Stretching the Field: Will CP3's return spoil the show?

( - Chris Paul is nearing a return for the Los Angeles Clippers and one can only guess if it will spoil team chemistry.

For how absurd that synopsis sounds, it could happen.

Those who are thrust into the spotlight after a player goes down tend to become apprehensive when that said piece of the puzzle returns, but then again the Clippers may just take flight with the league's top point guard back running the floor and make it difficult for the rest of the West.

Imagine The Beatles without Paul McCartney, The Who minus Pete Townshend or Motley Crue sans Tommy Lee. The music just flows more freely with each of them in their respective band.

Paul is the lead vocals for a Clippers band of players who fared extremely well without their top guard dishing out passes and driving the lane. Now Paul is expected to return this weekend or soon after and has been sidelined since suffering a Grade 3 AC joint separation in his right shoulder in the Clippers' 119-112 victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 3.

Los Angeles is 11-6 since the injury occurred and 12-6 overall without Paul this season. So the Clippers have proven they can win without him. L.A. is 21-15 with Paul out of the lineup as opposed to 109-59 when he plays, and fellow Clippers star Blake Griffin is looking forward to slamming more lob passes from Paul upon his return.

"You just want to add Chris into the mix with what we've built and take it from there," said Griffin, who's averaging 28.8 points per game in his last 10 and 27 ppg since Paul's injury against Dallas.

The Clippers were rolling with a 10-2 record from Jan. 6-29 and have now lost two straight and three of their last four games. Clippers coach Doc Rivers is in his first season at the helm in L.A. and gave his take on Paul's pending return to action.

"I think he's very close," Rivers said. "I don't want to give a day or anything. I don't think he'll play Friday (versus Toronto) but he could play after that. But I don't know that."

Rivers said Paul shook off some rust in 1-on-1 drills, but has yet to go a full 5-on-5. He could join a full-team practice Friday or Saturday.

Jamal Crawford has played well in Paul's absence, averaging 22.1 ppg in 17 games (four starts), and said his teammate looked "spry" and was moving very "quick." Those are common adjectives to describe Paul's game.

Another player to step up in Paul's absence is Darren Collison. The often overlooked Collison has been running the point with ease and is averaging a respectable 13.4 points and 6.5 assists over a 17-game span. Collison, of course, will head back to the bench when Paul makes his upcoming return, while the same may be true with Crawford when J.J. Redick gets healthy.

But no player has shined brighter than Griffin with his sidekick out. Miami Heat star and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade has taken notice. Wade was asked about Griffin's 43-point, 15-rebound performance in Wednesday's 116-112 Miami win.

"With Chris (Paul) being out, (Blake Griffin) has taken it upon himself to be the leader of this team," Wade said. "He's really putting his game together, playing a lot of minutes, getting the ball a lot, having to do a lot, and he's really stepping up."

Wade gave credit to the coaching prowess of Rivers, saying "as the season goes on, from the first time we played them until now, even without Chris Paul, you can see that Doc Rivers is a heck of a coach when it comes to his offensive packages." Wade is well aware of playing against a Rivers-coached team from his days battling the once-talented Boston Celtics. Wade said this could be Rivers' most talented team and that includes the 2008 champion Celtics, who had Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

Rivers now faces the possible dilemma of a chemistry issue, but that wasn't the case when Paul was healthy.

"I think what happens with any guy that sits is he sees some things and says this looks better or worse. And sees what he can do," Rivers said. "I don't think I need to tell him much. I kind of liked the way were playing before he went out."

The Clippers were one of the top teams in the Western Conference then and are still dominating despite their recent struggles. Pegged to finish in the top five out West and possibly represent the conference in the NBA Finals, the Clippers should thrive when their All-Star is ready to go.

Speaking of next weekend's All-Star Game, Paul was picked as a reserve and probably would have been a starter had he not been on the shelf. Then again, Kobe Bryant was selected as a starter for the West because of shear reputation and is doubtful to compete with a knee issue. Bryant missed the start of the season after undergoing Achilles surgery.

Los Angeles is left with two options: Insert Paul back into the lineup for a few games before the 63rd NBA All-Star Game or just let him rest until the league resumes play on Feb. 18, when the Clippers close out a five-game homestand versus the San Antonio Spurs.

With or without Paul, the Clippers have proven they can play with the league's best teams. Just having CP3 back makes them that much better.