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‘How can he not be in?’: Is 2023 Chauncey Billups’ Hall of Fame year?

The Blazers coach has five All-Star appearances, an NBA championship, a Finals MVP and the backing of legendary players like Damian Lillard

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Class of 2023 candidate list is highlighted by four former NBA stars expected to be selected in their first year as candidates in Dirk Nowitzki, Dwyane Wade, Pau Gasol and Tony Parker. Projected future Hall of Famer Damian Lillard strongly believes his Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups should finally be a Hall of Famer, too.

“How can he not be in the Hall of Fame?” said Lillard, who was named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team. “Everywhere he went he won. He won an NBA championship. Finals MVP. He’s a five-time All-Star. Won the [FIBA] World Cup. Head coach now. He’s done everything. Why not?”

The North American and Women’s committee finalists will be announced on Feb. 17 during NBA All-Star weekend in Salt Lake City. The Class of 2023 will be announced at the NCAA Final Four in Houston on April 1. The enshrinement weekend is scheduled for Aug. 11 in Uncasville, Connecticut, and Aug. 12 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Billups has been a candidate for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame every year since 2018 but has never been a finalist.

Other former NBA players joining Billups, Nowitzki, Wade, Gasol and Parker as Class of 2023 finalists include: Tom Chambers, Michael Cooper, Mark Eaton, Michael Finley, Mark Jackson, Marques Johnson, Maurice Lucas, Shawn Marion, Reggie Theus, Buck Williams and John Williamson.

“I’m honored to be even mentioned in the Hall of Fame discussion,” Billups said. “I do feel like my journey is very unique.”

Former Detroit Pistons coach Chuck Daly (left) congratulates Pistons guard Chauncey Billups (right) on defeating the Los Angeles Lakers 100-87 in Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Finals to win the NBA Championship and on being award the Finals MVP Trophy on June 15, 2004, at The Palace of Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

So, what is the Hall of Fame argument for Billups?

Like Nowitzki, Wade and Parker, Billups has the distinction of being an NBA champion, an NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and five NBA All-Star appearances. Billups averaged 15.2 points and 5.4 assists during his 17-year NBA career in which he played in 1,043 regular-season games. He was nicknamed “Mr. Big Shot” for his late-game heroics. Billups also won the 2009 NBA Sportsmanship Award and was the 2013 NBA Teammate of the Year.

The Pistons retired Billups’ No. 1 jersey for good reason. He led the franchise to two NBA Finals appearances and six consecutive Eastern Conference finals. The Pistons have not won a playoff game since the Denver native was dealt to the Denver Nuggets in 2008. He had a 637-406 overall regular-season record as an NBA player.

“It would mean a lot to me to be elected,” Billups said. “It would just, again, show me that the people that vote on Hall of Fame actually understand basketball and they understand impact. I’ve never been a stats person. I’m an impact person. How impactful can you be? What’s the use even right now as a coach? I say this all the time to my guys, ‘What’s the use of having all those great stats if they don’t help you win?’ ”

The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame also considers a candidate’s entire body of basketball work, which also could aid Billups’ candidacy.

In high school, Billups was a three-time Mr. Basketball of Colorado and a 1995 McDonald’s All-American. His No. 4 jersey was retired by the University of Colorado after averaging 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists from 1995 to 1997. The Denver native got the Buffaloes to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 28 years in 1997. The Boston Celtics drafted Billups with the third overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft.

“I’m very proud of my basketball career. And who knows what’ll happen, but what I’ve done and what I did in my career, it can never be undone no matter what happens,” said Billups about his Hall of Fame candidacy.

Of all Billups’ non-NBA accomplishments, he is most proud of being the starting point guard and veteran leader of the 2010 FIBA World Cup championship team with USA Basketball after the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony, and Chris Paul declined to play. An unheralded USA Basketball squad went 9-0 in Istanbul, Turkey, with Billups leading the way with a roster of budding young NBA stars in Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love and Derrick Rose.

“That is a very, very underrated part of my career,” Billups said. “And it was one of the most fun basketball experiences that I ever had was playing, trying to win that gold medal in Istanbul. At the start of that whole experience, all the big stars were on the team; the LeBrons and Melos, CPs, everybody ducked out.

“It wasn’t the Olympics. It was the World Championships. So, most of the [veteran NBA stars] all ducked out and were probably waiting for the Olympics coming a couple years after that. And I just saw it as a great opportunity, and we had all the young guns.”

Portland Trail Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups (center) talks to Anfernee Simons (left) during a game against the New York Knicks on Nov. 25, 2022, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Billups’ focus now is trying to make the Trail Blazers into a winner after a trying rookie season as head coach.

Billups was named the head coach of the Trail Blazers on June 27, 2021, after one season as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Clippers. The Blazers were 27-55 and missed the playoffs during the 2021-22 season in Billups’ first season as head coach. Lillard, a six-time NBA All-Star, was limited to 29 games due to injury and had in-season abdominal surgery. Portland also traded starting shooting guard CJ McCollum to the New Orleans Pelicans mid-season. With a relatively healthy Lillard, a rising star in guard Anfernee Simons and talented veteran forward Jerami Grant, the Blazers are now 19-17.

