The following is the second in a series of “Lob City Memories” that will highlight some of the standout people, moments and games from the six-plus years of Lob City in Los Angeles. Over the next couple of months, we will look back at things a little more obscure than a Spurs series victory, Chris Paul buzzer beater over Tony Allen, Blake Griffin alley-oop off Jamal Crawford’s between-the-legs pass, or DeAndre Jordan humiliation of Brandon Knight. Part 2 of Lob City Memories looks back at the decision to go back to Chauncey Billups over Willie Green in the final days of the 2012-13 season.
A number of the so-called memories will come from the 2012-13 season because in many ways that was the most interesting team in Clippers history. It was not their best. I would argue the best was one of the following two years with Doc Rivers on the sidelines and Blake Griffin at the peak of his powers.
However, the 2012-13 team was full of characters, a seemingly combustible mix of youth and aged veterans, and a short leash on life from a cranky, racist, inept owner. In some ways, that explains the dilemma Vinny Del Negro faced with Chauncey Billups. But not entirely.
To understand why Del Negro decided to play Billups over Willie Green in the final games of the regular season and all six games of the playoffs, you have to go back to December 2011. The lockout was ending, a Chris Paul trade was being orchestrated behind the scenes, and the Clippers were completing the signing of Caron Butler, their first notable veteran free agent acquisition since, I don’t know, Tim Thomas.
There was already a sense that Del Negro, who was saddled with Baron Davis for half a season in 2010-11, needed more positive veteran leadership around Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Gordon and Eric Bledsoe. Mo Williams was there, but he was about to play a 66-game stretch of the most pissed off basketball you could imagine, and he was already angered by the surprise claim of Billups off amnesty waivers from the Knicks. So, claiming Billups made some sense. Take a chance, get a supposed winning player, get a leader (although in an interview with Tayshaun Prince during the 2013 playoffs I couldn’t even get him to name Billups as a leader on the 2004 Pistons--he said Ben Wallace and Rip Hamilton and, even, Antonio McDyess. I asked twice).
In 2011-12, with Paul in the fold and Billups starting alongside him, the Clippers were hitting their stride. It was February and the rugged season was a month-plus underway. So, when Billups shredded his Achilles in Orlando, things were depressing. The team had signed Kenyon Martin a day earlier with the promise that Billups would help keep him from being, you know, Kenyon Martin, and the season-ending injury came at just about the worst time imaginable.
When Billups came back, not all that unexpectedly, in 2012-13, it was a chance to finish what he started, at least in his mind. The Clippers built the roster with Billups being the gravy. If he came back healthy, he’d help. If was injured, they had plenty of options. Jamal Crawford was added, Bledose could have been the everyday starter, and Green had a track record of outperforming expectations. Plus, Paul and Green were close and the soft-spoken Green would likely not stir up trouble if he were a revolving door starter.
Green started opening night and played the first 14 games of the season. He scored double figures twice, made 15 3-pointers and wasn’t a negative on defense. Billups returned from injury on Nov. 28 against Minnesota. He started. Green promptly earned three consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions.
So it went for Green. No matter how well he played, Billups was looming. Overall, Green started 72 games in the regular season, while Billups started 22 (Paul missed his requisite double digit number of games, so Billups actually started at point guard a dozen times). There was a stretch for Green in March and April where he made a 3-pointer in 12 straight games and 13 out of 14. He was among the NBA’s 3-point percentage leaders during what amounted to a month of games. That stretch coincided with Billups playing a couple of games at point guard and then sitting out, again, due to injury.
It seemed like he was toast. The season was nearly over, and when Billups did play it looked like he was just slower than everyone else. Two weeks remained in the season when internally there began to be very real debates. Willie or Chauncey? What will Del Negro do if or when Billups comes back? Well, on April 16, Billups returned. He immediately was inserted as the starter over Green, and that was that.
Billups went on to start all six playoff games. Other than the Clippers blow out Game 1 victory over Memphis, Billups averaged a minus-7 for the rest of the series. He had double the number of turnovers to assists. He complained. He was disruptive. And in the most panicked moment of the entire season, an elimination Game 6 with Griffin all but out with a bum ankle and the Clippers pushing to get back in the game, Billups dribbled the ball off his ankle out of bounds along the right sideline. It aptly summed up his final game with the Clippers.
Meanwhile, Green played garbage time minutes in Games 1 and 3 and finally as part of the second-half panic, he played 18 minutes in Game 6. Out of rhythm, he still scored four points and had two assists (no turnovers). As usual, Green was always ready. Had he played over Billups, who knows how the series turns out?