Chauncey Billups is out for the year with a torn Achilles tendon. The Clippers will miss him greatly, both on the court and off. More importantly, this is a tragic development in the career of one of the NBA’s consummate professionals. Chauncey will be 36 when he enters free agency this summer, and his market value presumably just took a huge hit. Some have speculated that he might even retire. Chauncey, whom his teammates describe as a warrior, has already vowed that he will return next year. He added that he’d like to return to the Clippers, as he feels he has “unfinished business” with the team. Despite his proclivity for jacking deep threes with 18 on the shot clock, Billups ultimately brings more good than bad to the table and I would be thrilled to have him back on the Clips next year.
In the meantime, the Clippers must move on. His absence creates an opportunity for several Clips to step up, most notably Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and Eric Bledsoe. At first glance, that trio would seem to be capable of replicating Chauncey’s statistical impact. In twenty games with the Clippers, Chauncey averaged 17.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 3.0 rebounds per 36 minutes. His field goal percentage was a career-low 36.4%. Over the course of his career, Foye, who will replace Billups as the starting shooting guard, has averaged 15.4 points, 4.4 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, while shooting 41.3% from the field. Not a precipitous decline in production at the shooting guard position, you might initially think. But digging deeper, we see that the basic stats fail to illuminate Chauncey’s value as an offensive weapon. Billups is a 3-point sniper and foul-drawing magnet, and thus his True Shooting Percentage of 55.4% dwarfs Foye’s pathetic 49.9%. If you’re a fan of PER, Billups is posting a 16.2 PER to Foye’s 12.0. Put simply, the advanced stats are not kind to Randy Foye.
Of course, it is overly simplistic to limit our comparison to Billups vs. Foye. Mo Williams also figures to see a dramatic increase in minutes as a result of Billups’s injury. Vinny Del Negro no longer needs to choose between Chauncey and Mo in crunch time; Foye will start, but Mo will be the undisputed closer at SG. Mo has actually been more effective than Chauncey on the offensive end this year. Offensively, as D.J. Foster pointed out, the Clippers’ most potent five-man combination has been Paul-Mo-Butler-Griffin-Jordan, a unit that has posted an astronomical 125.9 points per 100 possessions, per basketballvalue.com. Replace Mo with Billups, and the lineup averages just 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Defensively, however, the Clippers lose major ground when they substitute Williams in for Billups; the defensive rating is 97.21 with Billups, compared to 121.38 with Mo.
The upshot of all these statistics is that Chauncey is still a very valuable player, despite his infuriating shot selection and conspicuous turnovers. Fortunately, Chauncey is the most expendable Clippers starter. Mo Williams and Foye can do an adequate job of filling in for Chauncey. However, if the Clippers want to go all-in for a Finals run this year, they cannot afford to give 25+ minutes per game to a player as inefficient as Foye; nor can they get by without Billups’s ability to defend the SG position. Neil Olshey should be actively working the phones to find a shooting guard who can soak up Billups’s minutes and relegate Foye to a 10-15 minutes/game role. Olshey’s task is unenviable, as the Clippers have limited assets to work with. As a result of the Chris Paul trade, they have two trade exceptions, for $3.7 and 2.8 million. These exceptions are of extremely limited value; they can only be used to scoop up a player off a team looking to shed salary.
One name that comes to mind is O.J. Mayo. The Grizzlies are less than enamored with Mayo, and agreed to trade him for Josh McRoberts at the trade deadline last year before a snafu in the paperwork held the deal up. Mayo is a legitimate starting shooting guard, and is big enough to guard the athletic wings against whom Mo Williams stands no chance. However, Mayo is having a career year, and it seems unlikely that Memphis would deal him for a trade exception just for the sake of getting him off their books. Would a combination of Bledsoe + Foye’s expiring deal be enough to entice Memphis to part with Mayo? Probably not, but stranger things have happened. Memphis’s backup point guard is Jeremy Pargo – Bledsoe would be an immediate upgrade and brings tantalizing potential. Moreover, the Grizz are deep at the wing positions; Mayo’s minutes would be reallocated to Tony Allen and Sam Young.
Perhaps a more realistic option is J.R. Smith. Smith should be eligible to return to the NBA sometime in late February, when his Chinese team’s season ends. Although certifiably insane, Smith is indisputably productive. Plus, his sister could be the enforcer that the Clippers sorely lack. I previously wrote that Smith was a longshot to join the Clips, but that was before the Billups injury. The Clippers can now offer Smith a starting SG position on a legitimate contender. The competition for Smith’s services seems to include the Bulls and Knicks. The Knicks can offer slightly more money ($2.5 million prorated, compared to $1.2 million prorated from the Clips), and a spot in the starting lineup. The Bulls can offer about the same amount of money as the Clips, and it’s unclear if he would start over Rip Hamilton. Viewing the options from J.R.’s perspective, the Clips would seem to be the best option. After all, the difference in salary this year is negligible compared to the potential payoff when he hits free agency this summer; Smith will really be playing for his next contract. As Larry Coon put it, “If I’m him & I want to showcase myself, I want CP3 feeding me the ball in a deep playoff run.”
Acquiring Smith would go a long way toward mitigating the damage caused by Billups’s injury. If that option falls through, then Neil Olshey will face his greatest test yet as the Clippers’ GM. Trading for CP3 was a no-brainer; so was bidding on Chauncey and signing Kenyon. Transforming a collection of Foye, Bledsoe, Brian Cook, and 2nd round draft picks into a bona fide starting shooting guard is the stuff of which Executive of the Year awards are made.