Grizzlies (14-28, LW 26). Marc Gasol isn’t going anywhere at the trade deadline, but Tyreke Evans may very well be on the move. He has established himself as a quality bucket getter again averaging 19.6 points per game and shooting 40.6% from three. (He’d be in the Sixth Man of the Year running except he’s started more than half the team’s games.) Evans is on a steal of a contract (one-year, $3.3 million) and the Grizzlies will not have the cap space to re-sign him next summer, so they should get some value for him while they can.

Lakers small icon 26. Lakers (15-28 LW 27). Lonzo Ball is incredibly good at tuning out the noise of his father, if only everyone else around the Lakers could do that. I will add people outside that locker room care a lot more about what LaVar does and says than people inside it. The Lakers had a four-game win streak (including over the Spurs) and Brandon Ingram continues to make strides as a guy who can just score the rock.

Suns small icon 27. Suns (16-29, LW 24). I like the job Jay Triano has done as coach, but is it enough to keep his job next summer? The Suns play fast — they get the fifth highest percentage of their offensive chances out of transition in the league (16.6%). The problem is they are one of the worst teams in the league at scoring in transition. Part of that is they don’t finish well at the rim — Phoenix is shooting 58.7% inside four feet this season, second worst in the NBA.

Hawks small icon 28. Hawks (12-31, LW 29). Dewayne Dedmon returned to the rotation last week, but at this point in the season isn’t it time to just turn John Collins loose? He has the highest PER of any rookie in the league, but Mike Budenholzer is bringing him along slowly off the bench at 22 minutes a night. Collins has been fantastic, time to unleash him on the NBA and let him learn a couple hard lessons along the way.

Kings small icon 29. Kings (13-30, LW 28). Coach Dave Joerger made it official, the Kings are going to play their youth heavily and keep veterans such as Zach Randolph, George Hill, and Vince Carter in smaller roles. This is the smart thing to do for player development, it’s also the smart thing to do because the Kings have their first-round pick this season (not next season) and this draft has some big talent at the top. Call it tanking if you want, the Kings weren’t winning with their vets, might as well get the young guys more rune.

Magic small icon 30. Magic (13-31, LW 30). It feels like a major roster shakeup is coming to Orlando, and that could start at the trade deadline as just about everyone on the roster is available. Evan Fournier is the kind of shooter and all around player a lot of teams could use, but the combination of his contract (three-years, $51 million after this season still) and what the Magic will want back means a deal may could be hard to put together in a tight market. Teams are hesitant to take on salary.

Rockets’ Chris Paul will miss reunion game vs. Clippers

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HOUSTON  (AP) — Chris Paul‘s highly anticipated meeting with his former Los Angeles Clippers teammates will have to wait.

The former Clippers star will not be in uniform Friday when his new team, the Houston Rockets, host the Clippers at Toyota Center. Paul sustained a strained left adductor against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday and was ruled out for the Friday game.

The Rockets also are expected to again be without Luc Mbah a Moute (dislocated shoulder) and Clint Capela (bruised heel), leaving them short-handed against a Clippers club that is without Blake Griffin (sprained knee), Danilo Gallinari (torn glute) and Patrick Beverley (knee surgery).

This is Paul’s second injury this season. He missed a month with a knee injury sustained in the opener.

Paul has averaged 17.1 points, 9.0 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals in 16 games — the first 15 of them wins before a 122-116 loss to the Lakers on Wednesday. His next chance to face his old team comes Jan. 15 in Los Angeles.

Before losing to the Lakers, the Rockets (25-5) had won 14 consecutive games. But they have missed their injured players.

Houston kept on winning even as the defense began to lag — until Wednesday night when, hamstrung by the absences of Mbah a Moute and Capela and the loss of Paul, the defense collapsed fully.

What the Lakers managed in their victory was a scoring display that proved the Rockets aren’t quite where they were defensively.

“It’s always a concern on defense. Even when we win, it’s still a concern on defense,” Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said. “So, that’s always something that we talk about, even on nights where it may look good and we win by 20. Our defense still may not be that good, so that’s something we always address whether we win or lose.”

The Rockets’ 14-game winning streak masked their defensive warts. Over the past seven games, Houston has posted a defensive rating of 109.4, a mark that ranks just 24th in the NBA in that span. Mbah a Moute, a versatile perimeter defender, has missed four of those games while Capela, the Rockets’ best rim protector, sat Wednesday for the second time in three games. Their absences matter.

The Rockets have slipped into the habit of relying on their elite offense to bail them out of early deficits instead of defending with vigor from the opening tip. With a short-handed roster, Houston must mask its injuries with consistent commitment on defense.

“We’ve got to pick up our intensity at the beginning and get through this little stretch of a lot of games in a row with people out,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after the Wednesday game. “It’s a loss. We’ll take it and start another streak on Friday.”

The Clippers (12-18) snapped a three-game skid with a 108-95 win over the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night. They improved to 5-2 with Milos Teodosic, who recorded a season-high eight assists in the victory, in their lineup. However, the Clippers’ injury woes are not completely behind them.

Gallinari went back on the shelf and is expected to be sidelined for at least two weeks. He has played in just 11 games this season. Gallinari reclaimed a seat on the bench alongside guard Beverley, who is out for the season, and Griffin, who has missed 11 games with a sprained left MCL.

“If anybody is used to it, it’s our team,” Clippers guard Austin Rivers said of the injuries. “We don’t even look to see who’s playing; we just go play. I don’t even know who’s playing until we’re out (on the court) and we do a lineup and it’s like, ‘Who’s out here with me tonight?’ That’s just the situation that it is. Once you stop paying attention to it and just focus on hooping, it’s just easier.”