Give yourself a slap on the back if, way back in November, you saw this one coming:
The Detroit Pistons, with their six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals, swept—in embarrassing fashion—in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
And, just as shocking, the Denver Nuggets, with their five straight first-round exits and not a run past that round since 1994, in the Western Conference finals—even getting there before the West's heavily favored Los Angeles Lakers (who face a do-or-die Game Seven against Houston Sunday).
I, for one, didn't see it happening.
Which means, of course, that I was among the minions who didn't grasp just how valuable of a player Chauncey Billups is.
Because adding Billups, really, is all that changed personnel-wise for the Nuggets. He came over from Detroit along with Antonio McDyess, who ended up back in the Motor City, and Allen Iverson—and all his talent—was shipped to Detroit.
On the surface, the Pistons were getting the better player, the more athletic player, the more accomplished player.
Except for one thing—Billups has an NBA title, not to mention a Finals MVP, while Iverson has none (and, at this point, it looks like he'll retire without a ring).
The reason for this is simple. Billups runs a team better, way better, than Iverson. He gets along better with his teammates, he helps foster a good camaraderie in the locker room.
And he builds a winning environment built on solid self-confidence.
That's the way these Nuggets, who are an impressive 8-2 in the playoffs—a record only bested by Cleveland's dominant 8-0 mark—are playing. They've got a swagger about them that says, "Bring it," but at the same time, they're playing with a looseness that you'd associate with an underdog.
And, believe me, they have a 50-50 shot of making the Finals, regardless of whether they take on the mighty Lakers or the Yao- and T-Mac-less, upstart Rockets in the next round.
Meanwhile, the other result of the trade was a mess. It was no secret that Joe Dumars, the Pistons GM, had no intention of holding on to Iverson after this season. The trade was more of a looking-to-the-future move, aimed at creating valuable cap space to sign a big-time free agent.
But no one thought the Iverson Experiment would go so poorly, with the one-time MVP never fitting in with his Detroit teammates and eventually calling it a season with a purported back injury.
He'll, more than likely, end up in a starting backcourt next season. But don't expect an Iverson-led team to ever smell the Finals again.
We'll have to leave that to Billups, 32, who has looked anything but aged and worn down this season. Along with Carmelo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith, and other valuable role players, it's not unrealistic to expect the Nuggets to make deep runs into the playoffs for a good three or four years.
Who, in November, saw that coming?
It's not too far-reaching of a statement to say the Nuggets are a completely different team since the trade.
And the following is a factual statement: Only one NBA player has made a conference finals series the last seven years.
That man is Chauncey Billups.
Sure, he's been blessed with great talent around him in Detroit and Denver. But neither team was close to being a title contender before he joined it. And while Rasheed Wallace was a big mid-season acquisition for the Pistons during their championship run, there was still no questioning who led them to the upset of the Lakers in the Finals.
Anthony is clearly the Nuggets' most talented player, and even Smith is more explosive than Billups, but the point guard is the team's most indispensable player.
Just look how far—or rather, not so far—Denver got during 'Melo's first five seasons.
Now, the team is just four games away from reaching the Finals with a chance to win its first NBA crown.
And, appropriately, it would be led to that title by a hometown hero who continues to prove his worth to even those outside of his home state.
Just ask the Pistons how valuable he is.
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