Without his poise and presence they were losing games they had won before he tore his left Achilles’ tendon on Feb. 6. Shots that found their way in without fail during their first 22 games didn’t fall anymore. They were letting too many opponents back into games and squandering too many leads.
“I think when you’re losing to sub-.500 teams it’s alarming. You’ve got to dig in and look at why,” General Manager Neil Olshey said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating. You look at a team that you can’t beat New Jersey on the road and then you come back and beat San Antonio on the road at the end of a road trip.”
The Clippers’ acquisition of shooting guard Nick Young in a three-way deal with Washington and Denver on Thursday won’t cure all the ills that have dropped them to second behind the Lakers in the division and into a battle for the fourth spot in the West. But the price of seldom-used forward Brian Cook and the 2015 second-round draft pick they got in the Chris Paul trade was a relative steal for a shooting guard who can provide needed size in the backcourt, another legitimate scoring option and capable defense when he’s challenged.
“You’re not going to replace a Chauncey Billups, his experience and his leadership and what he brings to the court,” Coach Vinny Del Negro said. “I think Nick will give us another explosive scorer out there.”
The deal wasn’t finalized until two hours before the Clippers squandered a 17-point lead over the Steve Nash-less Phoenix Suns in a 91-87 loss at Staples Center that left them 9-11 since Billups exited the lineup. Young, who averaged 16.6 points per game on 40.6% shooting for the woeful Wizards, isn’t expected to make his Clippers debut until Tuesday.
That delay postpones the thorny decision on how Del Negro will handle an even bigger glut of guards alongside Paul. “A good problem to have,” Olshey said. For now, it looks like Young will start and Randy Foye will go back to the bench.
“Of course that’s the biggest issue, managing the personnel, managing the minutes and trying to make it all work in terms of chemistry,” Del Negro said. “And this group is just getting together. We’ll see how it all comes together. I’m not sure there’s a perfect game plan now.”
If it wasn’t a game-changing trade, there were precious few of those around the NBA on deadline day. Dwight Howard stayed in Orlando, at least for now. Forward Michael Beasley stayed in Minnesota, despite rumors he would become a Laker. Pau Gasol stayed with the Lakers, whose acquisition of point guard Ramon Sessions was more strategically smart than earth-shaking.
If the Clippers had stood still, they risked falling behind.
“I think guys got better. It looked like it was going to be pretty quiet, and I think what you saw was people think the field is pretty open right now,” Olshey said of moves made by West rivals. “I don’t think there’s a dominant team that anybody’s afraid of or kind of has it wired. And I think what you saw was teams that are in the mix right now try and move the needle and get better.
“The Lakers got better today. They added two key pieces and what they conveyed in terms of picks, that’s not going to help them win any games right now. I think Houston got better today.”
Whether the Clippers also got better remains unclear. But there’s no doubt they’re experiencing some serious turbulence, and Olshey was almost prophetic in explaining it before the game Thursday.
“I think we haven’t put the hammer down on teams. I think we’ve kind of played the game more to get into the last three minutes and put a lot of pressure on Chris to close out games,” he said. “And what happened in a lot of them, we weren’t getting the defensive stops. We were getting to the basket but we weren’t getting defensive stops.”
That was true again Thursday, when the Suns surged ahead, 89-87, and the Clippers couldn’t catch up.
“I hope Nick as an asset is another guy with some firepower off the bench and a defensive presence and gives us another tool Vinny can use to start winning more of those winnable games,” Olshey said.
They let another winnable game slip away Thursday. Time for that hammer. And some help.