Chauncey Billups the Forgotten

(Allen Einstein/Getty Images)

Chauncey Billups is easily one of the most underrated and underappreciated point guards, and players, in NBA history. Here we will examine what made Billups such a special point guard and player, and also why he doesn’t get the recognition he deserves necessarily.

There are several reasons why Billups isn’t appreciated as much as he should be. First off, so much of what made Billups great does is not accounted for on the stat sheet. He was an excellent defender, as evidenced by his two All Defensive Team selections, his impact on team defense, and his great defense on guards in the playoffs (both of which will be addressed later on). So much of Billups’ greatness wasn’t tangible which led to his lack of appreciation in his career.

(Ron Turenne/Getty Images)

Another reason Billups doesn’t get enough recognition is because of the era he played in. The post-Jordan era has had arguably the most great point guards of any era, with the 2000s being dominated by guys like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, and more recently players like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving. With such a huge amount of great point guards playing at the same time, it’s only natural for a few to go without much of the limelight. It’s similar to how the 90s was an era dominated by great big men, so a lot of them go unappreciated (Alonzo Mourning, Rik Smits, etc.). Also, playing on a team like the Pistons doesn’t allow for a lot of individual recognition. Besides Isiah Thomas, has there been a legitimate superstar (we will make the case for Billups) to play for the Pistons? Their team is structured in a way that they pride themselves on depth instead of individual dominance.

(D. Lippitt Einstein/Getty Images)

Billups’ most remarkable feat is his sustained excellence. He made seven straight Conference Finals from 2003-2009. During his playoff career, his team was eliminated by an eventual champion four times (2005, 2006, 2008, 2009), and obviously by a Finals team every time. And out of every team that eliminated him, a legitimate argument could be made that his teams were only upset once, by the 2007 Cavs. This was an underrated team, but still only had one real offensive threat in the form of a young LeBron James. However, James was playing at a historically high level, torching the Pistons for 31-10-9-2 on 59% TS through the last four games to bring the Cavs to their first NBA Finals.

His profound impact on a team cannot be understated. As soon as Billups signed with the Pistons in the 2002 offseason, they went from being taken out in 5 to a weak Celtics team to making it to the Conference Finals. However, it should be noted that not only was Rasheed Wallace still in Portland, but Tayshaun Prince was a rookie and saw minimal time until the first round in the playoffs, so he wasn’t playing with 2 of the 4 integral pieces that he eventually won the championship with (the others being Richard Hamilton and Ben Wallace). The Pistons also improved defensively from 8th in the league in 2002 to 4th in 2003, and this was pre-Rasheed Wallace and with a rookie Tayshaun Prince. Once both of these pieces were intact, the Pistons under Billups never dipped below 4th in DRtg, even with multiple seasons without 4x DPOY Ben Wallace and HOF coach Larry Brown towards the end of his tenure. And as we will see later, with the other three starters from the 2004 championship team still on the Pistons without Billups, their defense suffered.

In 2004, Billups enjoyed the most successful year of his career. It is interesting to note that after Rasheed Wallace was traded to the Pistons mid way through the 2004 season, they boasted the greatest defense ever by opponent ppg average, with an astounding 79.7 ppg allowed. Though not for a full season, this remains the only sub 80 ppg allowed team in the shot clock era. Even more impressive about this is that it includes the playoffs. Billups had been swept by Kidd’s Nets the previous year, he was able to avenge this with a win over the Nets in 7 games and eventually an NBA Championship. In the 2004 ECSF, Billups had arguably the greatest defensive performance of his career, as his defense on Jason Kidd held him to an atrocious 10-7-9 on 28% FG. Keep in mind Kidd had carried two sub-par teams to the Finals the previous two seasons, so this was Kidd at his peak.

