Chauncey Billups’ jersey still hangs in the Los Angeles Clippers’ locker room. It is put up before every home game and road game as if Billups will still suit up and be in the starting lineup.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, Billups isn’t walking through their locker room door anytime soon.
Billups was lost for the season last month with a torn left Achilles tendon and his impact on this young team is beginning to be felt more and more with every late game loss the Clippers suffer.
There are a myriad of reasons why the Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns 81-78 Friday night, their fourth loss in their last six games.
Maybe it was because it was the Clippers' second game of a back-to-back on the road, maybe it was because the Clippers’ starters could never find their shot or maybe it was because the Suns, one of the league’s worst rebounding teams, out rebounded the Clippers, one of the league’s best on the boards.
Whatever the reasons may be the loss was yet another example of how much the Clippers miss Billups’ leadership, calming presence and experience down the stretch in close games.
The Clippers are now 6-6 without Billups after starting the season 15-7 with him in the starting lineup.
Billups’ impact on this team went far beyond the 14.9 points and 4.0 assists he was averaging. If we just look at the numbers, Randy Foye, who is now starting in place of Billups, has done an admirable job. He is averaging 8.7 points and 2.4 assists this season although he scored just 2 points on 1-of-8 shooting against the Suns.
Billups created opportunities for his teammates, drew fouls and put opponents in the penalty early and was the best free throw shooter on a team without many good players from the charity stripe. No one has felt his loss more than Caron Butler, who no longer gets the same open looks on the weakside he did when Billups was penetrating the gaps and causing defenses to respect him. That’s simply something Foye does not provide.
So not only have the Clippers lost Billups, but Butler is no longer the player he once was with Billups in the lineup. Butler was 4-of-13 for 9 points and 8 rebounds Thursday night. Coming into this six-game road trip he had shot only 31.5% from the field (12-of-38) in his last four games and had only made 1-of-14 from beyond the arc.
Perhaps the biggest area where Billups’ loss is felt is in the fourth quarter during close games. Those were situations where the Clippers found a way to win with Billups on the court. They had snapped long franchise losing streaks against the Nuggets, Jazz and Magic on the road and had beaten the likes of the Thunder, Heat, Lakers and Mavericks at home with Billups on the floor.
Without Billups, the Clippers have blown close games late in four of their last six losses to the Spurs, Warriors, Timberwolves and Suns. The Spurs loss was the most heartbreaking but it was also the only one of the four against a team that will likely make the playoffs.
There’s nothing the Clippers can do with their current roster to fill the void left by Billups, who plans to return to Los Angeles later this month to continue his rehab and be around the team. They were unable to sign J.R. Smith as a free agent last month and instead signed veteran Bobby Simmons, who scored his first points in the NBA since 2009 on Thursday. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will not move Mo Williams, who is averaging 13.5 points and 3.4 assists, to the starting lineup since that would leave them with no consistent production off the bench.
Maybe 12 games isn’t the greatest sample size but after a .500 record without Billups and a recent inability to close out games late, it might be time for the Clippers general manager Neil Olshey to seriously pursue a deal for a player that will make the Clippers a more serious contender down the stretch and into the postseason.
Players like the Boston Celtics’ Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, who have been rumored as possible Clippers targets, may not be young and will cost the team assets they would rather keep but the Clippers are not in a position to think long-term with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin essentially giving the Clippers two years to prove they are a championship team before they can jump ship.
The Clippers looked like a championship team at the beginning of the season when Billups was hitting big shots and providing some championship experience on the floor. Now that he is gone, and seeing how the team has done in his absence it may be time for the Clippers to find a similar player before the trade deadline if they want to be playing well into the summer this year.