Chauncey Billups Hungry for Another Ring

There were no smiles or celebrations on the faces of the Denver Nuggets late on the night of May 29.

The team no one expected to play late in April, let alone May, had just suffered a season-ending, heart-breaking loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. But behind the sadness and disappointment was joy. This team, thought by many to be headed for the draft lottery, nearly pulled off a stunner. The Nuggets came within two wins of reaching their first ever NBA Finals, and even in losing they saw a bright future.

Leading them into that promising future is native son Chauncey Billups.

“It’s tough,” Billups says. “But when we get a chance to sit back and reflect and look on the year, it was a historical year for us. And it wasn’t just me, what I brought to the table. It was everybody as a unit. I think as a team we grew up this year together.”

The Nuggets growth came with a lot of celebration. They celebrated another Northwest Division title, their second in four seasons, and they won a franchise-tying 54 games.

But to someone like Billups, that wasn’t enough. The lone player on the Nuggets with an NBA title in his pocket, he had aspirations of winning another for his hometown team.

To the All-Star point guard, playing deep into the playoffs has become a rite of spring. The 32-year-old Billups, the King of Park Hill and pride of George Washington High School, has now appeared in seven straight conference finals, the first six with the Detroit Pistons. Does it ever get old to play this long?

“No. Not even close,” Billups says without hesitation. “You never get tired of that.”

Not since the 1980s has one player consistently made it this far in the postseason. The Showtime Lakers of that decade reached eight straight Western Conference finals, winning four titles in that time. Billups, thanks to a November trade with Detroit that brought him home, has reached heights that Larry Bird and Michael Jordan never did.

“I’ve been lucky enough to be on some great teams, obviously, getting to the conference finals seven times in a row,” Billups says.

He can now count Denver in that group, but before his homecoming on November 3, the Nuggets were already turning things around. After two years of focusing on offense, head coach George Karl and his staff focused on defense from the start of training camp.

“There was a change of personality before he got here,” Karl says. “There was a major cultural change of defense first, a more professional attitude. And when we made the Chauncey trade you brought the guy in that had written the book on the fundamentals we were trying to regroup in Denver.”

Billups’ success in Detroit was no fluke. Before he signed with the Pistons in July 2002, Detroit hadn’t been to a conference final since 1991 and had won only one playoff series in that span.

After he arrived in the Motor City, deep playoff runs were expected, not hoped for. In his six full seasons there Detroit was 69-47 in the playoffs and won the 2004 title, and Billups was the finals MVP.

Now he’s helped resurrect the Nuggets, who, since upsetting Karl’s Seattle SuperSonics in 1994, had lost seven straight playoff series.

“Chauncey’s been huge,” says Mark Warkentien, the vice president of basketball operations for the Nuggets. “Chauncey’s leadership is pretty obvious.”

That leadership is most evident in how the rest of the team has played in the playoffs, most notably Carmelo Anthony, who had, by far, his most productive postseason of his six-year career.

“Bringing him in was an amazing part,” Anthony says. “Even with the team we had last year – winning 50 games – we needed to bring in a guy of his caliber.”

It’s not just in Billups’ scoring or assists, it’s in the way he is always trying to make everyone better. During a playoff game against New Orleans, Billups, on the bench for some rest, called over guard J.R. Smith for a teaching moment while the Hornets shot free throws. Smith, now an eager student, hung on every word.

“Before, I played off of raw talent and passion, but now he has me thinking the game of basketball,” says Smith, who blossomed this year. “It’s the first time I’ve really done that since I picked up the ball.”

To Karl, having that coach on the floor, a guy who sees things on the court the way he sees things from the bench, has been important to the Nuggets’ success this year.

“He believes in defense, he believes in good shots, he’s the quarterback, he wants to orchestrate and quarterback team efficiency,” Karl says. “Other than maybe Jason Kidd I don’t know if you could have picked a better point guard that we could have gotten.”

Karl says Billups has been a bridge to the team, a leader who relays his message and helps his teammates buy into Karl’s way of doing things.

“It’s a gift to basketball to have one of your best players be a great leader, a daily guy, a positive energy guy, a guy that gets through the muck of NBA losing and ego, and when he walks into that locker room he makes it work,” Karl says.

He makes it work in a way that few players have, and he’s one of the most respected competitors in the league. In fact, he won the 2008-09 Joe Dumars award for NBA sportsmanship, which is voted on by the players.

Billups says when he first got to the Nuggets he sat back and watched how his teammates played and tried to figure out how to make them better individually. After that, he became more vocal and let his true leadership qualities take over.

It wasn’t easy, but it was something he felt was necessary.
“All the things that I supposedly had brought to the table, it wasn’t just a given, I had to really bring to the table,” he says. “I tried to take charge at times when you least expected.”

He did it right off the bat in the 2009 playoffs, scoring 36 points in the postseason opener against the Hornets. In Game 2, he threw in 31 and the Nuggets were rolling – and his teammates followed right to the conference finals.

Now everyone else on this team knows what it’s like to play this deep in the playoffs, so when they gather again in October, they’ll be hungry to give Billups his eighth straight trip to the conference finals.

“One thing that we got this year that's invaluable is experience. Now we know as a team what it takes in a lot of these situations,” he says. “I think we learned a lot of lessons throughout the seasons, and especially in the playoffs.

“When I first got here, we were just really trying to make the playoffs. Two or three weeks after that, when we got off to a great start, we re-evaluated our goals and said, ‘All right, we want to win the division and get homecourt advantage.’ We’ve constantly re-evaluated our goals and made them bigger and better all season.”

While others might be happy with this historic run, Billups has bigger goals. He has a title, he has an MVP trophy and he has given his hometown a great ride. Still, at 32, he’s still hungry for another title.

“I come to win, man, and I try to do the best I can every night,” he says. “For one reason, and that’s to win. Not for anything else.”

Michael J. Kelly is Denver-based freelance writer and a former Nuggets beat writer for the Longmont Daily Times-Call.