It was in the 2004 Finals that we see that Billups was indeed capable of outplaying superstars statistically, when the team needs it. He was never consumed with his numbers, and often sacrificed them for the benefit of his team. However when he needed to, he could outplay star players statistically, starting with Kobe Bryant in the 2004 Finals (Kobe: 23-3-4 on 46% TS, Billups 21-3-5 on 70% TS). He also outplayed Tony Parker in the 2005 Finals, with 20-5-6 on 57% TS to Parker’s 13-2-3 on 47% TS, guarding and locking down on the French PG throughout the series, though his team lost and was 7 points away from repeating as NBA Champions. Interestingly enough, one of the few times Billups outplayed a star on the stat sheet, his team was eliminated, further showing why he never needed to have outstanding numbers to have a huge impact.
In 2009, Billups had arguably the most impressive statistical performing series of his career, outplaying a prime Chris Paul, who was coming off of his best statistical year (23-6-11 on 60% TS). Billups did a great defensive job on Paul, who’s FG% (-9.2%), ppg (-6.2), apg (-0.6) and rpg (-1.1) all dropped from the regular season, while Billups led him in all of the aforementioned categories besides rebounding, where Paul grabbed 2 more over the course of 5 games. In only one prime year in the Western Conference, Billups was able to accomplish more than Paul ever has (a WCF appearance) in his 11 seasons in the same Conference, even with an inferior team to what Paul has been able to work with. Even Paul’s Hornets teams were arguably better than the 2009 Nuggets. Billups did not have a rebounder on the Nuggets the likes of a David West or Tyson Chandler like Paul did, or one of the greatest shooters of all time in Peja Stojakovic to spread the floor. The only advantage Billups had was his main scoring option, Carmelo Anthony, who not coincidentally saw his production increase to its peak with Billups.

While only spending two years with Billups, Anthony put up his absolute best playoff numbers while playing next to him, averaging 28 ppg on 46% FG. When you look at the rest of his playoff career, you can see how important Billups was to his production, as from 2004-08 without him in Denver he averaged 21 ppg on 39% FG, and with his time as a Knick in the playoffs, his scoring didn’t drop, but his efficiency did immensely, dropping to 40% FG. In his 22 playoff games with Billups, he shot 50% from the field or better in 10 of them (45%), but in the other 44 playoff games of his career has shot 50% or better only five times (11%).

While Billups enjoyed more success in Denver with his new team, his former team completely suffered without him to direct traffic.

2008 Pistons (Billups’ final prime year with Detroit):

  • 59-23 record (2nd in NBA)
  • 111.4 ORtg (6th in NBA)
  • 102.9 DRtg (4th in NBA)
  • Eliminated by Celtics in 6 games (eventual Champions).

2009 Pistons:

  • 39-43 record (17th in NBA, 8th seed in East)
  • 107.4 ORtg (21st in NBA)
  • 108.0 DRtg (16th in NBA)
  • Swept by Cavaliers (eliminated in ECF).

The 2009 Pistons also still had Tayshaun Prince, Richard Hamilton, and Rasheed Wallace, three of their core five from the 2004 championship team, yet they couldn’t even get a winning record without Billups after six straight ECF appearances and 50+ win seasons with him. The 2009 Pistons also acquired Hall of Fame guard Allen Iverson from this trade, and for all of the praise he receives, it’s a complete disappointment to see him barely make the playoffs running the same team Billups was an annual contender with.

(Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images)

The 2009 Nuggets did not improve mightily with the addition of Billups, but they were already a very good team with a 50-32 record, making it harder for Billups to improve them too drastically. It is noteworthy that the 2008 Nuggets were swept by the Lakers, but the 2009 Nuggets took a superior Laker team six games.

As we have seen, Billups was never a statistical freak, but was an offensive mastermind and had intangibles that made his teams better as a whole and teammates better individually. We already saw what Billups did to Carmelo Anthony’s production but his teammates in Detroit found a similar fate. Rip Hamilton, when playing with Billups from 2003-08 averaged 21 ppg on 44% FG in the playoffs, however in the 2009 playoffs, after Billups had been traded to Denver, he only averaged 13 ppg on a poor 36% FG. When looking at Tayshaun Prince, while he was mostly a defensive specialist, averaged 13 ppg on 44% FG during Billup’s tenure with Detroit, but his production slipped mightily to an abysmal 4 ppg on 26% FG. Even prior to becoming a star in Detroit, he was able to have a huge impact on Wally Szczerbiak’s career in Minnesota, who made his only all star game and had his only playoff run of 15+ ppg (had 20 ppg in 2002 playoffs) while playing next to Billups.

Beyond the simple scoring and efficiency boosts that his teammates got while playing next to him, he also was the clear leader and driving force behind an Eastern Conference powerhouse Pistons team. Billups had to carry a pretty large load for this amount of success, given that he was never considered a superstar. While his Pistons always boasted great defenses, none of his teammates were ever the best players on successful teams. The only successful teammates he had without him were Ben Wallace, who led the Pistons to one first round victory in 2002, only to get taken out in 5 by a weak Celtics team, and Rasheed Wallace, who experienced a bevy of playoff victories with Portland. However, it is definitely arguable who the best player on that team, as the Trail Blazers had a lot of solid players, such as Damon Stoudemire, Arvydas Sabonis, Steve Smith, and Bonzi Wells. Billups was clearly the reason that the Pistons were an annual contender. Additionally, none of his teammates on the Pistons have even a 50% chance to be in the Hall of Fame, unless you want to include coach Larry Brown, who is in the Hall of Fame currently. It is a testament to his greatness when you consider the fact that only a handful of all time great players have been able to make Finals appearances and even less win championships without a HOF teammate. Billups never had any true stars or great second options on his most successful teams. Even though the team had a productive second option in Hamilton, his scoring was mostly a result of Billups creating for him.

