Top 50: Chauncey Billups, no. 19
The definitive ranking of the NBA’s best players.
by Russ Bengtson
Fifty-one games. That’s the chance Chauncey Billups got with the Boston Celtics after being selected with the third overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft. Larry Bird and Kevin McHale weren’t walking through that door, neither was Tim Duncan, and Rick Pitino was so caught up in what Billups wasn’t that he didn’t bother finding out what he was. By February of 1998, Billups was on his way to Toronto. The Raptors were even less patient, playing him for the final 29 games of the season before moving him to Denver that summer. Billups lasted all of 58 games with Denver, before they traded him to Orlando. Injured, he never played a single game for the Magic. That summer, he moved on once again, signing with Minnesota, where he stayed for two full seasons.
There’s a reason I started this piece by rehashing the past. Every top athlete—every top team, for that matter—manages to find motivation and insult even where there is none. You heard Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech, right? Even the most innocuous of statements gets twisted into bulletin board material when run through every player’s built-in Michael Jordan Translator. “He’s a nice guy” is heard as “he lacks that killer instinct.” “He’s the best player of his generation” sounds like “he couldn’t carry Dolph Schayes’s jock.” Even a simple “hey, what’s up” becomes “YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK YOU SUCK.” Teams that win titles after 60-plus win seasons where they blow out opponents on a regular basis after appearing in everyone’s pre-season favorites claim that “no one believed in us.” With perfectly straight faces. They actually believe this stuff. It’s revisionist history as it happens.
Chauncey? He didn’t have to make shit up to get motivated. By the time he signed with the Detroit Pistons in the summer of 2002, he was a 25-year-old veteran of five teams, none of which would ever be mistaken for the ’96 Bulls. If he thought that no one believed in him, it was probably because he’s been traded or dropped five times before he turned 26. It was probably because hardly anyone did. His third-pick career was looking more like Dennis Hopson’s than Michael Jordan’s. And five years in, he’d played in all of six playoff games.
Since then? Billups has kept it 100, so to speak, playing roughly 18 more than the requisite 82 every year. Since 2003, he’s led his team to the Conference Finals every single postseason. That’s seven straight Final Fours, if you’re keeping track. At Louisville, Rick Pitino dreams of waitresses that kind of streak.
But you know all this, right? How the lottery pick no one wanted went on to lead the Pistons to the 2004 (like GM Joe Dumars, winning the Finals MVP). How, after being traded back to Denver two games into the 2008-09 season, he turned another franchise around, leading them to the Conference Finals. Billups is like BASF—he makes everything…better.
Still, how good is he really? Statistically speaking, Billups is downright nondescript. He’s never led the league in a single major category. Or a minor one. “Mr. Big Shot” has never shot 45 percent from the floor, and has only averaged more than eight assists per game once. He doesn’t have the speed of Derrick Rose, the vision of Jason Kidd, or the hardware of Steve Nash. And he turned 33 last week. One could not only make the argument that Billups’s best days weren’t all that great to begin with, but that they’re behind him. It might not be a great argument, but you could make it.
But do so at your peril. For while—statistically, at least—Billups may do nothing great, he does everything very, very well. At 6-3, 200 pounds, he can post you up. He defends. He shoots close to 40 percent from three, and 90 percent from the line. He’s not looking to shoot much, but will gladly take the shots that matter most. And when he’s on the floor, you don’t only get production from him, but from everyone else. When Dumars traded Billups, both to save money and make room for Rodney Stuckey, he traded a little part of every other player on the team as well. Without their leader, the Pistons spiraled downward, losing in the first round of the playoffs. Billups went back to the Conference Finals, and Allen Iverson—considered by many to be the superior player—went home. And, quite possibly, insane.
At his best, Chauncey Billups makes teams work. He does his part, and makes sure you do yours. And that’s why he’s here.
• Rankings are based solely on projected ’09-10 performance.
• Contributors to this list include: Jake Appleman, Brett Ballantini, Russ Bengtson, Toney Blare, Shannon Booher, Myles Brown, Franklyn Calle, Gregory Dole, Emry DowningHall, Jonathan Evans, Adam Fleischer, Jeff Fox, Sherman Johnson, Aaron Kaplowitz, John Krolik, Holly MacKenzie, Ryne Nelson, Chris O’Leary, Ben Osborne, Alan Paul, Susan Price, Sam Rubenstein, Khalid Salaam, Kye Stephenson, Adam Sweeney, Vincent Thomas, Tzvi Twersky, Justin Walsh, Joey Whelan, Eric Woodyard, and Nima Zarrabi.
• Want more of the SLAMonline Top 50? Check out the archive.