The Denver Nuggets have established themselves as a legitimate threat to contend for a NBA championship this season, but as a columnist for the Los Angeles, I am a lot more wary of Chauncey Billups than the Nuggets themselves.
Billups plays the point guard position, which has been a bane for the Lakers, and in my opinion, he plays it better than anyone else in the league, including names like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Rajon Rondo.
I'm sure there are those who will disagree, but my contentions in my belief go beneath the shallowness of the numbers and rest instead with the tangible impact Billups has had on his team.
Before Billups arrived, the Nuggets were an exciting, high-scoring team which was capable of winning 50 games but lacked the discipline, the defense, and the will to be taken seriously as a threat.
In Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson, the Nuggets had the superstar players that gave the impression of an elite team, but none of the substance to go with it, and it was proved when the Nuggets were spirited from the postseason by the Lakers.
Los Angeles swept the Nuggets in four games in 2008, and by then it was already clear that the pairing of Iverson and Anthony was a failure, so the arrival of Billups was like a breath of fresh air.
Billups is a Colorado native, he attended college in Colorado and also spent some of his early playing time for the Nuggets. It would be an understatement to say the version of Billups which came back was a much better player than the one before.
Billups grew up as a player with the Detroit Pistons, won a NBA championship and a Finals MVP and brought all of that confidence, and experience home to the Rocky Mountains.
He has superb numbers, averaging 20.3 points per game and 6.1 rebounds, but it is his influence on players like Anthony, Kenyon Martin, NeNe, and J.R. Smith that has turned the franchise around.
Maybe not Smith, but the rest of the players have been participants in a change of culture for the team which places an emphasis on defense, and the Nuggets play an up-tempo, but strictly controlled style, directed by Billups.
His arrival seems to have served as a wake-up call for Anthony, who is looking around at his peers like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, and for the first time truly understanding the dedication it takes to be a champion.
Anthony is fully embracing his superstar status, and after last season's narrow loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets feel if it wasn't for a couple of plays, they might have played for the championship.
The Nuggets' attitude in the teams' first two meetings have seemed to bear that out, as Denver has blown Los Angeles out at home, and returned to the Staples Center to make it official.
Most of that attitude can be credited to Billups, and he presents a stern challenge for a team like the Lakers which has struggled to defend the position Billups dominates.
Los Angeles simply has no answer for him, and he burns the Lakers with his strong forays to the rim, and he kills them with the long distance bombs, from which his nick-name Mr. Big Shot is derived.
So the Lakers may have to adjust their thinking and realize what type of threat Billups represents to their hopes of defending their championship of 2009.
Anthony, Martin, Smith, and the rest of the Nuggets are a formidable team, but the Lakers were regularly dominating them before Billups arrived and changed the direction of the franchise.
Denver has the walk of a true contender, and they get a chance to enhance that image with another game versus Los Angeles on Sunday night, but the Nuggets understand the real challenge lies beyond the regular season.
The only way the Nuggets can truly conquer their demons is when they vanquish Los Angeles in the playoffs, and prove their merits under the lights of the postseason.
The Lakers, for sure will have much input with the entire situation, and as the defending champions and winners of their past two playoff series against the Nuggets, they will compete with the heart of a champion.
There is no guarantee the Nuggets play of the regular season will carry over to the postseason, but with Billups in the fold, the question of which team can really challenge Los Angeles in the West may have been answered.