Thanks To Billups, Nuggets Poised For Playoff Run

By: AP
By: AP

Chauncey Billups doesn't get mentioned in the MVP debates the way LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant do. He lacks their flash and dash if not their cache.

But was any player more valuable to his team than the centerpiece of the NBA's most lopsided trade in years?

Billups' departure from Detroit fostered the Pistons' unraveling and his arrival in Denver turned the Nuggets from an afterthought into a legitimate threat.

Denver tied the franchise record for wins in an NBA season with 54 and secured the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, earning the home-court edge in a playoff series for the first time in 21 years.

After appearing in six straight Eastern Conference finals and winning the NBA title in 2004, the Pistons are seeded eighth this year. At 39-43, they're the only one of the 16 teams in the playoffs with a losing record.

Allen Iverson, who was traded for Billups, is sidelined with a bad back after a frustration-filled and injury-plagued season that has him mulling retirement.

The Nuggets were in a cost-cutting mode when they let defensive stalwarts Marcus Camby and Eduardo Najera get away last summer, leading pundits to predict an end to Denver's string of five straight postseason appearances -- all of which ended in first-round exits.

A week into the season, vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien made what might be the biggest move in franchise history, sending Iverson and his big contract to the Pistons for Billups, the true point guard coach George Karl had coveted for years.

In no time at all, Billups accomplished what had been Mission Impossible for so many others in Denver: melding the Nuggets' immense individual talents into a cohesive unit that seems poised to finally make some noise in the playoffs.

"We were doubted so much that we wanted to prove to everybody that we weren't the team everybody thought we were," Carmelo Anthony said. "Bringing him in was an amazing part. Even with the team we had last year -- winning 50 games -- we needed to bring in a guy of his caliber."

The Nuggets open the playoffs against New Orleans at home Sunday, and they're counting on Billups leading them on a deep run just like he did in Detroit.

"He's a winner and he's a contagious personality," Karl said. "That rubs off on the locker room and situations. He helps me coach the game and helps everybody win."

There's not a single player in the locker room that can't rattle off a list of the ways Billups has made them better.

Perhaps the greatest compliment came from enigmatic sixth man J.R. Smith.

"Before, I played off of raw talent and passion, but now he has me thinking the game of basketball," Smith said. "It's the first time I've really done that since I picked up the ball."

It's no coincidence that Smith is becoming a star, that Anthony has become a better all-around player, that big men Nene and Kenyon Martin had their best season together, that Smith, Chris Andersen, Anthony Carter and Linas Kleiza made up the best bench the Nuggets have had in years.

It's because of Billups.

"He brings maturity to the team," Nene said. "He brings control."

Carter's minutes diminished when Billups came in, but he's too busy learning from him to gripe about it.

"I look to him a lot," Carter said. "Just looking at his demeanor on the court, the way he runs the team. He knows when to slow the ball down, he knows when to push the ball. Me, I just like to go 100 mph and whatever I see open and pitch it up. He's a great leader and great person to learn the game from."

He's the consummate coach on the court.

"He puts a lot of pressure on me to make the right play at the right time, offense or defense," starting swingman Dahntay Jones said. "He's out there teaching. He's an underrated help defender. He's in the right place at the right time, sends people where to go, he's talking on help defense. He makes my job a lot easier when I have the ball. He's talking, he's directing traffic back there."

One thing Billups isn't engaged in is the trash talk that dominates so many point guards' games nowadays.

It's his resume that speaks loudest.

"You can't really argue with a guy who's been a finals MVP before, who's won a championship," Jones said. "He's not arrogant or overly confident with it, he speaks when it's necessary. He doesn't talk a lot. When he speaks, it's relevant to what's going on and it's not a bunch of jibber jabber."

Billups impact -- and Denver's turnaround -- began the instant he stepped foot in the locker room.

"My whole thing coming in, I was just going to be me. Who I am is a humble guy who wants to win, who's unselfish, and I think I have that kind of personality that I'm not going to step on other people's toes," Billups said. "I'm not arrogant or cocky. I've accomplished a lot of things in my career, but you wouldn't know it unless you read about it.

"I think that rubs off on everybody, that aura, it says to people, 'It's good to play with a guy like this. It'll be fun. Everybody can be better."'


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