By Vince Thomas, for NBA.com
Posted May 27 2009 10:26AM
In the 70's, it was Gus Williams. In the 80's, it was Dennis Johnson and Fat Lever. In the 90's, it was Kevin Johnson and Tim Hardaway. Every decade has a guard (or two) that a generation remembers, but history largely forgets. That better not happen to Chauncey Billups. Billups isn't just a Hall of Famer -- he's a first ballot Hall of Famer. Voters -- make that happen.
The Detroit Pistons captured nobody's imagination, partly because it's leader and best player (Billups) wasn't a star. Billups is ignorable. He is not Chris Paul or Steve Nash. He was never Jason Kidd. Chauncey was/is, fundamentally, a cog. But he's been the greatest and most influential cog of a generation. Every point guard that "doesn't get it," (like Gilbert Arenas) needs to study Billups' career. He was a shoot-first point guard that eventually recognized that it was best for him to blunt his talent and "orchestrate" -- brilliance in doses. Serve Rip, handle Sheed, win a ring.
Earlier this month, after the Nuggets reached the conference finals, we were greeted with this factoid: this is Billups' seventh consecutive conference finals. In each of those seasons, he was the teams' leader and, most often, their best player. That's the kind of historic stuff that bronzed busts canonize.
Billups never averaged 20 and 10 -- not even for a month. He didn't play with the Mount Vernon slickness of Gus, doesn't have four rings like DJ, never put up triple-doubles like Fat; there was no signature move like Hardaway's crossover and he wasn't the unstoppable scorer like KJ -- but Billups' exceptional career puts him in a different strata than those dudes. It's obviously not his stats. There's a slew of guards that ended their careers with Billups' modest 15 and 6. Billups, though, has been a transformational player, a Real Franchise Player. With Chauncey, the Pistons were a staid Eastern Conference powerhouse. From 2003-2008, we entered every season mentioning the Pistons among a handful of contenders. When Detroit slung that rock between Goliath's eyes and knocked off the Hall Of Fame Lakers, Chauncey was most responsible. Every year after that, he was (or, at least, should have been) in the MVP discussion. The Pistons weren't the Pistons because of Sheed, Tay, Rip or Ben. They were the Pistons because of Billups. That's not to disparage what that squad meant to the sports notion of collective synergy -- it's meant to identify what was actually at work in Motown.
Then Joe Dumars decided to ship Billups to Denver. What happened? Detroit crumbled and Denver is now a contender. That's what's exceptional about Billups -- he only plays for contenders. Chauncey doesn't do run-of-the-mill, primarily because he is not run of the mill and Billups' teams take on his identity. That's what Real Franchise Players do. A Real Franchise Player can come to Denver and father a team with a known "lunatic fringe" two wins away from the organization's first appearance in an NBA Finals.
Billups was the real Coach of the Year. It isn't easy to get K-Mart, J.R. and 'Melo to act right. George Karl knows this. Billups rolled up in Denver (one of the rare successful homecomings) and taught the squad how to win. Not win, but WIN, ya know? That's supposed to be the ultimate litmus test for the value of a pro career, right? How much do you win? This is the seventh year in a row we've spent watching Billups after Memorial Day. And this isn't a Kurt Rambis streak, either. Kurt's goggles caught elbows in eight straight conference finals, but Kurt and his mullet were just riding the Magic-Kareem-Worthy train. Billups is in his seventh conference finals as one of the lead actors. This isn't a Robert Horry thing.
Billups' teams win because Billups gets them victories. We call him Mr. Big Shot and we call him that for a reason. Check 82games.com. Billups is always near the top of the "clutch" and "super clutch" stats. There are more abstract ways to tell that Chauncey is one of the truly clutch players of his generation. If Billups' team is down one point and he's on the line at the end of the game, is he making both free throws? Of course he is, right? If Billups' squad is playing your favorite team and he pulls up for three in a tight game, you're wincing and covering your eyes, aren't you? That's what I'm saying. Those kind of reps don't snowball without a dude dropping ice-cold, killer buckets on the regular.
Back in 2006, when George Karl was struggling with a young Nuggets squad and Billups was averaging about 19 and 9, leading Detroit to a 64-18 record and (yawn) an Eastern Conference finals appearance, Billups came in 5th in the MVP voting -- the highest he'd ever finish. Karl, though, thought differently.
"The game of basketball needs a statement that a guy who runs his team -- and might not be the most talented -- but the guy who operates his team is as valuable as a skilled athlete that can make 25 or 30 [points] a night," is what he said that year on FOX Sports' The Best Damn Sports Show Period. I bet he thought the same thing this year.
When it's all done and Billups hangs it up, I just hope what he's done isn't clouded by his ordinary stats and the plain aesthetic of his game. His career is not an ordinary one. Gus, KJ, Fat, Hardaway, DJ -- their legacies are where they're supposed to be. Billups isn't in that crowd. Think about Billups as, say, his former boss Joe Dumars -- only better. Remember him as one of the best, most impactful players of his generation. And remember this the first time he's eligible for Springfield.
Vincent Thomas writes "The Commish" column for SLAM Magazine and is a contributing commentator for ESPN. His "From The Floor" column appears weekly on NBA.com. Vince invites you to email him at email@example.com or follow him on twitter at twitter.com/VinceCAThomas.
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