NBA

Chauncey Billups: From Vagabond to Big Shot

Jan 20, 2014; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Detroit Pistons shooting guard Chauncey Billups (1) warms up before the game against the Los Angeles Clippers at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most unique careers in NBA history came to an end today as Chauncey Billups announced his retirement. Injuries limited the soon-to-be 38-year-old to just 61 games over his final three seasons, which he split between the Los Angeles Clippers and Detroit Pistons. He’s remembered best for his accomplishments during in his first stint in Motown, where he helped lead the Pistons to six consecutive 50 win seasons — including appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals every year from 2003 to 2008 — two Eastern Conference titles, and the 2004 NBA championship. He’s long been rumored to be a candidate for a front office job, possibly even a General Managership, and was one of the most widely respected veterans in the game during the twilight of his playing career.

Though his impressive resume and elevated stature are common knowledge to most NBA fans, Chauncey Billups’ success was far from a sure thing. In fact, he had to overcome a rather inauspicious start in the NBA to become the respected figure he is today. He was employed by five different teams before his 24th birthday. Between the night he was drafted (June 25th, 1997) and the day he made the decision that altered the course of his career (signing a five year, $27 million deal with the Pistons on July 17, 2002), Billups was traded three times and granted free agency twice.

The third overall pick of the 1997 NBA Draft, Billups spent two seasons at the University of Colorado, where he led the Buffaloes to their second 20-win season in school history (1996-97) and first NCAA tournament appearance in more than a quarter century. Billups averaged 18 points, six rebounds and five assists on 41/38/86 shooting splits during his time in Boulder, leading the Buffaloes in scoring, three-point shooting, free throws, assists and steals during his sophomore season, which was capped by an upset victory over Indiana in the first round of the NCAA tournament and a loss to eventual Final Four participant North Carolina.

Boston, still reeling in the disappointment of missing out on winning the 1997 lottery (and the chance to select Tim Duncan), took Chauncey third overall. He struggled to adjust to Rick Pitino’s breakneck pace, and in February, the Celtics’ “point guard of the future” (as Pitino had called him) was shipped to Toronto in a seven-player deal, setting off a journey that would see him endure injuries (especially to his shoulder, which sidelined him for most of the 1999-2000 season), questions about his true position (Denver couldn’t figure out whether he was a point guard or shooting guard), belief he was a draft bust (Orlando, who acquired then released him without ever seeing him suit up in a game) and being blocked on the depth chart (behind Terrell Brandon in Minnesota).

Billups’ struggles weren’t solely due to factors outside his control; he shot under 38% from the floor and 33% from beyond the arc during his first three seasons in the league, and had a lackluster assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7-to-1) as well. It wasn’t until he signed with Minnesota that his career began to take off, but they, too, allowed him to leave in the summer of 2002. Upon arriving in Detroit, he really flourished, averaging 17 points and six assists on 42/40/89 splits over his six full seasons there. Billups continued his winning ways in Denver before being shipped to New York as part of the Carmelo Anthony deal, and although he was amnestied during the summer of 2011, he was still a productive player at the time. He finished with five All-Star appearances (2006-2010) and the 2004 Finals MVP trophy, amazing considering how many organizations he passed through on his way to stardom.

Billups’ story is extremely unique. Since 1980, 24 players have accumulated 120 or more career win shares. Among them, only Jason Kidd and Steve Nash were traded before the end of their 4th NBA season (technically, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Ray Allen were traded on draft night, but once they began their playing careers, their teams stuck with them). Mr. Big Shot, as he came to be known, wasn’t just traded once, but three times, and granted free agency twice, all before his sixth year in the league.

The fact that the list of traded players includes solely point guards is telling, and perhaps reveals the real lesson of Chauncey Billups’ career: above anything else, point guard prospects need time and patient organizations to grant them the opportunity to develop. There is no substitute for game experience, stability within an offensive framework, and the confidence gained from repetition. Mike Conley’s second contract was viewed as a massive overpay before he rewarded the Grizzlies’ faith by blossoming in his fourth season (at age 23). Kidd and Nash both had up-and-down early years before finding their footing a few seasons in. Even super-athletes like Russell Westbrook (third season) and John Wall (fourth) needed seasoning before they became great floor generals for winning teams.

In light of Billups’ story, perhaps the fans of — for example — the Timberwolves (Ricky Rubio) and Jazz (Trey Burke) can learn to be patient while their raw, enigmatic, and occasionally frustrating young point guard learns to put his game together. Because if Boston, Toronto, Denver, Orlando, and Minnesota could go back in time, they probably would’ve held onto young Chauncey when they had the chance. While it’s questionable whether Rubio or Burke will ever become a perennial All-Star or Finals MVP , it’s better to hold on too long (within reason) than send him away, only to watch the blossoming happen elsewhere.

Chauncey Billups haunts the memories of coaches and executives who passed on him without being willing to wait long enough for him to put it all together. The postseason accolades and respect of his peers are undoubtedly his greatest achievements, but for everyone else, his story is a cautionary tale. Don’t give up on talented point guards too early, lest they make you pay for your impatience.