Billups’ offensive genius was also inhibited by Larry Brown, who admittedly he enjoyed the most success under. However, Brown was always known as a defense first coach, evidenced by the fact that in his over 25 years as a head coach in the NBA, his teams never had a top 5 offense. As soon as he left to coach the Knicks in the 2005 offseason, Billups was given more freedom in the offense under Flip Saunders. As a result, from 2006-08, the Pistons ranked 4th, 6th, and 6th, respectively in ORtg, and then dropped massively following his departure. Unfortunately, the old saying held true, defense wins championships, and though the Pistons were still elite defensively until Billups was traded to Denver, they never could sustain the same level of dominance that they did under coach Brown.

To show how successful Billups truly was at his peak, we will compare his team achievements to another star player in the Eastern Conference, LeBron James:

LeBron James (2004-10)

  • Led teams to 50+ wins four times.
  • Two ECF appearances.
  • One NBA Finals Appearance.
  • Zero NBA Championships.
  • Eliminated by four Finals teams.
  • Eliminated by two eventual Champions.

Chauncey Billups (2003-09)

  • Led teams to 50+ wins seven times.
  • Seven ECF appearances.
  • Two NBA Finals Appearances.
  • One NBA Championship (and Finals MVP).
  • Eliminated by seven Finals teams.
  • Eliminated by four eventual Champions (out of six total eliminations).

Billups’ team in his seven year span never won less than 50 games, another notable achievement when considering sub-50 win teams are very vulnerable come playoff time (Kobe, Duncan, Jordan, Russell, and LeBron are a combined 46-1 against sub-50 win teams). This is all while sustaining several coaching and roster changes, and Billups was still able to maintain great team success.

Now there are a few points that are bound to come up when discussing LeBron pre-Miami. The one thing people always bring up is LeBron’s lack of help. While I will agree he had minimal help, less than Billups, he did have a top 10 defense three times in this span and a top 5 defense twice. Billups’ teams under coach Brown (2004, 2005) were clearly far superior to any of LeBron’s teams defensively, but other than that they were comparable, especially taking into account his importance to the defense. Billups may have had better defensive pieces to work with like Ben Wallace, Tayshaun Prince, and Rasheed Wallace, but his teams still had top defenses without Ben Wallace (or coach Brown for that matter), and even with two other great defensive players, the Pistons’ defense plummeted upon his departure. Offensively, neither James nor Billups had a lock HOF teammate to depend on, and even Billups’ second option (Rip Hamilton), while better offensively than any of LeBron’s, was highly dependent on Billups for his production anyway. Again, I’m not trying to make an argument that Billups was better than LeBron, of course he wasn’t. I’m just trying to shed light on how impressive it was for Billups to maintain such a level of success consistently in his prime.

Finally, there are several things that Billups accomplished throughout his career that very few other have. Unless Ben Wallace makes it, which is less than likely, he will join very elite company as the only players to win a championship without another HOF teammate. Only Barry in 1975, Walton in ’77, Hakeem in ’94, and Dirk in 2011 have been able to do this, and for Billups to as a point guard is incredible. On top of this, he is also one of a very select list of point guards to win a championship as the best player. When looking at all time great point guards, many such as Nate Archibald, Chris Paul, and John Stockton have not won championships at all, and others such as Tony Parker, Gary Payton, and Bob Cousy won, but were never the best player on their team. Only Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stephen Curry, and Chauncey Billups have won rings as the clear best player, with Oscar Robertson and Walt Frazier each winning one as arguably the best, but not clearly. Considering the other three players to win championships as the best player are seen as some of the greatest players in NBA history, it is a shame that Billups today is left off of several top 10 PG of all time lists.

(Barry Gossage/Getty Images)

As the years go by, his career will only go more underappreciated, being overlooked in favor of guards with better stats, highlights, or subjective media awards. But when you look back at his body of work, his impact on the Pistons and the Nuggets, and the constant success he had in both the regular season and the playoffs on both sides of the floor, it’s a shame he gets so little recognition. Few other point guards have been able to accomplish what he has over his career, and the only ones who have are amongst the greatest at the position in the history of the game. In my view, he belongs right up there with them.

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