Chauncey Billups is done for the season, felled by a torn Achilles tendon. His value wasn’t just measured in numbers; he was a veteran leader and a coach on the floor, a player who knew what it took to win an NBA title because he’d done it.
Now, the Clippers must forge ahead without him. But they’ll have to decide whether their roster provides the answer or whether there’s a free agent who can be the complement to point guard Chris Paul that Billups was.
For the moment, the Clippers are still reeling emotionally. They opened a six-game road trip with victories in Washington and Orlando, but the loss of Billups — whose career may be over given the severity of his injury — has taken the joy out of their start.
Consider what Paul wrote Tuesday on Twitter after learning about Billups: “Toughest day to date for me as an NBA player losing the best backcourt mate I’ve ever played with, my big bro, and gr8 teammate C. Billups . . . I know they say everything happens for a reason but I’m having a hard time understanding this one . . . what he did for our team is immeasurable. . . . “
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro can make a quick fix by inserting guard Randy Foye into the lineup and keeping veteran Mo Williams as his top reserve, something he did earlier this season when Billups was out with an injury. But there are other options.
The Clippers are teeming with point guards, and even though Billups played off guard, he insisted he was still a point guard at heart. He wasn’t hesitant to bring the ball up court or set up his teammates, including Paul, and he directed the offense on occasion.
Although Williams could step in immediately, Del Negro prefers the 6-foot-4 Foye to avoid size matchups in the backcourt. Williams has been a consistent contributor off the bench and will likely see his minutes increase, and Eric Bledsoe, who has played little since returning from offseason knee surgery, should receive more court time.
In the long term, however, the Clippers may look for more help. Two players worth considering:
–J.R. Smith, who has a career scoring average of 12.5 points, would give the team an explosive scorer and take some of the scoring burden off Paul. But Smith is obligated to remain in China until his team completes his season, and he is rumored to be drawing interest from the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks. In the Clippers’ favor is the fact Smith is a former teammate of Billups and the newly added Kenyon Martin, who might want to recruit him to LA.
–Gilbert Arenas, who was waived by the Orlando Magic under the NBA’s one-time amnesty clause, is scheduled to conduct a workout in Los Angeles this week, supposedly in an effort to attract the Lakers’ interest. But so far, the Lakers haven’t decided whether they’ll attend. The Clippers might give Arenas a look, but there are concerns he’s lost his scoring touch after he shot just 34 percent from the field and averaged eight points for the Magic last season. He’s also owed about $62 million over the next two seasons.
Neil Olshey, the Clippers’ vice president of basketball operations, is credited with putting together a roster that has produced a 15-7 record and leads the Pacific Division. He signed Caron Butler as a free agent, claimed Billups off waivers and worked the trade for Paul after the league nixed a deal that would have sent Paul to the Lakers. He also brought in Martin to give the team a big man off the bench in relief of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Now Olshey will have to figure out how to make up for the loss of Billups, who was third on the team in scoring (15 points a game) behind Griffin and Paul and second in assists behind Paul (four per game).
It’s possible Olshey could maintain the status quo, but assuming the Clippers qualify for the postseason, they’ll be hurting in two areas where Billups was strong: playoff experience and clutch shooting.
Billups won the NBA title with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and was the MVP of the Finals. His nickname, Mr. Big Shot, was earned by his ability to convert critical shots in key moments, such as his game winner Jan. 18 to beat the Dallas Mavericks with one second left.
That’s a lot to replace. But there’s also a lot on the line. The Clippers are contenders, and what they do in the next few days could determine whether they remain contenders.