When Caron Butler broke his hand in Game 1 of the first round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, it was clearly a blow to the Clippers post season chances. However, in the euphoria of the greatest fourth quarter comeback in NBA playoff history, a comeback in which Butler's backup Nick Young featured prominently, the initial blow was more or less glossed over. The Clippers have Young and a stable of guards that all seem to need minutes. Maybe they could withstand Butler's loss by going small. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal.
Turns out, it's a big deal. Unfortunately, Game 2 proved to be a difficult one for gauging exactly how big a deal, since three more Clippers, including Young, suffered injuries that limited their minutes and effectiveness on Wednesday. Hopefully all three of them will be back for Game 3 (Young and Eric Bledsoe each practiced on Friday while Mo Williams did not), but even with those rotation players available, the Clippers have an issue.
Without them at full strength on Wednesday, Bobby Simmons played 22 minutes, including the last four crunch time minutes. Simmons acquitted himself well, but suffice it to say that it was not part of Vinny Del Negro's plan to have a guy who was playing for the Reno Bighorns in February on the court in a tight playoff game.
If you sort the Clippers regular season statistics by minutes per game, it's no surprise that Chris Paul and Blake Griffin come out neck and neck at the first two spots. Who is next on that list? Chauncey Billups, who was lost for the season on February 6 with a torn Achilles tendon. And just behind Billups would be Butler.
It's been an eventful season, and sometimes it's difficult to remember just how bad the Clippers bench was back in December. Before Reggie Evans was healthy, the front court reserves were Brian Cook, Ryan Gomes and Trey Thompkins. Slowly but surely, even after Billups went down moving Randy Foye into the starting rotation, useful players were added to the depth chart. Kenyon Martin was signed, Eric Bledsoe returned from knee surgery, Simmons was signed, and then there was the trade deadline acquisition of Young. At this point, the Clippers second unit is not bad -- it has its charms, shall we say.
But there's a very basic problem with every available member of the roster beyond Paul and Griffin: they all have a significant weakness. I'm not referring to the "Nobody's perfect" realm where we clearly know that Blake needs to improve his foul shooting or Paul sometimes defers too much. I mean, pretty much every player on the Clippers other than the two stars is either an offensive liability or a defensive liability. Not just that they're not particularly good, but that they have some terrible, glaring shortcoming.
For guys like Mo Williams and Nick Young and to some extent Randy Foye, it's simply size that is the problem. With Paul and Bledsoe using all the minutes at point guard, Williams is forced to defend the two. He's not a great defender to begin with, but he's also giving away size. Same for Young. It's hard to remember at this point, even though it was only seven weeks ago, but the trade for Young was made, as much as anything, to give the Clippers a bigger option in the backcourt. But with Bledsoe, Foye and Williams all needing minutes at the guard spots, Young has found most of his playing time at small forward, and now with Butler gone he'll be forced to play there exclusively. Against a long 6'8" specimen like Rudy Gay, it's a lot to ask of the frail, 6'6" Young. Gay won't have games like he had Wednesday every night, but Young is clearly going to be physically outmatched at the three spot most nights.
Evans is a great rebounder and solid defender, but a cipher on offense. Martin is the Clippers best on ball defender, but little better than Evans as a scorer. Bledsoe is a terrific ball hawk, but can't stretch the floor. The list goes on.
Butler wasn't great, but he was adequate on both ends of the floor. He could remain in the game, because he didn't kill the Clippers on either offense or defense. The same was true of Billups, it should be noted.
Without them, Vinny Del Negro has a difficult choice. He clearly can't afford to give Griffin and Paul much rest, and indeed he has not. Paul has played 78 of a possible 96 minutes in the series, and Griffin has played 77. The next busiest Clipper has been DeAndre Jordan at just 51 minutes, barely over half the time. But when they're both out of the game, as they were at the beginning of the second quarter Wednesday night, the Clippers struggle. Unless the second unit is getting steals, it's up to Williams or Young to make a tough shot, or the team just won't score.
Butler helped alleviate that to some extent but now he's gone. In the first game without him (again, partly because of the additional injuries suffered in game) Del Negro was casting about for viable combinations. He started Simmons in an attempt to keep the rotation as normal as possible, and while Simmons played well, even the 18 minutes he was going to get before the injuries started mounting was going to be too much. He tried Evans, Griffin and Martin together for extended minutes in the fourth quarter, a group that can play good defense even on threes, but just doesn't have enough shooting to give Griffin room to operate in the post.
Butler saw a hand specialist in L.A. in the hopes of finding a way to return sooner than the 4-6 weeks originally estimated, and the report was good as the Clippers are now saying he could play in Game 3. But don't get your hopes up. To me, it seems the odds of him being effective against Memphis, even if he plays, are slim. Game 2 is not a good representation of what Del Negro can do with a Butler-less roster, since he was also missing so many other players. But over the remainder of the games, the manner in which the Clippers deal with the loss of Caron Butler, and how effective they can be in his absence, will absolutely be keys to this series.