Chauncey Billups’ NBA journey that has culminated in him becoming the presumptive head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers hasn’t been the straightest or most comfortable.
There have been ups and downs. Great disappointment followed by even greater joy.
Billups was an NBA lottery pick out of Colorado who was traded during his rookie season. He played for seven teams in his 17-year NBA career and went from Mr. Draft Bust to Mr. Big Shot.
He became a fierce defensive player and a man counted on to take his team’s clutch shots.
But it took a while for him to find the right team, the right situation and the right time to blossom as a player. He bounced around the league for a while.
He was once accused (but never charged or convicted) of rape and then won the league’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and its Teammate of the Year award.
There was often confusion about his role – was he a point guard or shooting guard?
But by the end of his long career, with a championship as a Detroit Piston under his belt, he was known as one of the great leaders in sports.
That title team, the 2004 Detroit Pistons, was one of the few groups in the modern NBA to win a title without a genuine superstar. Let alone two superstars. And he was its leader.
How is that for preparation for the job of leading the Trail Blazers?
There is one story from Billups' time with that team under Coach Larry Brown that’s worth retelling.
Brown, ever the over-reactor and pessimist, was walking the aisle of the team bus after his Pistons lost Game 2 of the Finals to the favored Lakers:
“These were the Lakers, a dream team recalibrated: Bryant and O’Neal in their primes, Gary Payton and Karl Malone in the twilight of their careers, heavy favorites to win the franchise’s fourth title in five years. With the series headed back to Detroit for three games, the Pistons had just handed them a second life. Brown sauntered to the back of the bus and thought about apologizing to his team, knowing he should have been more adamant about the foul.
“’I remember in Philly … ‘ Brown started.
“Ben Wallace cut him off: ‘This ain’t Philly.’
“Brown kept going, his voice rising. Chauncey Billups listened until he’d heard enough.
“’Go back to the front of the bus,” Billups told his coach. ‘We’re not coming back to L.A.’
“Billups was right. The Pistons dominated the next three games and he snared the Finals MVP trophy, completing a seven-year odyssey that veered from lottery pick to draft bust to role player before finally settling at Mr. Big Shot.”
One of Billups’ former coaches, George Karl, took to Twitter to endorse Billups’ hiring:
“Cannot express how happy I would be to see Chauncey Billups as the Head Coach of the Blazers.
“One of the great leaders I ever coached.
“Let’s see what magic he can make happen for Portland!”
Billups is going to need all the leadership skills he can muster in Portland. This team has talent but, frankly, as Terry Stotts’ nine-year tenure as head coach went along, his team seemed to often drift rudderless along its way.
Everyone talks about the need to shore up the defense – with good reason, as it was historically bad – but the offense needs attention, too.
Portland had become so reliant on its starting guards, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, for its scoring that other players’ talents were often not fully realized. Free-flowing ball movement was left behind in favor of one isolation after another for the guards.
One league insider told me during the playoffs that the team’s offense was partially responsible for its defensive problems.
“You can’t expect those other three guys on the court to cover for the two guards on defense and then never get their touches on offense,” it was said. “That doesn’t work after a while.”
On top of that, the Blazers became so predictable at both ends of the court that they were vulnerable in the playoffs, when preparation time was more readily available for opponents.
Stotts was not known for making adjustments – from half to half or even game to game. Nor did he offer a lot of playing time to his young players.
There was little accountability among the veterans, while the youngsters were often pulled from the game or benched for a period of time for just missing a couple of shots.
All of those things led to an overall malaise that slowly overtook the team after a period of time.
Billups, who will likely have help from veteran assistant coaches in what will be his first head-coaching job at any level, will need to deal with these problems immediately and set a tone for a new reality.
But he comes in as a man with extreme respect among current players and someone Damian Lillard endorsed at the outset of the coaching search.
It’s going to be a challenge for the players and their coach.
And it’s going to be a riveting drama to watch.