Billups says he is much more comfortable as a NBA head coach now.

“With my preparation, with just the flow of the game, the cadence of the games, just by way of having some experience,” Billups said. “You come into Year 1 not having a lot of coaching experience, one year as an assistant, so you don’t even know what you don’t know, a lot of times. Coming in Year 2, you do know what you don’t know, so it’s just a lot more comfortable understanding and knowing what I need to do on a particular practice day, or what we need to work on this day, or game day, or knowing a feel of what the team needs at that time. A lot of those things, it just feels better, just feels different this year.”

The key for Blazers’ success is a usual great season from a healthy Lillard. Lillard entered the New Year averaging 27.8 points, 7.1 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 3-pointers made per game. Lillard has played in 24 of the Blazers’ 36 games this season.

Billups says he is on the same page with Lillard.

“I just didn’t get to coach Dame enough last [season],” Billups said. “Obviously, I knew him very well. But I think Dame and I have a very good rapport. He wants to win, but he wants to play the right way. He wants to do it as a team, he likes to lead.

“So, our goals are very aligned, which is really, really important. When you talk about a head coach and your best player, you need to be aligned and I feel like we’re very aligned.”

Billups is one of a record 16 African American head coaches in the NBA this season. Following the 2020-21 NBA season, the NBA only had seven African American head coaches. With Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra (Asian), the NBA also has a record 17 head coaches of color out of 30. The NBA also has nine Black former NBA players that are head coaches.

Billups is “proud” to be a part of the change in Black NBA head coaches.

“Even if I wasn’t a coach right now, I would just be proud. I’m happy. It makes me proud of the NBA for actually being intentional about giving opportunities to African Americans or just minorities, period. I’m proud to be a part of it,” Billups said.

Chauncey Billups (center) with his father, Ray Billups (left), and brother, Rodney Billups (right), in 2008.

Pro basketball has also become a family business affair for the Billups.

Billups’ brother, Rodney, became an assistant coach with the Blazers on Dec. 31, 2021, and is now second in command on coaching defense. The former University of Denver guard was a head coach at his alma mater from 2016 to 2021 and also served as an assistant coach at Colorado from 2012 to 2016. Rodney Billups, who played professionally in Latvia and Finland, was a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks at the time of his hiring.

“We talked about playing with each other in the NBA, but obviously my career didn’t meet highs his did,” Rodney Billups said. “So, I went into coaching. I always went to him for advice on how to talk to players and get ideas on how to reach them while he was still playing. Fast forward [to] when I was the head coach at the University of Denver, and now he’s at our practice and working out our guys. He was scratching his itch to coach through me and asking questions. I’d like to think I played a role in him giving coaching a chance.

“We are able to compartmentalize professionalism and being big brother-little brother. Our relationship hasn’t changed off the court. On the court, we’re trying to get the best of each other. Whether we argue or celebrate, we have the same relationship and celebrate our parents the best we can, and our families are taken care of.”

Said Chauncey Billups: “I want people to understand this dude is a real good coach, he’s just not my brother.”

Chauncey Billups’ daughter, Cydney, is a former University of Texas women’s soccer star who now works for the Milwaukee Bucks as their coordinator of team operations/family services. His daughter, Ciera, works as assistant with Klutch Sports dealing primarily with the WNBA.

“They’ve been around it their whole lives,” Chauncey Billups, a father of three daughters, said. “Even though they never played basketball, they’ve been in the sports world forever and its really kind of all they know. They love just being around people. They love this industry and obviously they’re in different parts of it. But I think that they want to do it and stick with it. They’re going to be superstars at it.”

Billups has also helped build superstars through the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy, an academic program that has nothing to do with athletics.

In 1996, Regis University men’s head basketball coach Lonnie Porter, one of Billups’ long-time mentors, established the Lonnie Porter Leadership Academy to provide academic and leadership training to at-risk inner-city students from Denver. In 2006, Chauncey Billups joined forces with Porter in this effort and the program was renamed the Porter-Billups Leadership Academy at Regis University. Regis’ flagship college prep program offers full scholarships to the university to PBLA graduates once they successfully complete the multi-year participation requirement and qualify for admittance. PBLA graduates include 61 students who have attended Regis, including 31 graduates, and 81% of participants have gone on to college.

“I’ve always felt like in the inner city, if you don’t get them real young around that age, another two years, streets get them, it’s over,” Billups said. “So, we get them really young. We interview the parents or whoever the caretakers are, and we invite them into the academy.

“The academy is free. It’s three weeks in the summertime, we do it on a college campus, Regis University, which has been a great partner to us. And it’s all academics. We focus on everything that usually the school systems don’t focus on, because you need life skills in this life.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.