LOS ANGELES -- There is no doubt the Clippers' front office had a long list of players in mind when the off-season began. Over the past few weeks they have reviewed the pros and cons of those they could sign as free-agents or trade for to improve upon the best season in franchise history.
Chris Paul really only had one player on his list. It began and ended with Chauncey Billups.
Paul said on numerous occasions last season that Billups was the greatest backcourt teammate he’s ever had and considers him an older brother. When Billups ruptured his Achilles tendon and was lost for the season Feb. 7, Paul was in tears. He was constantly reminded of Billups’ absence whenever he looked at the locker next to his; the Clippers hung Billups’ uniform up before every game as if he were still playing.
The Clippers were considered by some as the favorites to win the Pacific Division and advance as far as the Western Conference finals before Billups was injured. The ensuing tailspin nearly cost Vinny Del Negrohis job. The Clippers started the season 15-7 with Billups and went 11-14 after his injury before finally turning the corner at the end of March.
Billups’ impact on the Clippers went far beyond the 14.9 points and 4.0 assists he averaged last season. He created opportunities for his teammates, drew fouls and put opponents in the penalty early. He was the best free throw shooter on a team that was lacking in that category. No one felt his loss more than Caron Butler, who failed to get the same open looks on the weakside that he got when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him. That was simply something the Clippers never got with Randy Foye.
The problem is Billups is still coming back from a ruptured Achilles and may not be back for the season opener, which made the signing of Jamal Crawford on the same day that much more important.
While Paul made a strong push for the Clippers to acquire Ray Allen, he was seemingly always going to choose between returning to Boston or going to Miami. Crawford may not have been the most popular choice among the available candidates (Danny Green, Courtney Lee or Brandon Rush) but he is a good fit for the Clippers, who needed a prototypical shooting guard after playing point guards out of position in that spot for much of last season. He is also capable of contributing off the bench if the Clippers want to stick with a Paul-Billups backcourt (he won the Sixth Man of the Year award two years ago) and he’s also a solid free-throw shooter, leading the league in free-throw percentage (.927) last season. The downside to Crawford is his inability to rebound (he averaged only 2.0 rebounds per game last season) and his shooting percentage. Despite nailing almost all of his free-throws he only hit 38.4 percent from the field last season and 30.8 percent from beyond the arc.
The Clippers are not done making moves this off-season but at the very least they have not only put together a strong starting lineup, but a solid second unit as well. They have a former NBA Finals MVP in Billups providing depth in the back court, Lamar Odom, a two-time champion who won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season, backing up the front court, and Eric Bledsoe, who came into his own during the postseason, as a pace-changing sparkplug. If the Clippers can add a few more pieces, they just might be the team to beat in Los Angeles next season, despite the Lakers stealing all the offseason headlines.