Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
I wasn't really expecting the return of Chauncey Billups to make a big difference for an already very good Clippers team; looks like I was wrong.
Watching the Clippers playing with a rejuvenated Chauncey Billups these last few games has been eye-opening. Let's face it, Willie Green has done yeoman's work as the starter at shooting guard, regularly hitting that corner three, making 37% of this threes overall, working hard on defense, etc. After all, the Clippers won 17 straight games earlier this season, and Green was the starter in the final 14 of them. He couldn't have been too terrible, right?
Even so, we always knew that Billups would be an upgrade when (or was it if?) he was healthy enough to play. Billups would bring better three point shooting, much better ball-handling, an ability to draw fouls, and even more leadership to the team. So I knew it would be good when he was back. But this good?
The sample size is of course ridiculously small. Teeny tiny, miniscule. Billups has been back for four games, with the Clippers winning three of them. On the season, the Clippers are now 6-1 win Billups plays. And we're really referring to just two games in which Billups has been really great, scoring 40 points in just 37 minutes on 13-19 shooting with nine three pointers in the last two games. Billups was a big part of 46-28 and 31-17 first quarters the last two games. That's insane, but it's only two games, and obviously he won't shoot like this all the time.
But the more I think about it, the more I realize how good Chauncey can be on this team, and more importantly how much better the team can be with him.
If indeed I was undervaluing Billups before his return, it was probably because he was pretty underwhelming last season as a Clipper. He shot a frigid .364 from the field in 20 games (though he did make a higher percentage of his three pointers). Shooters don't always age well in the NBA, and it seemed at least possible that he was losing his shot. Coming back from an Achilles tendon at the age of 36 when the signs of decline had possibly already started to appear was perhaps asking too much.
But there's something most people fail to comprehend when comparing last season's Clippers to this season's Clippers; I know I didn't get it at first.
There's a tendency to look at the version of the Clippers that went into the 2012 playoffs and ask yourself, "where are the massive upgrades this season?" Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans were certainly limited, but what they did they did very well. Mo Williams was a terrific sixth man. Nick Young was a shot-maker who did exactly that in the playoffs. With Billups out, Green looked like a downgrade from Randy Foye while the bench didn't necessarily look that much better. So why were the Clippers suddenly a top four team?
What people forget is that the 2012 playoff Clippers were in the process being assembled throughout the regular season. Martin signed as a free agent in February after returning from playing in China. Young was acquired at the trade deadline in March. With Young in place as the backup small forward, the Clippers went 16-6 down the stretch. That's a very different team and a very different result than the February 2012 Clippers. The Clippers progression from a .600 winning percentage to a .700 winning percentage this season didn't happen all at once in July 2012. It started in February and March.
The simple fact is that the Clippers team that Billups played on last season had some major flaws. Ryan Gomes was the backup small forward. Brian Cook was the second big off the bench. In the game in which he was hurt, his final game of last season, the Clippers had Gomes, Cook, Trey Thompkins, Travis Leslie and Solomon Jones in uniform. Four those players are no longer in the league, while Thompkins hasn't suited up this season and will not if the rest of the LA roster remains healthy.
Martin was signed a few days before Billups was hurt and made his season debut in the game following the injury. Young didn't arrive for another month. Billups played on a team with no backup small forward, and one incredibly limited big off the bench.
He was hurt in the 22nd game of the season. He had missed two games to that point, and Chris Paul missed five other games. Paul and Billups were the Clippers starting backcourt in just 15 games last season, winning 11 of them. The two of them barely had a chance to play together, and that was on a team with some serious shortcomings.
This season is an entirely different situation. The Clippers are a significantly improved team both from the standpoint of talent and the standpoint of cohesion. And Billups drops right into the perfect slot on the team.
If this Clippers team has a weakness compared to last year's team, it is three point shooting. Foye, Williams and Young were all major threats from deep at playoff time. And what did the Clippers just add back into their roster? Only the the player with the fifth most three pointers made in NBA history. Because he has always been so much more than a three point specialist, I think people don't realize exactly how good a shooter Billups is. His career shooting percentage from deep is .389 -- that's better than a three point specialist like Rashard Lewis (.388). It's not much worse than Reggie Miller (.395).
With Chris Paul pulling defenders into the lane and Blake Griffin drawing double teams (not to mention the fact that both of those players are tremendous passers) the Clippers perimeter players tend to get great looks. Willie Green has made 45 threes in 51 games simply taking wide open shots -- he's not going to take any other kind, right? A knock-down three point shooter is exactly what this team needed -- and they just added one.
Billups brings much more than three point shooting too. He's still rounding into shape, and hasn't even done much penetrating so far. He's tremendous at drawing fouls over the course of his career, and of course you can never have to much playmaking on the court. Maybe I'm overreacting to a two game sample size -- I usually try not to get too excited about short term trends -- but the more I think about this, the more I realize that it actually makes perfect sense. Billups -- if he's anything close to the player he has been throughout his career -- isn't just an upgrade over Green; he makes a major difference. He fits exactly what the Clippers want to do, he's yet another coach on the floor, he can make plays and he'll basically never make a mistake.
So while the Clippers were good before the All Star break, I'm beginning to think they're going to be even better, perhaps much better, after the All Star break with the recent addition of a rejuvenated Chauncey Billups.