Smooth in Transition

Feb. 20, 2006
Feb. 20, 2006

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Feb. 20, 2006

SI Bonus Section: Golf Plus
SI Players: Life On and Off The Field
2006 Olympics Turin
Ozzie Guillen

Smooth in Transition

New coach? O.K. New system? Sure. Nobody has handled change better than Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, who in his sixth NBA stop might become the first journeyman MVP

EVERY NIGHT isreunion night for Chauncey Billups, who spends a good portion of his pregamewarmup time rapping with opponents. His Pistons coach, Flip Saunders, calls hima "walking address book," and teammates Rip Hamilton and AntonioMcDyess shake their heads and ask, "Damn, Chaunce, do you know everybody inthis league?" Just about. "What you have to understand," saysBillups, "is that I played with half of them." If the 6'3" pointguard goes on to become this season's Most Valuable Player--he's on a shortlist that includes Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, 2005 winner SteveNash of the Phoenix Suns and Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks--he will bethe first to have carried the tag journeyman. Since Boston drafted Billups outof Colorado No. 3 in the 1997 draft, he has had six addresses (Boston, Toronto,Denver, Orlando, Minnesota and Detroit) and the voices of eight differentcoaches booming down his auditory canals. In Boston he was told he wasn't asgood as an aging Kenny Anderson; in Denver he was told he wasn't as good as avolatile Nick Van Exel; in Orlando he was told, well, nothing, and was allowedto pack his bags as a free agent after the 1999-2000 season; in Minnesota hewas told he wasn't as good as an injured Terrell Brandon and was again toldthat he was free to move on.

This is an article from the Feb. 20, 2006 issue Original Layout

"Can youimagine how I felt?" says Billups. "I came in as the third pick, andthree years later I'm a player who was of no value to anybody. That was a darktime."

And now there isonly light. As he tells his story of redemption, while sitting in the lobby ofthe Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia, Billups marvels at the trajectory ofhis career. Rarely do journeymen find a happy home--that's why they're known asjourneymen--and never do they become MVPs. Nash, drafted by Phoenix, traded tothe Dallas Mavericks and re-signed by the Suns as a free agent, is an anomalyamong the award's recipients, having won the honor with his third team. Since1976 four others (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers, Moses Malone of theHouston Rockets, Charles Barkley of the Suns and Shaquille O'Neal of theLakers) were named MVP while with their second team, and, with the exception ofMalone, they were there because they had wanted to be moved.

Even when he wasnamed MVP of the Finals after Detroit's 2004 championship, Billups wasconsidered a bit of a post-season fluke; during the regular-season MVP votingthat year, he had received no votes. "It's been a crazy ride," says the29-year-old Billups, "but it's made me grow up fast--and appreciate whereI'm at now."

Where he's at nowis in rarefied air. From the start of the season the Pistons, 41-9 throughSunday, have been so much better than the rest of the league that their maincompetition has been the history books. Even if they fall short of joining the1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the only teams to win 70 games, Detroit has providedthe NBA with something not seen since the 1985-86 Celtics: a starting five thatis more often spoken of in collective terms rather than individual ones. (Towit: More than one Eastern Conference coach voted for all five Detroit startersto play in this weekend's All-Star Game.) "They're like five fingers of onehand doubled up in a fist," says Magic vice president Pat Williams."They're perfect in age, experience, talent and attitude. We haven't seenthat in a long time."

A major factorworking against Billups's MVP candidacy is the balance of Detroit's startingunit, which includes Hamilton at shooting guard (nonstop energy and a team-high21.7 points per game at week's end), Rasheed Wallace at power forward (postmoves and three-point scoring), Tayshaun Prince at small forward (defense andball handling) and Ben Wallace at center (shot blocking and rebounding).Billups serves as the quarterback, distributing the ball well (8.5 per game,third in the league) and wisely (a 3.73 assist-to-turnover ratio) whiledelivering clutch shots from the field (42.3%) and the free throw line (91.1%).All but Prince made this year's All-Star team, which ironically takes some ofthe shine off Billups's star. "Their team is so good," says Miami Heatpoint guard Gary Payton, "all five could be MVP." San Antonio Spursguard Brent Barry concurs. "They play such a great team brand of basketballthat their guys don't seem to stand out individually." Even Los AngelesClippers point Sam Cassell, who bestows upon Billups the ultimate Sammy-love("He reminds me of myself"), doubts Billups can win it. "Anindividual award for a guy on that team? I don't see it."

