The Detroit Pistons were such heavy underdogs against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 Finals that in order to place a bet on the Lakers that netted you $100, you had to wager $800. No one outside of Detroit’s close-knit locker room gave the Pistons a puncher's chance against Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson and Hollywood's latest version of Showtime.
With near-perfect offensive precision and a meticulous defensive game plan, Detroit dispatched Los Angeles in just five games. The stunning defeat sent the Lakers spiraling. O’Neal jettisoned to Miami. Jackson left the organization.
"We came into this series and nobody gave us a chance but we felt we had a great chance," Finals MVP Chauncey Billups would say. "We knew it would be a tough task, but we felt we were a better team. They may have better individual players, but we felt we had the best cohesiveness in the league."
Detroit’s unlikely championship run would be the perfect lede in Billups' Hall of Fame speech — one he should be making this week in Springfield, Massachusetts, as the Hall welcomes its class of 2018. But after being nominated in December, Billups didn’t make the cut as one of this year’s inductees. Thirteen others, including fellow point guards Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, the NBA’s all-time leader in three-pointers made Ray Allen and seven-time All-Star Grant Hill, did.
Billups, along with Cedric Maxwell, are the only eligible NBA Finals MVPs who aren’t in the Hall of Fame.
The Pistons' 2004 title is the crowning achievement of Billups' career, and his play in the postseason throughout his 17-year run in the NBA is front and center on the 6-foot-3 guard's Hall of Fame resume. In the 2004 Finals, Billups played near-perfect basketball. He averaged 21.0 points on 50.9 percent shooting from the field and hit eight of his 17 three-point attempts in the series. Billups handed out 26 assists to only 13 turnovers. He also posted a series-best 133 offensive rating and team-best 57.9 effective field goal percentage.
In 146 career playoff games, Billups averaged 17.3 points and 5.7 assists per game. Those numbers don't jump off the page because the only stats Billups cared about were wins and losses.
Billups is 14th overall in NBA history in offensive playoff win shares, currently sandwiched between Kevin Durant and Kevin McHale. He's 22nd in total playoff win shares, ahead of Allen, Reggie Miller and David Robinson. Billups trails just Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Baron Davis and Magic Johnson in playoff offensive box plus-minus and is 29th in value over replacement player in the postseason.
At just 27 years old, he led Detroit to the 2004 Finals as if he’d been there countless times before. Billups had a uniquely calming presence on the floor. As a fan, you were at ease with Billups commanding your team’s offense. He knew when to back the ball out and settle his troops down but also had the presence of mind to feel out opportunities to capture the momentum of a game with a timely three.
Billups played with the confidence of Steph Curry, the intensity of Chris Paul and with the leadership of LeBron James.
The Pistons went to the playoffs in all six of the seasons that Billups spent with the franchise. Detroit won one championship, lost in the Finals the next season in 2005 to the Spurs and fell four times in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Billups’ prime lasted nine seasons and spanned from his first year in Detroit until he was dealt from Denver to New York along with Anthony in 2011. Across those nine years, Billups averaged 17.3 points and hit 38.8 percent of his threes on around five three-point attempts per game.
He finished his career 13th on the NBA’s all-time three-point list, having sunk 145 more threes than Nash and 158 less than Kidd despite spending much of his tenure with the Pistons in a defensively-focused scheme. Many of the 466 threes he hit that season came with just a sliver of airspace that Billups created with the same hesi pull-up jimbo that Durant has perfected and popularized over the last few seasons.
But it would be foolish to label Billups just a scorer. Billups was a stout defender and has two second-team All-Defense selections to his name. While Ben Wallace might have been the pulse of those Pistons’ teams, Billups was Detroit’s rock. While Richard Hamilton was the Pistons’ leading scorer and go-to option in the six seasons that the backcourt duo played with one another, the ball usually found Billups’ hands when the game was on the line.
Many of those instances came in the postseason, where Billups affirmed his "Mr. Big Shot" moniker and put the ultimate stamp on his legacy.
The same stoic demeanor that he displayed in Detroit followed him to Denver when the Nuggets swapped Allen Iverson for Billups in 2008. Billups transformed his hometown Nuggets, who had just pushed their consecutive streak of first-round playoff losses to five, into a contender. Carmelo Anthony was the Nuggets' best player and go-to scorer. But no one on Denver's roster batted an eye if the ball somehow found Billups' hands in a late-game situation. Billups’ highest-scoring season came with the Nuggets in 2009-10 when he averaged 19.5 points per game.
Denver lost in six games to the Lakers in the conference finals in 2009 and save for a couple errant late-game inbound passes, Billups could have won his second ring, cementing his Hall of Fame legacy as long as the Nuggets had beaten the Magic in the Finals that year. Billups had an incredible playoff run that season averaging 20.6 points, 6.8 assists and just 1.9 turnovers per game.
He opened Denver's first-round series against New Orleans that season in vintage big-game Billups fashion with 36 points on 10-15 shooting, eight assists and zero turnovers. Once the Nuggets ran past the Hornets in five games, Billups tallied 28 points, seven rebounds and 12 assists against the Mavericks in a clinching fifth game and along with Anthony vaulted Denver into the Conference Finals for the first time since 1985 where they ran into the Lakers.
Billups’ five All-Star appearances are a bit low for a Hall of Fame caliber player, as are his 15,862 total points and career stat line, which reads 15.3 points and 5.4 assists per game. But Billups' 0.5 championships added in the playoffs ranks 20th in NBA history by ESPN’s career value metric.
Billups was also one of the best leaders the league has ever seen. It's easy to see how his baritone voice would have captured the attention of a locker room. Billups is careful with his words, but they always carry weight. He's spoken with the same simplicity whether he was calling out a play or breaking down film on ESPN.
Billups made the All-NBA second team once and the third-team twice. He was also the league's inaugural Twyman-Stokes Award in 2013 as the “player deemed the best teammate based on selfless play, on and off-court leadership as a mentor and role model to other NBA players, and his commitment and dedication to his team." Billups' gold medal with the United States in the 2010 World Championships falls under the criteria that the Hall of Fame committee will consider too.
The Hall doesn't have specific benchmarks that each candidate must meet for enshrinement. It's part of what makes the process for debating non-first ballot candidates from Billups, to Chris Weber, Shawn Marion and Jack Sikma an exhausting yearly chore. How do you compare players across different eras? How valuable are college or international achievements compared to NBA accomplishments? Should playoff success carry more weight than regular season numbers?
Above all, Billups deserves a Hall of Fame nod because you can't write the history of the league without mention of his Pistons' teams that were the class of the Eastern Conference for most of the 2000s. And Billups was the best player on those teams. Detroit was also one of the first to make inroads on the notion that teams who shared the ball and played within themselves could beat great individuals on the sport's biggest stage when they topped the Lakers in 2004 and Billups took home MVP honors.
He was a winner in every way, and he shined when it mattered the most — in the playoffs. Many players shrink in those moments, but Billups always rose to the occasion. He played every game like his last. He elevated the play of those around him and got the most out of every team he played for. Those intangibles don't show up in the box score.
The 2004 Pistons were historically underrated, undervalued and underappreciated, but they will stick with you forever.