Clippers Curse is Real: Billups out for the year

This is the part where I would usually do my “Life and Times of the Los Angeles Clippers”, exhaustively detailing the most ridiculous and painful moments in San Diego turned Los Angeles Clippers history. With the news of Chauncey Billups’ season-ending Achilles tear coming to light this afternoon, I would have just another footnote to write with some hilariously appropriate jab for LA’s ugly red-headed stepchild. As a life-long Angeleno, I’ve had a front seat view as the Clips have taken what should be a luxury automobile and repeatedly crashed it head first into a brick wall, only to be repainted with the same red, white and blue colors whose stink can only be identified with one putrid source. They’re best known for being the butt of late-night television punch-lines, or one of the first ten names David Stern reads in June. Of course I think of them as a pathetic joke, but mostly I view them as a sports tragedy. In a hotbed of basketball in the second biggest market in country, the infinite resources that other small market teams would kill for are routinely wasted at the hands of an owner who knows how to do nothing but kill what he has. I’ve gone on record as saying how despicable Donald Sterling is as an owner, but I truly think it’s his flaws as a human that lead to the Clippers Curse.

Unfortunately, Simmons already did the “Life and Times of the Los Angeles Clippers” better than I ever could have. If you even get halfway through his “open letter to Blake Griffin”, you’ll see that the Clips’ history is littered not just with missteps by ownership or management, but also freak occurrences that seem to happen time and time again. A lot of people like to say that curses aren’t real, that things happen in sports, and there are so many complexities involved with having to appease millions of constituents. But I think if you read what has happened to the Clippers over the past 30 years, you’ll see that it can’t just be bad luck and the consequence of following a physical sport. No Clippers boon can bloom without it withering away and rotting soon thereafter. Just to be a completist, I’ll pick up where Simmons left off, the summer of 2009.

July, 2009: The Clippers trade Zach Randolph to the Memphis Grizzlies. Randolph would blossom in Memphis, becoming an All-Star and one of the most efficient power forwards in the league.

October, 2009: After a thunderous break-away dunk in a meaningless preseason game, rookie phenom and future All-Star Blake Griffin comes down on his left knee hard, creating a stress fracture in his left patella. This injury leaves the first overall pick out for the season.

February, 2010: With another disastrous losing season already locked up, the Clippers GM/Coach Mike Dunleavy steps down from his coaching duties, though keeping his title as GM.

March, 2010: For the second time in a month, the Clippers fire Mike Dunleavy, this time as GM of the team. Dunleavy reportedly finds this out through internet reports and friends, rather than the organization. You stay classy, Donald Sterling.

April, 2010: Dunleavy reports that despite having a guaranteed contract that runs through the end of the 2011 season, the Clippers had stopped paying him, on the grounds that he voluntarily resigned from his duties. The amount is roughly $6.5 million dollars.

February, 2011: Blake Griffin is named as an All-Star reserve, the Clippers first representative since Elton Brand. He also is selected for the dunk contest during All-Star weekend and jumps over a car. Yes, a car.

February, 2011: As covered on this blog, the Clippers trade an unprotected lottery pick and Baron Davis’ massive salary to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. The pick turned out to be the first overall selection, which the Cavs would use to choose Kyrie Irving. Irving is widely regarded, already, as a star in the making.

April, 2011: Though playoffs were expected by some, the Clippers finish the season 32-50, 13th in the Western Conference. Projected starters Eric Gordon, Baron Davis and Chris Kaman miss a combined 116 games between them.

June, 2011: Remember that case where Mike Dunleavy wasn’t getting paid on a guaranteed contract? Well the courts ruled in his favor during arbitration, saying that Dunleavy was in fact, fired from his post as coach and GM. The court ordered the Clippers pay Dunleavy $13.5 million immediately, which was a combination of the salary he was owed, deferred payments, as well as the year’s worth of interest he missed out on. Incredible.

December, 2011: In the most significant day in Clippers history, the team trades for superstar point guard Chris Paul in exchange for Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman, Al-farouq Aminu and the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first round pick. Paul immediately has an effect on the fortunes of the Clippers, who get off to one of the best starts in franchise history, selling out game after game.