Others do, theirviewpoint best expressed by another point guard having an All-Star season."Steve Nash was MVP last year because he was the best player on the teamthat had the best record," says the Spurs' Tony Parker. "Well, thePistons have the best record now. Obviously, it's the whole starting fiveplaying well, but Chauncey is the mastermind behind all that and the one whotakes the big shots in the fourth quarter."

MVP talk, however,makes winning teams nervous. The Nash-led Suns have been one of the NBA's mostcohesive teams, but even they had rifts last year when the attention given Nashchafed at mainstays Amaré Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. Bring up MVP with thesePistons, and you'll get some variation of the stock answers supplied byHamilton ("Man, we don't pay attention to any of that stuff") andBillups ("It's a team thing with us"). It remains for one of the oldguard, erstwhile Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer, now a Pistons color analyst, to tell itlike it is. "They all have their roles, they're all important and, really,Rasheed might be the best talent," says Laimbeer, "but Chauncey is thebest player."

These Pistons haveboth an us-against-the-world attitude and a we-can-be-nasty toughness thatrecalls the Bad Boy teams that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and '90. Theyare distant, if not abrasive (well, 'Sheed can be), an insular group thatresists deconstructing itself around outsiders. If there is an ambassador onthe team, it is Billups, who plays a similar role to the one that guard JoeDumars did for the Bad Boys: a player able to bare-knuckle it on the court yetcome across as warm off it, a mixture of street cred and backroom diplomacy."I'm part of hip-hop nation to the core, but I know how to treat people andI'm respectful," says Billups. "I know how to walk between thoseworlds."

In basketballparlance there's a word for that kind of talent: tweener, a label Billups hascarried since his earliest hoops-playing days. Being a tweener wasn't a problemback in his native Denver, where labels like playground legend and high schoolstar were also bestowed upon him. Bobby Wilkerson, who played on Indiana'sundefeated 1976 NCAA-champion team and with the Denver Nuggets, gave Billupsthe nickname Smooth when he coached him as a grade school player at SkylandRecreation Center in the northeast section of town. A four-time state player ofthe year at George Washington High, Billups loved the moniker, in part becausehe never has been completely comfortable as a Chauncey ("It was a motherthing") and, on a few occasions, he says he was compelled to demonstratethat boys bearing the name of an English butler also know something about bareknuckles.

Nor was being atweener a problem at Colorado, where he was a second-team All-America after hissophomore season, his final one in Boulder. Nor did it seem to be an issue whenonly Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn got picked ahead of him in the draft.Billups couldn't have been happier with his destination: Boston, which had justhanded the coaching and operational reins to Rick Pitino, whose aggressive,uptempo style was perfect for Billups. Or so the rookie thought.

Then, suddenly,tweener became a dirty word. In the eyes of Pitino, Billups was twice cursed, atweener in both skill set (he didn't have the pass-first mentality to be apoint guard) and size (though blessed with scoring ability, he didn't have theheight to get off his shot as a two). Less than two thirds of the way into hisrookie season he was traded to Toronto for Anderson, a more traditionalslick-ball-handling, direct-the-offense point guard. "You can call tweenerscombo guards," says Saunders, "but it comes down to the same thing. Theway people see it, combo guards rarely become great players." One couldargue that two of the best players in league history, Oscar Robertson and JerryWest, were combo guards, but the former is still recognized as a point and thelatter as a shooting guard. Ditto for the versatile Pistons backcourt of Dumarsand Isiah Thomas; they could switch positions seamlessly, but Joe D was stillprimarily the shooter and Zeke the QB.

Billups couldn'tget traction at either position. "People wanted him to be a point guardbefore he was ready," says Nash. "It takes time. He could alwaysplay." Van Exel is more direct: "When Chauncey was in Denver, he wouldplay point guard for about two minutes, and then, for whatever reason, for theother minutes he was out there. He was out of control a little bit."

It's doubtful thatany self-respecting point guard would appreciate a Basketball 101 lesson fromVan Exel, but Billups doesn't disagree with the assessment. Scoring, heexplains, became his means of survival. "What I latched onto was that theygotta know they can count on me to score," he says. "Maybe I overtried,because it turned out to be a disadvantage. It took me a while to understandthat a shoot-first point guard can mess up a team's rhythm. I can understandwhy some teams wanted to get rid of me."

