When the Denver Nuggets put away the Dallas Mavericks last night, Chauncey Billups accomplished something that very few other players have in NBA history. He led his team to the conference finals of the NBA playoffs for the the seventh consecutive season. Michael Jordan never did that. Tim Duncan never did that. Larry Bird never did that. The last players to make it to seven straight conference finals were Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Cooper of the Showtime Lakers, who made it eight straight seasons. Before that, you have to go back to Bill Russell and the Celtics. That's some pretty elite company.
But what makes Billups' accomplishment even more amazing is that he's a twelve year veteran who wasn't a full time starter until his sixth season in the league. He spent his first three seasons in the NBA as a full-blown draft bust - what else do you call a guy who was drafted third overall and then traded three times during his rookie contract? The last trade, in 2000, he was cap-filler - Orlando acquired him in February and renounced their rights to him in August, and he never played a game for them (he had a separated shoulder at the time of the trade). (The irony here is that Orlando jumped through numerous hoops to clear enough cap space to acquire Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill. One of those hoops was renouncing their rights to Billups. Another was including Ben Wallace in the trade for Hill. Billups and Wallace became two key members of the Pistons' championship team, while Hill was literally never healthy six seasons in Orlando.) The next two seasons, Billups played well as a backup in Minnesota, and filled in when Terrell Brandon was hurt.
So five seasons into his NBA career, he was at worst a bust, and at best a backup. Then he signed with Detroit, and immediately he became a hall-of-famer. Since signing with the Pistons, he has never once come off the bench. He has never lost a first round playoff series. He has never lost a second round playoff series. He has been to the NBA Finals twice, winning one championship and the Finals MVP award for good measure. He has played in four all star games. He has made three All-NBA teams (including his inclusion on the third team this season, announced yesterday). And he's on his way to his seventh consecutive conference final. I cannot think of another NBA player who has had such a complete transformation mid-career.
This season has provided the NBA world with a unique opportunity to witness exactly how valuable Billups is. It's not often you get to conduct a chemistry experiment with an NBA team - remove one ingredient, add another, see what happens. But that's exactly what happened when the Nuggets traded Allen Iverson. Billups has completely transformed the team - tying the franchise record with 54 wins.
But it's not the regular season where his ultimate impact will be felt. The Nuggets, after all, won 50 games last season, so 54 wins is not that big a deal. But last season, as they have for so many years, the Nuggets bowed out of the playoffs in the first round in embarrassing fashion - 0-4 losers to the Lakers. This year, they're 8-2 in the playoffs, winning the majority of their games convincingly and losing by narrow margins twice. Before Billups, the Nuggets lacked maturity - when things got tougher in the playoffs, they couldn't handle it. They shut down, or they lost their cool. This year, it's the Nuggets who have executed while the Hornets and the Mavs melted down. That's no accident - that's Billups' influence.
They'll likely see the Lakers again next round, and you can rest assured that Billups won't let them be swept. Billups is a terrific player in the regular season - but he's absolutely other-worldly in the playoffs. In 10 games this season, he's increased his scoring average from 18 to 22 per game, and he's shooting 54% from three point range. They don't call him Mr. Big Shot for nothing.
For an excellent in depth look at Billups career, check out this OTL article.