Chauncey Billups Comes Home: The Denver Nuggets' Return to Relevance
Every year the NBA season is full of trade rumors. More so than any other sport, the NBA seems to generate high-profile changes on a regular basis. Guaranteed contracts, the salary cap, and pressure to win now make nearly every player available for the right price.
But among the rumors and eight-figure salary swaps, high-impact trades can go unnoticed.
Two games into the 2008-09 NBA season, the Denver Nuggets pulled the plug on the Allen Iverson Era. After a little more than one-and-a-half seasons in Denver, Iverson left the Nuggets exactly how he found them: close but not quite good enough to compete with the elite Western Conference teams.
In his 135 games in a Denver uniform, Iverson averaged 25.6 points, 7.2 assists, and 1.9 steals per game.
The Nuggets needed to acquire a true point guard. With talented wings J.R. Smith and Linas Kleiza losing minutes to Iverson, and Anthony Parker starting at the point guard position, Denver had to make a change.
Enter Chauncey Billups. Billups' heroics with Detroit are well documented. In his six seasons with Detroit, he took a developing team and led them to four conference finals and two NBA finals appearances, including the 2004 NBA Championship.
But the Detroit brass felt a change was in order. To compete with high-scoring attacks like Cleveland and Orlando, the Pistons traded their floor general to Denver for Iverson. AI's arrival in Detroit grabbed all of the headlines. Billups' arrival in Denver changed a season.
Billups' move to Denver has had the most impact of any in-season trade since the Pistons acquired Rasheed Wallace in 2004. That move led directly to a championship.
The Nuggets finished with a 54-28 record and locked up the second seed in a highly competitive Western Conference.
Statistically, Billups' season was impressive. He averaged nearly 18 points per game to go along with 6.4 assists and three rebounds per game. He shot 42 percent from the field, 41 percent from behind the arc, and 91 percent from the free-throw line (good for fourth best in the league).
Billups was one of only five players to shoot better than 90 percent from the line and the only one of those five to average more than five free throws per game.
Billups finished the season with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 18.85, nearly a full three points higher than Iverson's 15.89.
The real impact Billups had could be felt on his teammates. Carmelo Anthony dropped his turnovers per game and increased his three-point percentage. He also played a career-low 34:30 per game, keeping him fresh for the postseason.
The players to benefit most from Chauncey's arrival were J.R. Smith and Nene Hilario. Trading Iverson cleared minutes for Smith, a natural shooting guard with size (6'6", 220 pounds).
Smith averaged 15 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, all career highs. He became a bona fide second option behind Carmelo while shooting nearly 45 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range. He improved dramatically as the season wore on, averaging 17.8 and 22.4 points per game in March and April respectively.
Nene finally had the breakout year Denver had been waiting for since they acquired him (the seventh overall pick) from the New York Knicks on draft day in 2002. Career highs in points (14.6), rebounds (7.8), and blocks (1.3) gave the Nuggets the true post presence they lacked to compete with the big men in the Western Conference.
Nene also shot 60 percent from the floor and 72 percent from the free-throw line, both career highs.
Offensively, Denver finished the season sixth in the league in scoring and fifth in field goal percentage. While those numbers were comparable to the season before, their defensive numbers with Billups took a giant step forward.
During 2007-08, Denver gave up 107 points per game, good for second worst in the NBA. Their rebounding was atrocious, as they allowed the third most offensive and total rebounds per game.
This season they reduced their points allowed per game to 100.9, improving to 19th overall and giving them a plus-3.4 margin—eighth best in the NBA.
Detroit, meanwhile, went from leading the league by allowing opponents 90.1 points per game in 2007-08 to finishing with the eighth best defense, allowing nearly 95 points per game. They finished outside the top three in that respect for the first time since Billups arrived in Detroit.
Three games into the NBA Playoffs, Denver holds a 2-1 series lead over the New Orleans Hornets. Both wins in Denver came on Chauncey's back; he averaged 33.5 points and six assists per game.
Detroit, meanwhile, is getting demolished by the Cleveland Cavaliers, down 3-0. Iverson is out of the playoffs with an undisclosed injury (read: Iverson couldn't relegate himself to coming off the bench as the Pistons wanted).
While Denver's run most likely ends in Los Angeles in the Conference Finals, Billups' impact on Denver's season is one of the great storylines of this season.
While all of the negatives surround Iverson's messy arrival and departure in Detroit, Chauncey Billups has quietly led his hometown team back to relevance, giving them a chance to compete for their first NBA title in franchise history.
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