Remembering Chauncey Billups' Finest Moments During NBA Career
That part of his story stuck to the script. But all of the twists and turns taken in between—from the injuries and trades that seemed capable of derailing his career to the clutch baskets and premier performances that secured his spot in the game's history books—shaped one of the more incredible, fascinating and inspirational journeys of his generation.
From "draft bust" to "Mr. Big Shot," Billups blazed a basketball trail entirely his own. And after 17 remarkable seasons in the league, his ride has finally come to an end.
The 37-year-old announced his retirement Tuesday. Here's what Billups told Yahoo Sports' Marc J. Spears:
It's just time. I know when it's time. My mind and my desire is still strong. I just can't ignore the fact that I haven't been healthy for three years. I can try again and get to a point where I think I can go, but I just can't sustain.
He can, however, persevere with a legacy built to withstand the test of time. These seven moments capture the imprint he left on the game's greatest stage.
1st Real Playoff Run
By the 2001-02 season, Billups needed a lifeline more than anything.
His first three years in the league included three trades and four different franchises. By the time he inked a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it seemed like his days as a potential building block were already over and his only hope was carving out a niche on the second team.
He filled a key reserve role in Minnesota, but his opportunities were limited with two-time All-Star Terrell Brandon standing in front of him. But when a leg injury sidelined the starter in February 2002, the right door finally opened for Billups.
"Maybe he'll be another Tom Brady," Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders told reporters.
As it turned out, Saunders wasn't too far off.
Billups helped steer the Timberwolves into the playoffs and did his best to keep them there. While their run lasted only three games, it was long enough for Billups to mark his arrival with per-game marks of 22 points (on .451/.400/.700 shooting), 5.7 assists and 5.0 rebounds.
Controlling His Destiny in Detroit
After waiting for breaks that never seemed to come his way, Billups created his own after his playoff coming-out party in 2002.
He signed a six-year, $35 million contract with the Detroit Pistons, which proved to be a game-changer for them and him.
The Pistons gave him something he'd never had in his pro career before: stability. It took a while for it to sink in.
"What are you looking around for?" then-Pistons general manager Joe Dumars recalled telling Billups, via Grantland's Jonathan Abrams. "You're looking like we're going to trade you or bench you. Not happening. You're the guy. We're committed to you. Quit looking over your shoulder."
With the freedom to find himself at the NBA level, Billups set personal bests in points (16.2), rebounds (3.7) and player efficiency rating (20.4). He played his game, and the Pistons followed his lead to 50 wins and their first of six consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Going Glass in Game 5
With a nickname like "Mr. Big Shot," Billups has obviously made a habit out of coming through in the clutch.
While some of his shots had a bigger impact, this miracle in Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals best captured his late-game magic.
With fewer than three seconds left in regulation and a three-point deficit on the scoreboard, Billups had enough time for two dribbles that got him a step across half court. There, he launched his prayer, which kissed off the glass to force the first of three overtime periods.
Billups just missed a triple-double with 31 points, 10 boards and eight assists. That wasn't enough for the Pistons, though, who fell to the then-New Jersey Nets 127-120.
The Nets prevailed, but they also learned a lesson: Don't let Billups get a look from anywhere with the clock winding down.
Former Nets coach Lawrence Frank told reporters his reaction was a simple one after watching Billups' banked-in 45-footer: "I'm an idiot."
Filling His Mantle in 2004
The 2003-04 Pistons have often been held as the exception to the rule that superstars are a necessary ingredient of an NBA championship recipe.
The Pistons had a single representative at that season's All-Star Game: defensive specialist Ben Wallace. Their opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers, was seeking its fourth title in five seasons.
It employed two of the greatest players of that generation (Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal), two of the greatest players from the previous generation (Karl Malone and Gary Payton) and one of the greatest coaches in league history (Phil Jackson).
Yet Detroit slayed the NBA's dragon with relative ease. The Pistons dispatched the Lakers in only five games, with Detroit's four wins decided by an average of 13.3 points per game.
How did it happen? Well, Billups made it hard to buy the idea that the Pistons didn't have a star. He averaged 21 points on .509/.471/.929 shooting and 5.2 assists for the series to secure the NBA Finals MVP award.
As he later told Abrams, that moment was as important for him as it was for the all the critics he silenced:
From what I had been through in my career and all the people who said I couldn’t make it and wouldn’t be a top player. All the questions. All the doubters, all the things I’ve been through and to do that and climb that mountain was a validation for me. It was what I always thought I could do and the player I always thought I could be.
Overdue All-Star Recognition
It was the 2005-06 season.
Billups' NBA journey had already included eight full campaigns, five playoff berths, three conference finals runs, one world title and a Finals MVP award. What was not featured on his resume, though, was an NBA All-Star Game selection.
That call finally came in February 2006, just seven months prior to his 30th birthday. Even then the spotlight wasn't his alone, as he was joined at the festivities by Pistons teammates Ben Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace.
Fittingly, the Pistons' quartet established a defensive intensity that allowed the East to erase a 21-point deficit. And Billups shined equally bright at the opposite side, posting 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds in fewer than 16 minutes of work.
That was the first of five consecutive invitations to the midseason classic but, arguably, the finest of the bunch. He averaged 9.0 points and 4.5 assists over his final four All-Star trips.
A Difference-Maker in Denver
The Denver Nuggets did a lot of winning before Billups arrived. After snagging Carmelo Anthony with the third pick of the 2003 draft, the Nuggets averaged 46 victories over the following five seasons.
Come playoff time, though, Denver's sizzle lacked for substance. The Nuggets booked five playoff trips in Anthony's first five seasons—and were sent packing in the first round all five times.
The Pistons, ready to start their next chapter, wound up shipping Billups back to his hometown in a three-for-one swap for Allen Iverson. The Nuggets needed someone capable of establishing some structure, and Billups was the type to take on that task without needing to be asked.
"Look, I'm here to win. I ain't here to do a lot of talking," former Nuggets coach George Karl recalled Billups saying, via ESPN.com's Tom Friend. "I'll walk the walk, and hopefully y'all be the same way, and we'll be on the same page."
Billups walked the walk to the tune of 17.9 points and 6.4 assists in 77 regular-season games, then upped the ante come playoff time (20.6 and 6.8, respectively). Following his lead, the Nuggets needed only five games to exorcise their first-round demons and another five for the franchise to book its first Western Conference Finals berth since 1985.
Sideline Coaching with the Clippers
Billups' two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, the 15th and 16th of his career, were painful to watch, so one can only imagine how they actually felt.
In February 2012, a 35-year-old Billups tore his left Achilles tendon. The injury not only ended his season, but it also put his career in jeopardy.
Yet he didn't let the injury drag him or his teammates down. Instead, he used the setback as an excuse to put his coaching hat on, guiding the talented, young roster with the wisdom he had accrued on his own rise to the top.
It wasn't the role he wanted to play, but he played it as well as he could.
"I just do the best that I can," he said in March 2012, via Melissa Rohlin of the Los Angeles Times. "It just hurts to not really be out there."
Billups didn't hurt for on-court wonders, but it was moments like these that really shaped his legacy.
He was a consummate professional—a leader in every sense of the word. Besides being a cold-blooded closer and versatile scorer, he was one of his generation's greatest teachers.
That skill set will help carry him on to the next chapter of his story.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.