Three times, Chauncey Billups has come from, through or back to Denver, the hometown favorite playing for a local team. Three times, he has had so much to prove.
The first time, the dedicated kid out of Park Hill and George Washington High, after a couple of big-fish, small-pond years at the University of Colorado, was trying to show that a player from that hoops- and air-thin region could stick and star, anywhere, in the NBA.
The second time, Billups still was facing Mile High expectations and odds just as long. Already labeled a washout in Boston as the No. 3 pick in the 1997 draft -- maybe Rick Pitino never forgave Billups for not being Tim Duncan -- the local star had been traded once (to Toronto halfway through his rookie season), then traded twice (to his hometown Nuggets). But Nick Van Exel, an All-Star in mid-career, arrived at the same time. So Billups moved again -- first to shooting guard and then, after 58 games and a dislocated shoulder, to Orlando, mostly because his salary fit another multiplayer deal. By the start of the 2000-01 season, Billups was in Minnesota, his fifth team in barely three years. Then the Timberwolves gave up on him, too, banking on chronically injured Terrell Brandon (who never played again) rather than entrusting Billups with their offense in July 2002.
Now Billups is back in Denver for a third time. Home again. With something to prove again.
It's a different Chauncey Billups who returns this time, back with the Nuggets as part of the Allen Iverson deal with Detroit. He's the All-Star now, three times in fact, and an All-NBA and All-Defensive team fixture in recent seasons. A household name -- at least where the houses have backboards on the garages -- Billups totes home double-barreled nicknames; he's Smooth and Mr. Big Shot now, too, the playmaker and floor leader of Pistons teams that went to the last six Eastern Conference finals. In 2004, Detroit won a title and Billups was named Finals MVP. That one got him a seat on David Letterman's couch.
Certainly, Billups is wealthier, thanks to the five-year, $60 million contract he signed in July 2007, on top of his $34 million free-agent deal to join the Pistons. So he's older, wiser, richer and ... did we say older? That's where the proving part comes in again.
What Billups has to show now is that, at age 32, he still can contribute as much as ever on the court, while bringing some pedigree to the Nuggets off the court. The player who took so relatively long to establish himself first as an everyday NBA player, then as a champion, needs to demonstrate that his best basketball years weren't spent entirely outside the Colorado state lines.
For this trade to be a success for Denver -- beyond avoiding whatever drama the emotional and headstrong Iverson would have brought over his final six months with the Nuggets -- Billups has to show that he's worth not only the $11 million he'll be paid this season but also the $13.2 million he is guaranteed as a 34-year-old point guard. (His $14.2 million for 2011-12 is a team option.) Affable where Iverson could be sullen, Billups still has to make fans at the Pepsi Center forget about the other guy not just in sound bites but as a force, asserting himself as a leader, facilitating Carmelo Anthony, staying healthy and defending his position against fleeter points such as Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose. Forget Iverson? Billups needs to make Denver fans forget recent Stephon Marbury rumors, too.
Given his resiliency and a memory, still fresh, always fresh, of what it feels like when people write him off on the wrong sides of trades, Billups has a terrific shot. Won't lack for motivation, either. Besides being moved along to make room for the Pistons' point guard of the future, Rodney Stuckey, Billups and veteran forward Antonio McDyess officially became the two pieces tossed overboard by president Joe Dumars in his promised overhaul of the roster. (McDyess reportedly could re-sign Detroit if Denver releases him.)
"It's all about guts," Billups once said, and it's an old quote from back in 2003 that applies anew. "I've had so many ups and downs, I'm not scared of being down. ... I always believed in my abilities, man. Nobody ever gave me anything in my life. I had to work for everything I got. It may have gotten really rocky for a while, but I persevered, because I'm not afraid of failing.''
His first time in Denver, he was nothing but promise. The second time, a piece of bruised fruit, repeatedly handled and put back. This third time, though, he is a different player, a different guy, a man. Billups already has the key to the city, presented to him by Denver's mayor after the Pistons won their rings. All anyone expects from him now is a key to the Nuggets' ignition, which doesn't seem so terribly much to ask.