Nor was being a
tweener a problem at Colorado, where he was a second-team All-America after his
sophomore season, his final one in Boulder. Nor did it seem to be an issue when
only 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 just
handed the coaching and operational reins to Rick Pitino, whose aggressive,
uptempo style was perfect for Billups. Or so the rookie thought.
tweener became a dirty word. In the eyes of Pitino, Billups was twice cursed, a
tweener in both skill set (he didn't have the pass-first mentality to be a
point guard) and size (though blessed with scoring ability, he didn't have the
height to get off his shot as a two). Less than two thirds of the way into his
rookie season he was traded to Toronto for Anderson, a more traditional
slick-ball-handling, direct-the-offense point guard. "You can call tweeners
combo guards," says Saunders, "but it comes down to the same thing. The
way people see it, combo guards rarely become great players." One could
argue that two of the best players in league history, Oscar Robertson and Jerry
West, were combo guards, but the former is still recognized as a point and the
latter as a shooting guard. Ditto for the versatile Pistons backcourt of Dumars
and Isiah Thomas; they could switch positions seamlessly, but Joe D was still
primarily the shooter and Zeke the QB.
get traction at either position. "People wanted him to be a point guard
before he was ready," says Nash. "It takes time. He could always
play." Van Exel is more direct: "When Chauncey was in Denver, he would
play point guard for about two minutes, and then, for whatever reason, for the
other minutes he was out there. He was out of control a little bit."
It's doubtful that
any self-respecting point guard would appreciate a Basketball 101 lesson from
Van Exel, but Billups doesn't disagree with the assessment. Scoring, he
explains, became his means of survival. "What I latched onto was that they
gotta 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 understand
that a shoot-first point guard can mess up a team's rhythm. I can understand
why some teams wanted to get rid of me."
There was one
team, though, that wanted him. Badly, in fact. "Eight times over two years
I called [ Minnesota general manager] Kevin McHale trying to get Chauncey,"
says Dumars, the Pistons' G.M. since 2000. "What other people saw as a
liability I saw as an asset. Oh, he's not strictly a point guard and not
strictly a shooting guard? I said, 'Wow. I want that problem.'" Dumars saw
something in Billups that reminded him of himself. "Heck," says Dumars,
"the guy was wearing my number, too." ( Billups had to take jersey
number 1 when he got to Detroit since Dumars's 4 is retired.)
McHale refused to
trade 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't
want 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 the
Pistons. Though almost everyone forgets it now, the sudden upturn in Billups's
career began in his first season in Detroit, under coach Rick Carlisle. Now
coach of the Indiana Pacers, Carlisle is to control offense what Bergman is to
angst. "Rick called all the plays," says Billups. "But he came to
trust me to quarterback his offense. That was huge. It was under Rick that I
stopped looking over my shoulder."
took Detroit to the Eastern finals in 2003, Dumars replaced him with Larry
Brown, and Billups's ascent continued. Revisionist history about the Larry Era
is already rampant--the Pistons hated playing for him; Larry drove Chauncey
crazy from Day One--but Billups owes Brown a giant debt. Wake Billups up in the
middle of the night, dose him with sodium pentothol, and the story will not
change. "Larry made me believe that I could have 10 assists, a couple of
steals and only nine points and still dominate the game," says Billups.
"Nobody ever made that point to me that strongly. He made me a more
cerebral player and a better all-around player."
"Now, Larry, man, he is an animal. There were nights when I'd come home
from a road trip, wake up my wife and say, 'Man, you can't believe what he got
on me for tonight.' But don't ever think I didn't learn from the man."
Given their time
together in Minnesota, one might have expected awkwardness between Billups and
Saunders. 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 where
they would make the same call anyway.) Billups is allowed to--in fact, supposed
to--push the ball if a fast-break opportunity presents itself, and he has the
green light on threes, which he was shooting at a 43.2% through Sunday.
overlooked, though, is what Billups did for Saunders. The coach was the
newcomer who, after 10 seasons in Minnesota and a 17-30 playoff record, had to
show he belonged on a team that had just won a championship. "You have a
point guard doing what Chauncey is doing," says Portland Trail Blazers
coach Nate McMillan, "well, he's made it comfortable for Flip, more than
the other way around."