Like the B-side of a hit single, most us us pretty much ignored the flip side of the A.I.-to-Detroit trade. That would be the Chauncey Billups-to-Denver side. Sure there was the “going home” angle, with Billups being a Denver native who played at Colorado. In fact, he and his wife, Piper, met in high school in Denver. If he had to be traded, he said he was “extremely grateful” that Pistons GM Joe Dumars sent him home.
There was also the fact that with Billups just two years into a four-year contract that guarantees him $46 million, the trade seemed to contradict the Nuggets’ apparent payroll-shaving strategy. The team sent its center, Marcus Camby, to the Clippers this summer, pretty much in exchange for, well, nothing.
While the national hype machine was aimed at Detroit, Billups landed in Denver with the relative anonymity of a businessman arriving to do a deal.
Well, the early returns favor the Nuggets. Not that the Pistons aren’t satisfied with A.I. but they’re looking for long-term dividends, like next summer or the one after.
The Nuggets are already a better team than they’ve been in years, much of it due to the arrival of the workmanlike point guard with the heart of a winner. After beating the toothless T-Wolves Sunday, the Nuggets are 5-1 since Billups arrival, a run that includes an improbable win over the defending-champion Celtics in Boston, a win no previous George Karl team would have stood a snow peak’s chance in hell of realizing.
The difference? the 32-year-old Billups’ been-there-won-that ‘tude that has already transformed a frenetic offense into one that makes smarter decisions down the stretch, and a fragile team into one more resilient. As Karl said of his new view, prior to the Boston game: “I had a fear that we weren’t going to get where we had to go. I don’t think I have that fear right now.”
Billups is a hybrid, combining the best attributes of the player the Nuggets gave up to get A.I. (Andre Miller) with those of A.I. himself. He’s a quintessential floor leader with the ability to score without fear, but with a more discerning spirit.
He has averaged 19.5 points and 6.0 assists as a Nugget, reflecting the mostly seamless transition he’s made.
And he may be the best thing that’ll ever happen to Carmelo Anthony. So far the young star has been erratic with Billups. His scoring has swung from 28 points in his first game alongside Billups to 14 against Minnesota, and he’s shooting just 40 percent with his new teammate. But 5-1 hides many failings. Playing with A.I. was fun, but if Anthony can channel Billups’ spirit he’ll become as formidable player as his dos amigos, LeBron and D-Wade.
And the Nuggets might finally be on their way to being a winning franchise, not just an entertaining one.
Associate Press photo