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Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups: Knicks can be elite contender without a superstar

Chauncey Billups played point guard for the Detroit Pistons who won an NBA title in 2004.

Today, he is the head coach of a young and raw Portland Trail Blazers team.

The Knicks are neither young nor raw. They are perceived as just outside of the Eastern Conference championship hunt, a tier below the Boston Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers.

Three teams led by superstars. The Knicks notably do not have one.

Ahead of tipoff between the Knicks and Billups’ Trail Blazers on Tuesday, Mr. Big Shot said he doesn’t believe the Knicks need a superstar to win a title, though he hedged that thought process by saying the NBA of the 2020s is far different from the NBA of the early 2000s.

Billups’ Pistons did not have a superstar. Instead they won with a physicality and defensive mindset mirrored nearly to the tee by Tom Thibodeau-coached teams.

“The game is obviously very different now, but I’m a big believer in: if you can get a top-flight defensive team and you got enough people on offense that can – obviously you got to score more in today’s game than you did then – but if you have enough people who can score and get it going and you have three-point shooting, you got a chance to be elite and get it going,” he said. “It’s really all about you have to have the right culture to win at today’s game. You don’t win without that at the highest level.”

It’s clear Thibodeau has established a worker’s culture in New York City. His teams are no-nonsense. They prioritize rebounding, defense, hustle plays and three-point shooting. They prioritize the work that must go on behind the scenes to ensure proper performance come gameday.

“I think obviously what Thibs is doing here is awesome,” Billups said. “I think Thibs is doing a really good job going and getting a guy like OG, who is about everything that Thibs is about. He really guards and is versatile. He can shoot it. He can guard up. He can guard down. I thought it was a really good move for this team. This team is really [constructed] well.”

Do the Knicks have a superstar?

Maybe not in the traditional sense. Donovan Mitchell may be the household name many transient basketball fans want the Knicks to swing for, but New York projects to be home to at least one All-Star this season, if not two.

Jalen Brunson is coming off his second Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors of the season and is averaging 26 points and six assists on the season.

“I’m a huge fan of Jalen. I think he’s a winner more than anything,” said Billups. “You can talk about how crafty he is and how he can score and how he’s just a winner. He makes big plays. He makes winning plays. He’s leading the league in taking charges and he’s just a winner. For somebody, like me, who just believes in that, he’s big time. I think he inspires his team and has the ability to bring you with him with how he plays. He knows how to get other people shots and the ball. I think at the end of the day, they just believe in him. I’m happy to see his success.”

Brunson has a chance to become not only a first-time All-Star, but also an All-Star starter. He is in the mix with Mitchell, Tyrese Haliburton, Damian Lillard, Tyrese Maxey and Trae Young.

Randle’s path to becoming an All-Star starter is murky given those three spots will likely go to the best players on each of the East’s three best teams: Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Boston’s Jayson Tatum.

Randle is still a star for the Knicks, and this team’s path to a deep playoff performance rests equally on his and Brunson’s shoulders.

“Julius is a bull in the China shop. He’s just so physical. He brings that level every night,” Billups said. “He’s a tough matchup ’cause he’s quick and he’s fast and he’s pretty explosive. When his three ball is going, he’s really difficult to stop. But, they too believe in him. He’s going to be aggressive the entire time. You put him in his little areas where he’s [isolating]. He gets to the spots he likes to get to and he also can pass out of it and keep you honest. We will have our hands full with him as well.”