Just days after he was traded, Kaman states that his new team, the Hornets are “very professional…I’m not used to that. No, serious. It was an adjustment. After eight years [with the Clippers], I didn’t know it could be like this. I wasn’t used to it. The way they handle business…they’re up front with you and they tell you what’s going on and what’s going to happen”.

February, 2011: After a fairy-tale start to the season, in which both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were named as All-Star starters (the first two EVER in Clippers history), starting Clips guard Chauncey Billups tears his Achilles tendon, ending his season and possibly his career.

Analysis:

As much as I derided the Clippers overly-vaunted acquisition of free agent forward Kenyon Martin, I can only say the opposite about Chauncey Billups. Statistically, you can see what the Clippers will miss. While his shooting from the field was poor (36%), he was averaging 15 points per game to go along with four assists and was one of the league leaders in made 3 pointers (he in fact, was shooting better from distance – 38%). But looking at the product on the court during games really tells how valuable Chauncey is.

The starting lineup features veteran Caron Butler and All-Stars Chris Paul and Griffin, but Billups is the unquestioned leader of this Clippers squad. He was third on the team in usage percentage, which is a metric used to show how many plays that a guy has an effect on, behind Blake and Mo Williams. As a 35-year old veteran that had played in 7 Conference Finals, two Finals and had won a Finals MVP, Billups was the most championship-tested player on a squad that had the mentality of going all the way this season. With the trade for Paul, the Clippers weren’t the young team they were in November. However, they still remain a team with very little playoff experience, outside of Mo Williams’ 5 playoff series with the Cavs and Butler’s first round experiences with the Wizards. Thus, Billups’ championship experience and calm behind the wheel was exactly the type of on-court leadership the Clips had to have to avoid the pratfalls of any untested playoff team.

Most importantly, in the fourth quarter, the other 4 Clippers happily deferred to Chauncey. He’s taken the lion’s share of fourth quarter crunch time shots, and is the primary ball-handler when the game is close. Not Chris Paul, not Blake Griffin. Regardless of whether or not his reputation as “Mr. Big Shot” is actually accurate anymore, the Clips had a go-to guy when the game got close. Now that guy has a torn Achilles tendon, and if former Clippers forward Elton Brand is an example, players rarely come back the same from that injury.

Though his overall numbers don’t look as shiny as Butler’s or Mo Williams’, Chauncey’s shooting, ball-handling and leadership made him one of the three best players on the 2012 Clippers. What if you took James Harden off the Thunder? Or Pau off the Lakers? Or Bosh off the Heat? You could argue that those teams go from being title contenders to also-rans. Were the Clippers title contenders with Chauncey? Probably not. They rank in the bottom 10 of nearly every significant defensive category and their coach should be heading up a team like Memphis State or CUNY Oswego. Defense wins championships, and great coaching helps get you there.

However, they were headed for a high playoff seed and perhaps a Western Conference Finals Berth. The reports are that Randy Foye will start at shooting guard, with Mo Williams staying in his role as a Jason Terry-like offensive spark plug and ball-handler off the bench. As I’ve noted, the Clippers will lose a lot of production on the floor, tangible and intangible alike, but Foye, the excellent play Williams has provided this year, and a returning Eric Bledsoe will somewhat allay the loss of Billups.

Without Chauncey on the floor, I can see them as anywhere between winning one playoff series to having the ignominy of being a “tough first round out”. Make no mistake, this loss is devastating for the Clippers. Chris Paul might be one of the league leaders in assists, but Chauncey was their floor general. A few months ago when I wrote the MAMBINO Instant Trade Analysis for the Chris Paul deal, I wrote that it was one that the team had to make and barring the Clippers Curse rearing its head, this could be a very good team, perhaps a 3 or 4 seed. I like being right, but not at the expense of a man’s career perhaps ending.

The last two months was the longest uninterrupted stretch of actual basketball play the Clippers have had in 6 years. It’s not coming to an end any time soon, but the Clippers just lost one of the biggest pieces in their championship puzzle. The Clippers Curse is real, MAMBINites. This was only a matter of time.

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