Chauncey Billups of the Los Angeles Clippers will play NBA basketball tonight for the first time in nearly 10 months. Billups return comes at a crucial juncture for the Clippers with the team in the throes of a four game losing streak. Will the return of Mr. Big Shot, a locker room leader and former NBA champion, be the remedy for the team's current ills?
When Billups ruptured his Achilles tendon last February it was reasonable to ask if he'd ever play again. At the age of 35 (he turned 36 a couple of months ago), would he be willing to put in the work to return from a major injury? Would he be able to? There's essentially no precedent for it -- I am unaware of any player Billups' age returning to play after Achilles surgery. Besides, hadn't Billups openly threatened to retire when the New York Knicks used the amnesty clause to waive him in December 2011, just three months earlier?
But Billups maintained from the moment he was hurt that he was going to play again and it would seem that he will make good on that promise tonight. Lukewarm at first on the idea of playing for the Clippers, Billups has come full circle in his feelings about the team and has worked diligently during rehab to make sure he could play again. For their part, the Clippers made a commitment to Billups when they signed him for another season this summer. The fact that he is close friends with Chris Paul and a great guy to have around a team were probably reason enough to re-sign him, but how much he could contribute was an open question.
And of course that question remains since we haven't seen him play yet. Billups did not hit a high percentage from the field last season, but he was still able to hit three pointers and get to the line, skills that are always welcome. Does he provide a huge talent upgrade in his return? Not really. It's not as if Willie Green has played poorly in his Billups-understudy role. But let's face it, Willie Green is not Chauncey Billups. Just having him out there -- hitting open threes, playing defense, running the offense from time to time -- will make a difference for the Clippers.
The Clippers of course were already playing ten and even eleven players at times, so the question of minutes will come up in Billups return. The truth is playing time is more or less a non-issue in Billups' case. Green was a placeholder and he'll go from starter to fifth guard on the depth chart, and that's fine. He knows his role. It may not happen immediately (and then again it may) but in the big picture Green will fall out of the rotation. Billups may cut into the minutes of Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford some as well, assuming that eventually he'll be playing more than the 18 minutes per currently used by Green, but not a lot.
Crunch will be the real question once Billups is back in basketball shape and has his timing back. While the Clippers haven't had a ton of close games this season, the crunch time lineups have mostly featured Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, and two of the three from Bledsoe, Crawford and Matt Barnes. Billups becomes part of that discussion of course, as will Lamar Odom as he continues to improve. (I fully expect Odom and Griffin to be the crunch time bigs in the very near future, except in cases where Del Negro decides to go small and play Griffin at the five and Barnes at the four.)
So Billups' return doesn't really introduce any playing time issues that weren't already there. If anything, it'll be easier to understand why Bledsoe is losing minutes to Billups than why he lost some to Green. When Grant Hill returns in December it will be a different story -- minutes will get very tight on the wing with Hill back in the equation.
But that's a discussion for another day. For now, it will just be great to see Mr. Big Shot, Chauncey B-B-B-Billups back on the court. Hopefully it will provide an emotional boost that the team needs right now to get back on the winning track.