Chauncey Billups this week retired from the NBA after 17 seasons. How good was he? How deserving was he of his “Mr. Big Shot” moniker?
Chauncey was a competitor and a winner. With career averages of 15 points and 5 assists, he was both solid and great – perhaps the greatest distinctly solid player of all time. A 5-time All-Star but never a superstar, after joining the Pistons he became the quarterback and leading personality on a perennial contender. An expert pull-up shooter and one of the better perimeter defenders in the league during his prime, he was also a rare legitimate two-way player at the point guard spot.
From ‘02/03 to ‘09/10 he put up 17.4 points and 6.3 assists and averaged 77 games per season. His best season came in ‘05/06, when he put up career-best averages of 18.5 points, 8.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 43.3% shooting from downtown. He was named to the All-NBA second team. He was, for one season, the second best point guard in the league behind Steve Nash.
Would that same Billups be a top three point guard today? With Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, John Wall, Derrick Rose and Kyle Lowry all around? I do not think so.
In the 2004 Finals he averaged 21.0 points and 5.2 assists on 50.9% shooting to lead the Pistons to a to the title over the Los Angeles Lakers. The Pistons’ victory was a rare total team triumph – a triumph of five very good players over two great (bickering) ones – but it was Billups who earned Finals MVP honors. He was not quite their leading scorer (Rip Hamilton was) or their best defender (Ben Wallace was), but his combined leadership on both sides of the ball made him their general and most valuable player.
Would those same Pistons have stood a chance at winning a title these last few seasons? With the modern day Spurs, the LeBron Heat and the Durant Thunder around? Again, I do not think so. I posit that Billups was, in part, a beneficiary of the era in which he peaked. The mid-to-late-2000s were a rough time for the NBA, devoid of any truly great teams.
However, we cannot take this away from him: Billups is one of just seven point guards since the ‘80s to total at least 15,000 points, 5,000 assists, 2,500 rebounds and four All-Star appearances. The others are Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Tim Hardaway, Gary Payton, Steve Nash and Tony Parker. That is elite company.
In truth, he was less a pure point guard than a combo guard; he had just 13 double-digit assist games for his entire career and was never mistaken for Magic Johnson when running the fast break. But he was a good game manager and half-court floor general, alert to what the defense was giving him and able to get Hamilton the ball at the perfect time coming off screens.
Traded back to his hometown Nuggets mid-way through ‘08/09 after leading the Pistons to six straight Eastern Conference Finals but no more titles, he then helped spearhead Denver’s run to the Western Conference Finals. It was Carmelo Anthony’s only appearance that deep into the postseason to date, and Billups’ impact was undeniable.
He submitted perhaps the best playoff series of his career in the Nuggets’ 4-1 first round victory over CP3 and the Hornets: 22.6 points and 7.4 assists on 48.3% shooting. It was enough to prompt some excitable fans to claim that he was better than Paul, something that was never true.
Alas, as good as Billups was, he became somewhat overrated – in no small part due to his now-famous moniker.
Mr. Big Shot
March 2003 was one of the finest months in Chauncey’s career. He averaged 23.9 points, led the Pistons to an 8-4 record, and scored two game-winning threes in the space of two weeks – the first versus Golden State and the second versus Atlanta. Commentator and former Piston Rick Mahorn christened him “Mr. Big Shot” and the name stuck.
It went nationwide in the ’04 playoffs when he hit this miracle shot to send Game 5 of the Conference Semifinals to overtime:
It was a career-defining play. Like his later game winner at Chicago, it was the kind of shot that lives on in fans’ memories forever. It is why we will always know him as Mr. Big Shot, and he will always be remembered for being “clutch” – even though the stats tell a different story.
According to the always-cogent 82games.com, Billups was a calamitous 6-for-37 (16.2%) on game-deciding shots between 2003 and 2009.
LeBron James earned a reputation for not being clutch over that same time period, but he shot a much better percentage at 17-for-50 (34.0%). Even Chris Webber, widely considered a “choker” whose sphincter tightened late in close games, was 6-for-19 (31.6%), scoring the same number of big shots as Mr. Big Shot himself.
Part of being a “clutch” player is being willing to take the big shots, and Chauncey was certainly willing. But Billups in my opinion bought too much into his own reputation. Despite his low percentage, he took more last possession attempts than Carmelo Anthony, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson and Gilbert Arenas, all considerably more qualified shot makers.
In the 2003 Eastern Conference Finals, he airballed the potential game winner in Game 2 and averaged 9.8 points on 27.5% shooting for the series. In Game 7 of the 2005 Finals, he shot 3-for-8 and could never get going. In the 2006 Eastern Conference Finals, he shot 3-for-14 as the Pistons fell to the Heat in Game 6. Whilst these memories fade and die though, the YouTube clip of his 45-foot bank shot against the Nets lives on.
Chauncey was great, and Chauncey was ballsy, but he was not as clutch as he is remembered to be.
He was also a shell of himself in recent years as his health and athleticism deteriorated but his mind still told him he was the man.
Mr. Bad Shot
My reaction upon hearing of Chauncey’s retirement was: “Thank God.” In the immortal words of LeBron James, it’s about damn time.
For the discerning fan, he was hard to watch over the last few seasons. Past his prime, slowed by injuries and no longer able to stay with quick guards defensively, he quietly became a liability on both ends of the floor as he refused to let go of the notion that he should still be taking the big shots. Over his last two playoff series, he shot a combined 14-for-47 (29.8%).
As a Clipper, he perplexingly started all 42 games he played in under Vinny Del Negro in ‘11/12 and ‘12/13. He put up a ridiculous usage rate of 23.4% – the fourth-highest of his career – at age 35 whilst shooting 36.4% from the floor. Despite the stats and eye test both saying that he no longer had it in him and despite being flanked by offensively gifted teammates in their prime, he insisted on taking possessions into his own hands and taking away from his own team in the process. Mr. Big Shot had transformed into Mr. Bad Shot.
This play for me typified his time in L.A.:
Look up “ill-advised” in the dictionary and you will see this shot.
Billups’ reputation though, bolstered by years of deep playoff runs, remained as bullet-proof as reputations can be as far as non-superstars go. Till the end, he was celebrated as a cerebral player, a coach on the floor and a great teammate – yet he curiously took to First Take to question Blake Griffin’s toughness: “He’s…not really built like that. He’s…too soft of a guy inside.” Charming.
He continued to struggle last season despite his feel-good return as a free agent to the Motor City to close out his career. He shot just 30.4% from the field – the sixth time he shot under 40% for a season – and was again sidelined by injuries. He did however manage to knock down two more big shots for old time’s – and mythmaking’s – sake.
Billups is of course by no means the first NBA player to hang on too long and fail to transform himself into an efficient back-seat role player after years as a primary option. He is also by all accounts a top class human being and a model professional. He will be remembered as a player who overcame early-career adversity and got the most out of his talents. For this, we will miss him. He achieved more in the league than many far more physically gifted athletes and has an astute enough mind – and strong enough reputation – to one day become a coach or general manager.
Should he make the Hall of Fame for his achievements as a player? At this point, who really knows what the qualifications are? It is an un-exact science and he is an unusual case. On the one hand he shot just 41.5% and averaged a less-than-inspiring 15 and 5 for his career. On the other, his teams went to seven straight Conference Finals, he has a Finals MVP to his name, and his career totals are comparable to other inductees. He has a chance. If he makes it, just remember: he wasn’t really Mr. Big Shot.