An MRI conducted Tuesday confirmed the Los Angeles Clippers' fears: starting guard Chauncey Billups ruptured his left Achilles tendon in Monday's win over the Orlando Magic, ending his season.
Because Achilles ruptures are less common than ACL tears or microfracture knee surgery, they don't carry the same gravity, but the NBA track record with severe Achilles injuries is every bit as negative. While Billups vowed to Yahoo!'s Adrian Wojnarowski he will return, at age 35 his career is in jeopardy.
One of the interesting takeaways of my quick research on the modern history of ruptured Achilles is that I did not find any players who suffered the injury at such an advanced age. Generally, they have tended to strike players between 28 and 31. (Naturally, this is partially because most players in the league fall into this age band, but players older than 33 are still underrepresented.) Of the 11 players I found with ruptured Achilles tendons in the last two decades, four (including Isiah Thomas, who retired at 32 following a ruptured Achilles) never played in the NBA again. Just four returned to play at the same level by my estimation, though Dominique Wilkins' successful comeback is notable. Wilkins made two All-Star teams after a ruptured Achilles suffered at 32 and played until age 39. Here's the list of players I found:
Player Age Sea Same Notes
Jonas Jerebko 23 1+ Y Generally listed as "partial" rupture
Dan Dickau 27 2 Y
Elton Brand 28 4+ N Has started, but dropped from All-Star level
DeSagana Diop 28 1+ Y
Laron Profit 28 0
Sam Vincent 28 0 Retired
Mehmet Okur 30 2+ N
Gerald Wilkins 31 4 N
Isiah Thomas 32 0 Retired
Dominique Wilkins 32 5 Y Made two All-Star games after injury
Jerome James 33 0 Already on way out of league
For now, the Clippers' concern is how to replace Billups' size. Yes, size. On a list of Billups' most valuable traits, size would probably rank well behind his shooting ability, sure-handed ballhandling and veteran savvy, but it's been crucial for an undersized Lo Angeles backcourt this season. With sixth man Mo Williams taking on a larger role, the Clippers can replace much of Billups' offensive contributions but will have a more difficult time matching up defensively.
In terms of net plus-minus, Billups (+10.6 points per 100 possessions) is way ahead of Williams (-11.3) this season, per BasketballValue.com. On its own, that stat isn't particularly telling because of the stark contrast between the Clippers' starting lineup and its reserves. However, a breakdown of the team's performance by shooting guard does point to the defensive issues Williams creates at shooting guard.
Player Min ORtg DRtg Net
Billups 390.2 111.2 102.8 +8.4
Williams 209.9 114.8 114.9 0.0
Foye 312.2 101.5 103.0 -1.5
The Clippers have just been getting torched by opponents with Williams as an undersized two-guard. At 6-1, Williams gives up at least three inches to most opponents, who have been able to shoot over him with impunity. As a result, though the Clippers actually score best with Williams at shooting guard thanks to his impressive .592 True Shooting Percentage, they have merely played even with him on the floor. (Note that this does not include Williams-Billups backcourts, as BasketballValue considers Billups the shooting guard in that alignment.)
Limiting the stats to performance with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the floor only exaggerates the contrast.
Player Min ORtg DRtg Net
Billups 256.0 114.6 97.0 +17.6
Williams 113.5 121.5 116.0 + 5.5
Foye 20.4 92.7 85.0 + 7.7
With Billups alongside their holdover starters, the Clippers have crushed opponents all year long. Their starting lineup is +17.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any lineup that has played at least 100 minutes this season. Swap in Williams and this group is less dominant, again strictly due to the defensive end of the floor. We don't yet have enough of a sample to get a good read on what Vinny Del Negro plans to use as his new starting lineup, with Foye at shooting guard. However, Foye has been significantly less efficient as a scorer than both Billups and Williams this season (when his True Shooting Percentage is a paltry .499) and throughout his career.
The loss of Billups figures to have much less impact on the second unit, as the Williams/Foye pairing (-1.0 per 100 possessions) has been far more effective than Williams/Billups (-16.7) because of defense. With three guards capable of playing 30-plus minutes, the Clippers should feel comfortable in terms of playing time even without any contributions from second-year point guard Eric Bledsoe, who has played just one game since returning from arthroscopic knee surgery.
Already, there has been talk of the Clippers adding a free agent, centering primarily on J.R. Smith joining his former Denver teammate Kenyon Martin in L.A. That outcome seems unlikely. The Clippers will only have the minimum salary to offer Smith, who figures to be a primary target of the New York Knicks with their mini-mid-level. Still, the Clippers may be able to upgrade the position, or add additional size at small forward. Del Negro has made regular use of three-guard lineups with Billups or Foye at small forward, and neither group has been particularly effective. Again, the Clippers are simply giving up too much size to defend teams.
Before signing with New Jersey last week, 6-5 Keith Bogans would have been an ideal target for the Clippers. As it is, the options in free agency are limited. The Clippers might consider making a run at Michael Redd, who has started to shoot the ball well in Phoenix but could be expendable once the Suns determine they are out of the playoff race. Memphis' Sam Young could also help if the Clippers can find something of value to offer the Grizzlies.
The Clippers have enough talent on hand to survive the loss of Billups. In a tight Western Conference Playoff race, however, the drop they figure to suffer at the defensive end of the court might well mean the difference between contending for a division championship and a top-four seed and battling just to make the postseason.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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