Beginning his second season with the Los Angeles Clippers, let's take a moment to remember the oft-forgotten man, Willie Green. The Clippers picked up Green last July 30 in an inexpensive sign-and-trade with the Hawks that cost L.A. the rights to Sofoklis Schortsianitis, aka My Big Fat Greek Center. And since MBFGC has long since fallen out of the team's future plans, it really cost them nothing.
Green had been a teammate of Chris Paul's in New Orleans, and the deal looked like one of those GM-CP3 things, Paul running the team, filling the roster with familiar faces. Green was 11th on the team in salary (making a smidge more than the NBA minimum, less than the amnestied Ryan Gomes) and either fifth or sixth on the backcourt depth chart in training camp, not expected to play much.
In fact, he was the opening day starter as the Clippers awaited the return of Chauncey Billups, and he started 60 of 82 games for the team. He was the starter in 14 games of the Clippers 17 franchise-record 17 game winning streak. Of the 22 games he didn't start, he didn't even appear in 10 of them -- and was reduced to garbage time minutes in the most of the others.
By leap-frogging from third string to starter, Green allowed coach Vinny Del Negro to keep Jamal Crawford in his preferred sixth man role where he is so devastatingly effective. So Green stayed ready. He was the starter throughout November -- then moved to the end of the bench a month into the season when Billups returned. When Billups was injured again three games later, Green stepped right back into the starting lineup.
And all he did as a starter was shoot 46% from the field, 43% on his three pointers, while playing solid defense. He was absolutely deadly on corner threes all season long, among the best in the entire NBA. He never took a bad shot, rarely turned the ball over, just didn't make mistakes. And he'd even surprise us from time to time with a monster jam, joining in the Lob City fun.
As the regular season was winding down with Billups rehabbing yet another injury, the idea of sticking Billups back into the starting lineup for the playoffs became increasingly worrisome to me. After all, Green had been the starter for three fourths of the season, and the Clippers had played very well with him out there. Still, given Billups stature and reputation (and knowing that Del Negro was unlikely to confront that reputation head on) it was clear that he'd be out there if he was healthy enough. Sure enough, Billups was the starter against the Grizzlies -- and it was a disaster as he shot poorly and was thoroughly outplayed by Tony Allen. Could Green have done better? We can't know for certain, but he could hardly have done worse.
The Clippers picked up Green's option this summer -- and given what a bargain he was last year, it's no wonder. But even with Billups gone and Grant Hill and Caron Butler out of the wing rotation as well, Green once again entered training camp pretty far down the depth chart. The Clippers added J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley and Darren Collison, while drafting Reggie Bullock and re-signing Matt Barnes -- all with Crawford still in the mix. Pretty much all of those guys can play in the backcourt, once again pushing Green to the end of the bench.
Yet in the first pre-season game of the season, it was Green who played by far the most minutes. With Redick resting a sore leg, Green stepped into the starting two guard spot as he did 60 times last season. Then when it was time to bring in the second unit, Green stayed on the floor and shifted over to small forward with both Barnes and Bullock sitting out with injuries. All by himself, Green allowed Doc Rivers to keep his first and second units as close to their true makeup as possible despite some key missing pieces. Green is the NBA equivalent of the utility infielder in baseball -- he will play any perimeter position and do a yeoman's job. Was he overmatched defending Nicolas Batum last night, giving away five inches in height and even more in reach? Sure, but he did his best and battled -- in a meaningless pre-season game.
If the Clippers decide to enter the season with just two point guards, Chris Paul and Collison, it will be in part because they know that Green can run the point in a pinch. If the roster is fully healthy, Green will not get off the bench; but Rivers can trust him to play hard and play well in any one of three positions if he needs him.
Green played almost 35 minutes last night -- ten minutes more than any other Clipper. He finished with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists, making five of eight shots. After the game, Rivers paid him the ultimate compliment for a veteran role player: "He's a valuable player to have on your team on the floor. His value is huge off the floor, too, because he just does his job every day. If he plays 40 minutes, he plays them well. If he plays zero minutes, he's a very good teammate."
The Clippers are justifiably excited about the prospect of Redick starting at the two this season. The perimeter players on the roster go two deep in starter quality, with second stringers Collison, Crawford and Barnes forming probably the best perimeter second unit in the NBA. All of which leaves no playing time for Green under normal circumstances. But when the inevitable injuries and other factors come up and force Rivers out of his normal rotation, you can rest assured that Willie Green will be ready to step in and do his job and do it well.