Chauncey Billups' Big Return to Action Proves LA Clippers Still Title Contenders

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 15, 2013

Feb 8 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chauncey Billups (1) during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Clippers clearly are not the same team without Chris Paul.

With Paul in the lineup, L.A. is 32-11. It's split the 12 games that he's missed this season.

But even with a healthy Paul, analysts weren't sure if this Clippers team could emerge from a deep Western Conference, let alone contend for an NBA championship.

Those concerns have now been eased. And the Clippers can thank 36-year-old Chauncey Billups for that.

The Clippers' 125-101 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 14 was only his seventh game of the season. After exploding for 19 points in just over 20 minutes against the Houston Rockets on Feb. 13, he erupted for 21 in less than 17 minutes versus the Lakers. He's buried nine three-pointers in his last two games.

The savvy veteran added yet another dimension to what was already perhaps the most versatile team in the Western Conference.

Coach Vinny Del Negro has a host of backcourt options at his disposal. And all of them are terrifying for the opposition.

Billups brings a shooting threat to spread the floor for Chris Paul penetrations and a distributing touch capable of moving Paul off the ball. Or a calming court presence to complement the talented but raw Eric Bledsoe and a physical, dynamic defensive duo when the two share the floor. He can move Jamal Crawford back to his natural scoring role, giving Del Negro a prolific perimeter threat to open the floor for his twin towers to attack.

While their in-house rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, were busy assembling one of the greatest fantasy basketball rosters in history, the Clippers approached the free-agent market with a clearer sense of reality. They sought out proven, high character veterans like Billups and Grant Hill.

In two seasons, they transformed first from laughable losers to the NBA's greatest show. Then from highlight reel to championship contenders. Luckily for fans, they haven't had to sacrifice their aerial assaults for this most recent evolution.

The Clippers' plus-6.44 scoring differential ranks third best in the NBA.  And they haven't simply fed off the bottom feeders.

Name the contender and the Clippers have probably beaten them. Often decisively.

L.A. has toppled the Memphis Grizzlies (33-18) in both matchups this season, by a combined 35 points. It's handed the San Antonio Spurs (42-12) two losses, including an 18-point drubbing. It has double-digit wins over the Houston Rockets (29-26), Utah Jazz (30-24), Chicago Bulls (30-22), Denver Nuggets (33-21) and New York Knicks (32-18).

It's yet to solve the Western Conference's biggest puzzle, the Oklahoma City Thunder. But it didn't have Billups in either matchup, and had Paul only once (a six-point loss at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on Nov. 21, 2012).

Billups isn't the biggest piece in the puzzle, but he might be the final one needed to raise a new championship banner inside Staples Center.