It’s never good to lose a starter for the season, especially when said starter is someone like Chauncey Billups, the guy who’s been a steadying influence for the Clippers all year long.
Billups is by all accounts one of the nicest guys in the NBA, and exactly the sort of veteran that works in tandem with Chris Paul to set the tone for a roster that’s otherwise full of inexperience. In that sense, losing Chauncey feels like a killer blow. But you gotta look on the bright side here.
Billups can still have an impact on the roster just sitting on the bench. He'll still be a mentor to guys like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and especially Eric Bledsoe, who's been injured most of the young season but will be counted on down the stretch once he fully recovers.
More importantly, Chauncey's been a steadying presence in L.A., but part of that just means he's harder to bench. He started because he's a veteran that everyone on the team -- including Chris Paul -- respects. But that doesn't mean he deserves the minutes. Clipper Blog hit on this note two weeks ago:
Even though he’s shooting just 33 percent from the field so far this season, Billups is firing up shots same as before. He’s regressed heavily by virtually every statistical measure this season, becoming more average than his name would believe to you be. His PER rating of 15.1 this season is barely above league average. His true shooting percentage, usually a category Billups is a league leader in, is at 52.1 percent, a hair below the league average of 52.2 percent.
Billups gets credit for his veteran savvy, but that's mostly intangible. By any objective measure, Chauncey's "savvy" in the locker room translates to a player with a star's shot selection that doesn't have a star's talent anymore. He's barely average as a starting two-guard, let alone as a starter on championship contenders. Mr. Big Shot is 3-27 on Big Shots.
But L.A. had to play him anyway. Partly because he's such a commanding presence in the locker room, of whom Chris Paul says, "He's the best guard I've ever started with in the backcourt since I've been in the NBA. I trust him with anything, and that's not just on the court. We need him, no question."
And partly because, given Billups' standing in the locker room, Vinny Del Negro would have been too spineless to cut his minutes in half and go with someone else in the fourth quarter.
It's a common problem in the NBA -- once guys become sustained stars in NBA, their teams will always see the glow of confidence and talent that made them elite, even if only one of those things is still there. This is why stars have trouble becoming role players.
With someone like Allen Iverson, this leaves them on the outside looking in. With Billups, the "good teammate, savvy veteran" reputation earned him the benefit of the doubt, and it's kept him relevant and playing big minutes for an extra three or four years. Even if the production doesn't match reputation, you can feel good putting the ball in Chauncey's hands. Chris Paul trusts him, after all. This is how coaches justify keeping him in the starting lineup.
Now, though, the Clippers get the best of both worlds. The "good teammate, savvy veteran" reputation wasn't myth; it just wasn't enough to justify playing him 30 minutes-a-game, especially during the fourth quarter, when he had a penchant for taking (and missing) the Clippers' big shots. Now, Chauncey's presence in the locker room will still pay dividends in ways you can't measure, but they can also give more minutes to Mo Williams, who's more productive offensively, and they'll be forced to be more creative with their rotations. It's basketball evolution.
If they can somehow lure J.R. Smith when he gets back from China, that's just a bonus. (A really, really entertaining bonus.) But even if they don't ... coming into the season, all eyes were on the Clippers and we all immediately saw two weaknesses: Depth up front, and Chauncey Billups' insistence on asserting himself in the fourth quarter.
Now they've addressed both, albeit in textbook, accidentally-brilliant Clippers fashion. The Clips stole Kenyon Martin from China this past weekend to shore up the front line, and Billups' injury will inadvertently force Vinny Del Negro to make the move he should've made six weeks ago.
For once, the Clippers curse is actually something like a blessing. And it's just one more strange twist as the bizarro season for the NBA's most bizarro franchise's history rolls on.