In one of the most highly-anticipated moments of the 2012-13 NBA season, Chauncey Billups returned from a near 10-month hiatus. In his first game, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves by a score of 101-96.
Although the short-term success offers promise, Vinny Del Negro can't let Billups' return disrupt Jamal Crawford's groove.
Through 15 games, Crawford leads the Los Angeles Clippers with an average of 17.5 points per game. He's posting said average on a slash line of .449/.395/.942, which displays his level of consistency during the young season.
If that's not enough, try the fact that he has made 44 consecutive free throws.
With that being said, Crawford has suffered from a bit of a rough patch lately. After averaging 19.7 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting through 11 outings, J-Crossover is averaging just 11.5 points on 32.5 percent shooting over the previous four.
During Billups' first game back in action, Crawford put up 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting.
Even still, there is reason to believe that Crawford will revert to his borderline elite ways. The key is for coach Del Negro to do what he can to maximize Crawford's abilities alongside Billups, not bury him behind him.
Keep in mind, Crawford's play is not as much of a surprise as one may assume. Not to Crawford, at least, who tells Alex Kennedy of HoopsWorld.com that he has not lost a step.
“People have been shocked for the most part, but I knew that I hadn’t lost a step or anything,” Crawford told HOOPSWORLD. “I’ll be the first to tell you when I’ve lost a step. I watch a lot of basketball and I play every single day so I’ll be the first to tell you when that happens. That wasn’t it at all. It was just that the last two years were tough. In Atlanta, I was going through the contract situation. In Portland, both sides knew that it was going to be kind of short-lived and the fit may not have been the best. I knew it wasn’t anything that was going on with me physically. I knew it was situational.”
“I’m very comfortable in this role,” Crawford said of being the Clippers’ sixth man. “It started in the summer. I didn’t like how things went last season; it just didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth. I’m getting back to being me. I’m playing with a group of really talented guys and playing for a coach that gives me a lot of freedom. I love playing for Coach Del Negro, his staff and this organization. It’s been a great fit. I’m just coming in and doing what I do.”
Crawford's comfort as the team's sixth man is on full display, as he's on pace to a career year. What is not clear, however, is how he will fit into the rotation now that Billups has returned.
Something Del Negro must address.
Backcourt Depth or Crowding?
The Los Angeles Clippers may have the most backcourt depth of any team in the NBA. Although one may speculate that this presents an advantage to LAC, that theory only holds truth should coach Vinny Del Negro properly distribute minutes.
So how will VDN handle that daunting task?
Chris Paul has cut himself out a consistent 35 minutes per game, though it is unclear how the rest of the rotation will take shape. Chauncey Billups is one of the top players of his generation, but he's also 36 years old and coming off of an Achilles injury (via ESPN Los Angeles).
Jamal Crawford, meanwhile, is the team's leading scorer. He is struggling from the field as of late, mainly due to the fact that the second unit has not picked up the scoring load beside him.
With that being said, Eric Bledsoe is their defensive spark plug. Bledsoe is also inexperienced, though, which has led to inconsistency in the playing time VDN has granted him.
All of this and we've yet to even touch on the smooth shooting Willie Green.
So how will Del Negro juggle five players who all deserve a significant amount of playing time? If he does so improperly, he could derail Crawford's momentum.
With the return of Chauncey Billups to the rotation, Vinny Del Negro can not allow himself to miss out on the grand opportunities that the pairing of Mr. Big Shot and Jamal Crawford present. Together, they may just find a way to alleviate the overwhelming levels of defensive pressure Crawford is now facing.
Separated, VDN may force a player such as Eric Bledsoe or Willie Green into a far heavier scoring load than they are capable of handling.
Billups is a solid enough shooter and sound enough facilitator to remove the trap defensive pressure that Crawford has been facing. With Billups' lethal nature from beyond the arc, Crawford now has a player to kick it out to off the drive.
If that were to fail, Billups could find Crawford and end his need to create off of the dribble.
Whether or not the two players will be paired together in such a manner has yet to be seen. Billups is likely to be eased into the rotation by finding himself alongside Chris Paul, thus minimizing the need for Billups to handle the rock.
The question is, will Del Negro capitalize on the endless possibilities between Billups and Crawford? Or will he blow the golden opportunity?