Back to this?
Billups walked into the Denver Nuggets locker room for the first time and this is what he found: a franchise star who couldn’t lift his franchise out of the first round; a power forward whose résumé included a pair of knees rebuilt by microfracture surgery, a mean streak and one incredibly bloated contract; a center who missed half of last season while recovering from testicular cancer; a defensive-minded shooting guard who spent part of last season in the D-League; a wayward young reserve guard whose troublesome past had turned tragic; a backup center who had served an NBA-mandated two-year suspension while he attended drug rehab; and a backup point guard who lost his job with the Miami Heat after his agent forgot to pick up a $4.1 million contract option.
Oh, and the coach. Who could forget the coach? A narcissist, who, when not openly feuding with his players, loved to preach about playing the game “the right way,” even as he shamed himself by installing a shoot-shoot-shoot system that ignored one of the basic tenets of playing the game the right way: defense.
“In truth, I was on a sabbatical for 2½ years,” said the coach, George Karl. “I had lost my way, lost my direction.”
They all had. Injuries. Alcohol. Drugs. Hubris. They had all battled through some kind of adversity, fought some type of personal demon. J.R. Smith(notes), the electric 23-year-old guard, allegedly ran a stop sign in a car accident two summers ago that killed a close friend. Nearly every single one of these Denver Nuggets had lost their way, provided they were ever on the right path.
Now, some six months later, the Nuggets have arrived at the Western Conference finals, still all tatted up, still underdogs. Billups helped deliver them here, but don’t short-change the rest of these Nuggets. Before Billups could lead them, they had to agree to be led.
“There’s a lot of guys out there that have stories of resurrection,” Karl said, “maybe including the coach.”
The Nuggets now find themselves standing across from the NBA establishment Los Angeles Lakers, and their transformation from first-round flameout to championship contender began in a similar setting. Two weeks after the Nuggets were swept from last season’s playoffs by the Lakers, assistant coach Tim Grgurich told Karl enough was enough. Denver was never going to go anywhere playing this go-go-go brand of ball. Grgurich wasn’t raised to coach this way. Neither was Karl.
“He yelled and screamed that we’ve got to go back to the old way,” Karl said. “After 15 minutes, a half hour … I basically said, ‘OK, you’re right.’ ”
Karl had his coaches focus their summer-league practices on defensive drills. That approach carried over to training camp. At the team’s first meeting, Karl also found an unexpected ally.
Kenyon Martin(notes) had bickered with Karl for much of their five seasons together; a heated halftime shouting match even led to Martin being suspended for much of Denver’s first-round playoff series in 2006. But K-Mart, too, had come to understand the team needed to change. So that night, at the team’s dinner at Capital Grille, he stood up and told everyone he would be the first.
I’ve been a problem for George. That’s not going to happen this year. I’m going to help him do what he wants to do.
“You’ve got to be a man to look in the mirror and admit your faults,” Martin said on Monday. “… I’ve grown a lot since I’ve been in the league.
“You’ve got to want to change. You’ve got to want to make things better.”
The Nuggets had played fast in the 1½ seasons since Allen Iverson(notes) joined them and partied even faster. On the court or in the clubs, too many of them were too willing to take any shot that came their way. Karl, no stranger to a beer or six himself during his playing days, had always given his players freedom, but this was too much. The Nuggets, he said, were “pushing the limit of off-the-court professionalism,” if they hadn’t already blown through it.
“I think A.I. is one of these freaks who could have late-hour days,” Karl said. “… The problem was A.I. was taking a couple of our younger guys who weren’t capable of doing it.”
Karl told the Nuggets they weren’t good enough to “cheat the system” anymore. Iverson seemed receptive to slowing down, but whether he was truly on board or not stopped mattering one week into the season. Denver’s front office had convinced the Pistons to send them Billups in exchange for A.I.
Nearly everything Karl had preached, Billups magnified. Defense. Toughness. Professionalism. With the ball in his hands, Billups was able to shepherd these wayward Nuggets toward a common goal.
His career tarnished by five consecutive first-round exits, as well as a few off-the-court transgressions, Anthony’s hunger to win grew even more after he had helped the U.S. Olympic team win a gold medal in Beijing. If Billups wanted to lead, Anthony, like most of the Nuggets, would follow.
“My whole thing was I knew some guys wanted to win,” Billups said. “Where I come from that’s one thing I know how to do: win. I don’t do it all the time, but I’m trying to all the time.”
As much as Billups rehabbed these Nuggets, they’ve also polished his own image. After Billups made six straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals with the Pistons, more than a few people had begun to wonder whether his best days were behind him. They questioned whether he had lost a step, whether the league was now run by blitzing point guards like Chris Paul(notes), Deron Williams(notes) and Tony Parker(notes).
Now? Billups is standing in the West finals. He beat Paul’s New Orleans Hornets in the first round. Williams and Parker also failed to advance.
In their own way, all of these Nuggets are reclamation projects. This is not what the NBA would prefer to sell to middle America, but, for at least one more week, middle America will have to deal with it. Anthony is playing perhaps the best ball of his career. K-Mart seems more concerned with stops than shots. Chris Andersen(notes), out of drug rehab, is a spike-haired, shot-swatting firestorm. Even Smith, who once ended a playoff game with a 30-foot heave so reckless that Karl complained, “I just love the dignity of the game being insulted right in front of me,” has become a force off the bench.
“When you have guys who have been through a lot of the same things, you got guys who are pulling for one another on a high level,” Billups said. “That’s why we have each other’s backs like we do.”
The Nuggets have made a few believers along the way, though the skeptics remain. Denver has lost just twice in these playoffs, so what’s going to happen if it finally faces some pressure, if it actually trails in this series?
“They’re playing with a lot of confidence, but they have yet to be tested,” Houston Rockets forward Shane Battier(notes) said. “It will be interesting to see how the Nuggets react when they see adversity for the first time in the playoffs.”
The Nuggets should laugh upon hearing that. The Lakers should be favored to win the series; they’re bigger, more talented and they’ve been on this stage before.
For many of these Nuggets, that’s all they’ve known.
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