There was oneteam, though, that wanted him. Badly, in fact. "Eight times over two yearsI called [Minnesota general manager] Kevin McHale trying to get Chauncey,"says Dumars, the Pistons' G.M. since 2000. "What other people saw as aliability I saw as an asset. Oh, he's not strictly a point guard and notstrictly a shooting guard? I said, 'Wow. I want that problem.'" Dumars sawsomething in Billups that reminded him of himself. "Heck," says Dumars,"the guy was wearing my number, too." (Billups had to take jerseynumber 1 when he got to Detroit since Dumars's 4 is retired.)

McHale refused totrade Billups, but neither he nor Saunders, Minnesota's coach at the time,would start him over Brandon, who was making $10 million per. Billups didn'twant to hang around as a backup and in July 2002 signed Dumars's six-year,$33.7 million free-agent offer, which turned out to be a bargain for thePistons. Though almost everyone forgets it now, the sudden upturn in Billups'scareer began in his first season in Detroit, under coach Rick Carlisle. Nowcoach of the Indiana Pacers, Carlisle is to control offense what Bergman is toangst. "Rick called all the plays," says Billups. "But he came totrust me to quarterback his offense. That was huge. It was under Rick that Istopped looking over my shoulder."

Although Carlisletook Detroit to the Eastern finals in 2003, Dumars replaced him with LarryBrown, and Billups's ascent continued. Revisionist history about the Larry Erais already rampant--the Pistons hated playing for him; Larry drove Chaunceycrazy from Day One--but Billups owes Brown a giant debt. Wake Billups up in themiddle of the night, dose him with sodium pentothol, and the story will notchange. "Larry made me believe that I could have 10 assists, a couple ofsteals and only nine points and still dominate the game," says Billups."Nobody ever made that point to me that strongly. He made me a morecerebral player and a better all-around player."

Billups laughs."Now, Larry, man, he is an animal. There were nights when I'd come homefrom a road trip, wake up my wife and say, 'Man, you can't believe what he goton me for tonight.' But don't ever think I didn't learn from the man."

Given their timetogether in Minnesota, one might have expected awkwardness between Billups andSaunders. There has been none. Saunders's offense has been perfect for Billups,who makes a lot of the play calls. (Both say they've reached the point wherethey would make the same call anyway.) Billups is allowed to--in fact, supposedto--push the ball if a fast-break opportunity presents itself, and he has thegreen light on threes, which he was shooting at a 43.2% through Sunday.

What isoverlooked, though, is what Billups did for Saunders. The coach was thenewcomer who, after 10 seasons in Minnesota and a 17-30 playoff record, had toshow he belonged on a team that had just won a championship. "You have apoint guard doing what Chauncey is doing," says Portland Trail Blazerscoach Nate McMillan, "well, he's made it comfortable for Flip, more thanthe other way around."

Billups agreesthat comfortable is a good word to describe his state of mind right now. He'scomfortable on the court, where he sometimes plays with a kind of half-smilesoldered on his face, as if he's in on a joke that nobody else knows. He'scomfortable in the locker room, whether kidding Rasheed about his new"little-boy haircut" or making sure that the credit gets spread around.He's comfortable at home, where he and his wife, Piper, are expecting theirthird child in July, a prospect that has made him hesitant about joining theU.S. Olympic team (for which he is a virtual lock) this summer.

"One thing aplayer can never do is lose his confidence," says Billups. "But I willadmit there were times when I thought, Maybe I wasn't meant to be a great NBAplayer. So to end up here, at a place where there is no ego, no care aboutwho's getting the most money or making the most commercials or taking the mostshots, man, that is like the end of a perfect dream."

He laughs."But don't think I want to go through the whole thing again."


Jack McCallum proposes five trades that need to happenby the Feb. 23 deadline at

"They're like five fingers of one hand doubled upin a fist," says Williams of Wallace (right) and the other Detroitstarters. "THEY'RE PERFECT in age, experience and attitude."
"They all have their roles, and, really, Rasheed(right) might be THE BEST TALENT," says former Bad Boy Laimbeer. "ButChauncey is the best player."
"An individual award for a guy on that team?"says Cassell. "I don't see it." Says Payton of Hamilton (left) &Co., "Their team is so good, ALL FIVE COULD BE MVP."
PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonTHE ENGINE Once dismissed as an overmatched combo guard, Billups can swish and dish with a dash befitting his childhood nickname, Smooth.PHOTOD. LIPPITT/EINSTEIN/NBAE/GETTY IMAGESWE FIRST Billups and Prince aren't the only Pistons to endure a bumpy ride to the top.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHPHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WALLACE)PHOTOGREG NELSONTHE INS AND OUTS Prince (22) can excel at the point or in the paint, while Wallace is as fierce a defender on the perimeter as he is underneath.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO