Chauncey Billups rebuffing Cavs is all about LeBron James

Dan Wetzel
Chauncey Billups will remain with ESPN. (AP)
Chauncey Billups will remain with ESPN. (AP)

Chauncey Billups wants to run an NBA franchise. The Cleveland Cavaliers, after parting ways with general manager David Griffin last month, need someone to do just that job.

Billups and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert have known each other since Billups was a star with the Detroit Pistons during the 2000s and Gilbert was a prominent local businessman. They’re friends.

Gilbert wanted to hire Billups to run a franchise that won the NBA championship in 2016, has been to three consecutive NBA Finals and will be heavily favored to make a fourth. In other words, a dream job, especially for someone with no front-office experience.

This should have been easy.

Instead, after weeks of consideration, Billups said no, turning down a plum job Monday to remain at ESPN as a broadcaster.

Feel free to panic, Cleveland fans. This is the most tangible sign yet that LeBron Part II is coming to an end and the megastar will again bail on the Cavs as a free agent after next season.

It’s not that Cleveland is in big trouble because Billups won’t lead them. He might be good at the job. He might not. No one knows. There are other qualified candidates, though.

Not taking the job, however, could be a sign that Billups has the skill set to excel as a GM – namely reading the tea leaves, digging up information and then weighing the risk on a personnel move. In this case that Cleveland, for all its current championship trappings and star power, may have the rug pulled out from under it next July 1.

LeBron James will likely be a free agent in 2018. (AP)
LeBron James will likely be a free agent in 2018. (AP)

Billups, brilliant as a player at anticipating plays, didn’t just spend weeks wondering if the Cavs or their owner are good enough for him now, but whether they will be 12 months from now.

“I have great respect for Dan Gilbert and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and I greatly appreciate the discussions we had regarding their organization,” Billups said, according to an ESPN statement.

“As I have conveyed before, ultimately I would like to lead a team’s basketball operation and be a part of a successful franchise. But presently, the timing just isn’t right to delve into that role in Cleveland,” Billups continued. “In the meantime, I will continue to focus on broadcasting and my other business endeavors.”

This can, and will, be spun in a million ways. Money. Philosophy. Control.

Whatever. This is about LeBron and LeBron only.

It is extremely unlikely that James told Billups he was out the door after the 2017-18 season – or that such a decision has even been made. There are enough clues here that it is a very real possibility though. Speculation has James bolting to the Los Angeles Lakers, which he hasn’t doused. The construction of a super team anywhere that can beat the Warriors is a possibility, too.

LeBron has been in seven consecutive NBA Finals, winning three (two in Miami and one in Cleveland). The season is pointless without a title. It’s all or nothing. The moment he doesn’t believe his current team can get him there, he’ll likely jump, the way he did from Cleveland to Miami (2010) and then Miami back to Cleveland (2014).

LeBron will be a Cavalier next season for sure. Yet what looks like an incredible opportunity now, running the overwhelming favorite in the East, tweaking a roster anchored by not just James but Kyrie Irving, and working for a man and an organization he has “great respect for” might quickly become a nightmare.

A year of people asking and speculating if LeBron is leaving. An uphill, all-or-nothing climb against Golden State. Everyone analyzing every word, tweet or body-language message LeBron sends out. And then the possibility Billups ends up as the guy sweeping up after the party, trying to plug an impossible-to-fill hole.

In many ways, Billups’ rejection of the Cavaliers reminds one of June 2010, when Gilbert tried to hire another of his home-state friends, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.

Izzo wrestled with the opportunity. Here was a chance to coach James and a club that was a title contender. LeBron was a pending free agent though. As Izzo considered the offer, he not only was unable to get a commitment that LeBron would remain with the Cavs, he couldn’t even get LeBron on the phone for a conversation. It was a passive-aggressive sign from James that he was taking his talents to South Beach.

“That was one of the key factors, 100 percent true,” Izzo said at the time. “That was not the only factor. Was it a big factor? Sure.”

Izzo made the correct call. Weeks later LeBron made “The Decision” and was gone. The Cavs were immediate doormats again. Byron Scott was the coach and over three seasons went 64-166 (.278) before being dismissed. Izzo stayed at State, averaged 26 victories a season, was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and has another Final Four contender next season.

Billups is a talented enough broadcaster and a revered enough former champion that he’ll always be able to get a job in the media, likely ESPN. So unlike Izzo, he wasn’t even risking anything special (Michigan State) by taking the leap.

He still didn’t leap.

That’s pretty much all you need to know.

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