Clippers need to keep Jamal Crawford engaged at all costs

Stephen Dunn

Jamal Crawford has returned to Sixth Man of the Year form in 2012-13, but will the return of Chauncey Billups disrupt his established role?

The Los Angeles Clippers are a playoff-caliber team, and that's undeniable.

What remains a question, however, is if they have what it takes to take a substantial step forward in the postseason. They've got all the elements of an elite team -- multiple superstars, an outstanding coaching staff and cohesiveness that has them believing in one another.

In addition to all of that, they have a dangerous second unit that ranks second in the NBA behind only the Milwaukee Bucks in scoring. Their ability to sustain leads and even build on them will be the difference for the Clippers this season.

It all begins and ends with newcomer Jamal Crawford, who has returned to his Sixth Man of the Year form from the 2009-10 season when he won the award while with the Atlanta Hawks. That year, he averaged 18.0 points per game, 3.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists. The Hawks finished with a 53-29 record that season and ended up losing to the Orlando Magic in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

This season looks similar from a numbers standpoint. Crawford is averaging 17.5, 1.9 and1.6 and has looked as good as ever at age 32. The only thing that could curtail another special season for the veteran would be a lack of ample playing time.

With the return of Chauncey Billups, a clear boost for the team, Crawford's minutes could dwindle. That poses a challenge for head coach Vinny Del Negro to keep his best scoring threat engaged. Crawford is a consummate professional, but scorers like him need floor time and an adequate number of looks to keep their rhythm.

Crawford has averaged nearly 29 minutes per game this season. Since Billups' return, he's played 27.3 and 29.8. That's coming from a small sample size of just two games and an average of 28.6. But Billups hasn't played starter's minutes in those contests, either. With the backcourt becoming slightly more crowded, it'll be up to the coaching staff to find ways to utilize their top scorer while working Billups back into the mix at the same time.

The Clippers are winning. At 10-6 and tied for first place in the Pacific Division, their current rotations are working. The Crawford-Billups dynamic is still a situation that the coaching staff will have to monitor consistently.

Come playoff time, Crawford will be a major part of any potential success they'll have.

Catch up with the author on Twitter @MikeJonesTweets

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