Chauncey Billups? Jamal Crawford? Eric Bledsoe?
Not quite sure?
The Clippers have, to this point, invested around $10 million and three roster spots in guards not named Chris Paul — all of whom are worthy of significant NBA minutes.
But conspicuously absent from that group is a bona fide starting 2, the type of player you envision stretching defenses and driving to the hole, locking down Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade and even pulling down an occasional rebound.
There aren’t many such players, so teams have long gotten by on imperfect pieces finding ways to fit. Fortunately for the Clippers, they have a handful of able pieces.
Keeping in mind that it’s still relatively early in the process, the Clippers backcourt is already crowded. With a few roster spots left to fill — big wing and bench big would be the most glaring needs — rumor has it that another guard, 6’5″ MarShon Brooks could actually be their next addition (as part of a Dwight Howard trade to Brooklyn).
Whether or not the rotation grows to five (here’s a statistical comparison of what that could look like), it’s up to Vinny Del Negro to find the right roles and manage the minutes.
Chris Paul needs a running mate. Who should it be?
The Incumbent — Chauncey Billups
When he returns to the court, he will be 36 years old and coming off surgery for a ruptured achilles. The miracles of modern medicine know no limit, so let’s assume that he not only comes back, but returns to his 2012 form at some point this season. Assuming this, he would seem to possess a few of the assets they are looking for next to Paul.
Most notably: he can shoot. The Clippers lost Mo Williams and probably Randy Foye from an offense that thrived on the 3-ball, and he’s 39 percent in his career from deep. They can only hope that his deep stroke goes last as age catches up with him, because unless Crawford has a career year or Bledsoe (or Brooks?) takes a giant leap, he’s all they’ve got in that area.
The two point guard dynamic that he and Paul composed for last season worked well, and you can expect Del Negro to aim to re-create it. The offense featured a two-pronged, pick-and-roll attack and Billups passably used his strength to defend most opposing 2’s. It was only 20 games, and Billups did struggle some with his jumper, but if he’s able to do the same things when he comes back, it sounds like he’s the favorite to be the eventual starter.
On merit alone, his role upon return might hinge upon an ability to knock down shots or move his feet on defense, but there’s more to it with Billups. He has had a Cassellian impact on the organization in a short time, and from Del Negro to Paul to the rest of the roster, he gets a boost for being Chauncey Billups.
The Straight Shooter — Jamal Crawford
He’s open to coming off the bench, so in his efforts to reconstruct the good old days of 2012, you could see Del Negro entrenching Crawford as his Mo Williams. Nevermind that the two aren’t actually that similar — neither rebound nor play a lick of D, but Williams is a much better shooter, and Crawford is taller, a better ballhandler and perhaps a better teammate. Del Negro loves his roles, but Crawford is probably your opening night starter, so all bets are off once the season starts.
And for all the issues with his contract and the Clippers’ process in filling the position, his presence should be quite valuable — especially while Billups recovers. He’s long and can get his shot off, and to the extent that a 32-year old can “improve,” he’s in a good position to bounce back from a down year.
Chris Paul gets everyone open looks, and Crawford should benefit from space on the weak side, a la Caron Butler, and in the corner, where he shot about 40% last season. He thrives on isolation and spot-ups, which accounted for over half of his plays last season. He has good handle but struggles as a pick-and-roll ballhandler — although that tends to improve some with a roll man like Blake Griffin or DeAndre Jordan. He should help the offense, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone if he is part of one of the best 5-man units in the league.
But, who knows how this team will look defensively? So much is up to Griffin and Jordan to protect the back line, because the expected starting wing tandem has serious strength (Crawford) and quickness (Butler) issues. With Bledsoe lurking, a prolonged cold streak from Crawford could lead to internet pitchforks if he’s getting blown by left and right.
The Challenger — Eric Bledsoe
Bledsoe is the darkhorse candidate to steal the job. In fact, even if they acquire Brooks, odds are that Brooks, with his size and classic 2-guard offensive profile, would have first crack. Bledsoe just doesn’t fit the mold, so when everyone is healthy he could still be fighting for minutes.
The problem with having all these players is not that they are bad players. In a sense, it’s that they are all too good, if not great. It’s that minutes are finite, and defining roles becomes even more critical. At the guard spots, there are 96 minutes in a game. Chris Paul gets his 36. Let’s conservatively say Jamal Crawford gets 30 — up from 27 last year, with Billups likely to be limited and Del Negro’s preference for he veteran. That leaves 30 minutes — the amount Billups averaged in 20 games last season — for Bledsoe and Billups to split. With no mention of Brooks.
As we saw last year, Del Negro is not opposed to the 3-guard lineup. Whether by preference or necessity, he looks a lineup challenge in the eye and inserts Randy Foye at the 3. No reason to think he won’t do it again with Crawford, Bledsoe, or even Brooks, if he winds up a Clipper. The defensive implications could be unsettling, but like last year, his options are limited behind Caron Butler.
(Lamar Odom’s addition could change Del Negro’s approach, but at this point Odom should be more of a 4/5 and he’ll be needed to back up Griffin and Jordan.)
Regardless of the position, the numbers say Bledsoe deserves to play. Depending on how he progresses into next season, he might even deserve to start at the 2. In (only) 76 minutes together during the regular season, he and Paul had a plus/minus of +14.3. When they shared the court in 82 playoff minutes, they were +12.8. He’s the best defender on the team, and with the benefit of a healthy knee and a full training camp, he could be in good shape to make a difference if he gets an opportunity early on.