LOS ANGELES -- Darren Collison has been in this position before.
Four years ago, as a rookie with the New Orleans Hornets, Collison was backing up Chris Paul when Paul suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee and was sidelined for eight weeks. Collison started 37 games that season, averaged 18.8 points and 9.1 assists as a starter and finished fourth in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting.
He was so impressive that New Orleans ended up trading him to an Indiana Pacers team in need of a starting point guard. After three up-and-down years as a starter in Indiana and Dallas, Collison returned home to Los Angeles and returned to a familiar role as Paul’s back-up, this time with the Clippers.
Unfortunately for Paul, Collison is once again his stand-in after Paul suffered a separated right shoulder against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 3.
“I don’t think I thought about it until this morning but Darren Collison happened to be with me in New Orleans when I got injured last time,” Paul said. “So I’m starting to think he’s bad luck or something.”
Paul’s injury is certainly bad luck but Collison’s presence has again been a good luck charm for a team trying to overcome the loss of their leader.
The Clippers have won four of five games without Paul, including coming back on the road against Dallas.
Collison has helped steady the Clippers during Paul’s absence, averaging 18 points and 6 assists over the last five games and shooting 66.7 percent from the field this month.
“I just try to keep it simple after being inserted into the first unit,” Collison said. “I try to play my game. Whatever happens after that, happens. I know I’m a good defender so as long as I continue to play defense and continue to be the head of our defense, anything can happen after that. Offensively we’re working fine. J.J. [Redick] moves off the ball and opens things up for us. Blake [Griffin] is playing phenomenal and D.J. [DeAndre Jordan] is playing great. I think it’s pretty simple. Just go in there and play your game and play off one another.”
Collison, who was born and raised in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. and played at UCLA, returned home this offseason after signing a 2-year, $1.9 million contract with the Clippers to back-up Paul. It was a perfect fit for him, and for the Clippers, because they had traded Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler to the Suns in a package deal to acquire Redick and Jared Dudley.
He was a player Clippers coach Doc Rivers targeted after the Bledsoe trade and someone he knew the Clippers could lean on if Paul were ever sidelined.
“It’s been good,” Rivers said. “D.C.’s doing a great job of moving the ball. He’s different. He can put ball pressure for the entire time on the floor. That’s makes us different and some ways better defensively up the floor. You just adjust and you plan for that just in case something like this does happen.”
Even though he’s on the bench, Paul has become an extension of the coaching staff while he’s sidelined and can often be seen talking to Collison during timeouts and breaks in the action. Their conversations, however, have changed since Collison was a rookie four years ago in New Orleans.
“D.C. is a grown man. I don’t feel like I need to sit him down and say, ‘Hey, this is what you’ve got to do here.’” Paul said. “For me and him, we’ve been talking. Before the San Antonio game, I told him some things that I saw and it’s a different role for him now, too. It’s more minutes; he’s playing with a different group of guys. He understands, but I’ll also be there for him to lean on.”
Collison’s role is also different than it was four years ago. It’s not so much about putting up great numbers and proving he’s capable of being a starter in this league as much as it is trying to keep the Clippers atop the Pacific Division and making sure they’re still a top four seed in the West when Paul comes back.
“This time around I’m just focusing on helping this team win,” Collison said. “I think my rookie year, when I came in it was a surprise. But this time, I’m just trying to help this team win and making sure we get a good position in the playoffs.”
Collison will get a chance to start against two of his former teams in the Mavericks and Pacers over the next three games as he continues to show he is still capable of being a starting point guard in the NBA while also keeping the Clippers’ playoff positioning unchanged without Paul.
“I’m just trying to get more continuity,” Collison said. “I’m still getting used to playing with the first unit and finding that chemistry and making sure that execution is there. Despite how well we’ve been playing lately, I still feel like we can improve.”