During the national anthem and shortly after the game, Chauncey Billups, wearing a designer suit, was standing amongst the Clippers’ players and coaches, catching up with his former teammates.
It was a familiar sight, but thankfully for the Clippers, it was an image that is now in their rearview mirror.
As respected as Billups is, the truth is his presence and stranglehold on the starting shooting guard position (whenever he was able to play, that is) was never a solid long-term plan for a team that is trying to contend for the next five years.
That’s not to say the Clippers failed to get out of the first or second round of the playoffs the past two seasons because of Billups, but the Clippers' insistence on depending on a 37-year-old guard who hadn’t played more than 22 games in a season for a team since 2011 was always a recipe for disaster.
Billups started just 22 games for the Clippers last season after returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon. He started just 20 games the previous season before suffering the injury. Instead of moving on, the Clippers continued to wait for Billups to return to the player he was before the injury, which was never going to happen.
Injuries happen, that’s part of basketball. No one knows that better than the Clippers, who are in the midst of playing without Chris Paul for six weeks after playing without J.J. Redick for six weeks, but that’s different than helplessly waiting around on a player who should have retired and was never going to return to All-Star form.
The Clippers don’t have a Billups problem on their hands this season. They knew Redick would return to form when he came back and Paul will eventually return to form when he comes back. They also aren’t depending on veterans who are past their prime -- like Grant Hill -- to contribute off the bench. As good as Billups and Hill might have been in the locker room, the truth is both should have retired before last season instead of being counted on as key players on a contending team.
When Doc Rivers came to Los Angeles, one of his first moves was to get a prototypical shooting guard who could, well, shoot, unlike Billups, who was a true point guard and shot less than 40 percent from the field with the Clippers. The Clippers made a trade and added Redick, who is shooting better than 45 percent from the field this season, and Jared Dudley, who replaced Caron Butler, another aging veteran on the Clippers who was well past his prime.
“It’s always nice to have a shooter who can move because it gives you a different kind of offense,” Rivers said. “It also helps both bigs be able to play on the floor more.”
Dealing with his players’ roles and expectations has always been one of Rivers’ better traits as a coach. It’s the ability to tell Antawn Jamison, who was upset with his diminished role last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, that he wanted him to come to the Clippers not to be a major contributor but rather be a leader in the locker room. The ability to tell Willie Green, who started 60 games last season in place of Billups, that he wanted him to be part of the team as well but not as a starter.
It’s a big reason Jamison and Green are two of the leaders in the Clippers’ locker room despite rarely getting on the court. That’s a big difference from Billups and Hill’s roles last season when both were not only leaders in the locker room but depended on to contribute on the court when they simply couldn’t.
“It is hard but in the veterans’ case they knew what they were getting when they came here,” Rivers said. “It’s still no fun. Everybody wants to play. You grew up playing basketball to play basketball, not to watch basketball. I don’t think that ever changes. I don’t care what age you are.
“It’s good to have a guy giving them positive information and not worrying about his playing time. A lot of the time you have veterans on the bench who are not happy about not playing and they don’t handle it well. Fortunately for us, our guys have been great. Willie Green and Antawn have been absolutely tremendous in that way.”
Green is 32 and has been in the NBA for 10 seasons while Jamison is 37 and has played 15 seasons. In their combined 25 seasons, the one common denominator between both players is neither has won a ring and that’s why they are more than happy being the role of locker room veterans on the team who rarely see the court. In fact, neither saw the floor against Detroit on Monday and haven’t played in the Clippers’ past four games.
“My biggest thing is the overall picture,” Jamison said. “The main reason I wanted to come here was to win. By me talking to DeAndre [Jordan], Blake [Griffin] and [Jared] Dudley when stuff is going on, I can let them see what I see and try to ease their mind a little bit and those guys are very receptive of what I have to say. They really take heed to it and that’s the biggest thing I can contribute.”
It hasn’t always been easy for Green, who was a starter for the majority of last season for the Clippers, including during their franchise-record 17-game winning streak and was quickly pulled as soon as Billups was healthy enough to play.
“I respect my teammates and when I’m not playing, I’m not one of those guys that’s moping and pouting and mad at the word,” Green said. “I want my teammates to do well. I want to be out there with them and try to help them get that win but if not, I’m going to cheer them on and help them on and be ready. I’ve been in this league long enough to know that things happen and when they do, you got to be ready to step up.”
Rivers made sure every player on the team from the stars to the reserves understood their roles before the season started. He met with each one individually and did the same with players he has added during the season, such as Hedo Turkoglu, who was signed last week. He knows he has a young team but they are all bound by one common goal and one simple fact -- none of them has won an NBA championship.
“The stars are going to be the stars,” Rivers said. “The role players, we got to get them to be stars in their role. I think the sell of that is important. The veterans are over themselves. They’re done with themselves. They’ve already had their day. They’re not trying to establish anything. They’re hungry and desperate to win. Young guys all say they want to win but they want their day and they really want to establish that. It takes time. With a young team, you have to convince them if you win, you will get your day.”