Getting By With Billups

Three weeks ago, when a pea-size piece of loose cartilage in Terrell Brandon's left knee sent the Timberwolves' starting point guard to the sidelines (and soon thereafter under the surgeon's knife), there was good reason to think that the team's all-important quest for home court advantage in the playoffs later this season was in dire jeopardy. After all, Brandon's backup was Chauncey Billups, whose miserable inaugural season with the Wolves last year demonstrated why he had been shuffled to four different teams since being taken as the third overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft. The Billups of 2001 looked like a classic "tweener": too short and inaccurate to be a shooting guard and not smart, selfless, or quick enough to handle the point. And his play off the bench in the Wolves' first 22 games this year did little to alter that assessment.

But ho! During his three-week stint as a starter, the 25-year-old BFOKG (Best Friend of Kevin Garnett) has averaged more than 15 points and seven assists per contest, while committing just 1.3 turnovers a game. More importantly, the Wolves have won seven of ten games during that span and have actually improved their position in the playoff race.

Before the Brandon bashers (you know who you are) get too giddy, however, it should be pointed out that Billups's statistics look a lot better on paper than his play on the court.

Yes, on offense at least, Chauncey has improved nearly every facet of his game. But his skill level at operating Coach Flip Saunders's intricate, pass-oriented half-court sets remains rudimentary. Where Brandon generally dribbles up the floor and makes a meaningful pass with between 15 and 18 seconds left on the 24-second clock, Billups, who lacks Brandon's prescient instincts, court vision, and control of the dribble, is more likely to initiate the play with about 12 to 15 seconds remaining. It is also less likely that the pass will be catalytic. Because Saunders's half-court sets are designed to be ongoing (if Plan A isn't panning out, the players keep moving to Plan B, then C), that three-second lag and lack of precision can minimize ball movement and short-circuit secondary options.

Then there is Billups's lousy, often inexplicable shot selection. Again, limited court vision is a potential culprit here, along with inexperience and the fact that Billups's naturally gravitates toward shooter's lust instead of a more modest and disciplined passer's mentality. But that doesn't completely explain why he will pass up an open jump shot one play, then ignore open teammates and jack up a contested shot next time down the floor (or dribble into traffic down near the hoop). It does help explain why he has converted just 41 percent of his shots this year, which is actually an improvement over his abysmal career high of 39 percent.

Yet Billups's most glaring weakness is on defense, where his paucity of foot speed while executing the fundamental, sideways shuffle is an unpleasant surprise in someone so athletic. Opposing point guards routinely blow past him off the dribble, and he doesn't have Brandon's deft, poke-checking proclivity for steals to help him compensate. (He has become better at defending the pick-and-roll play.) In the past two contests, Saunders has resorted to Felipe Lopez, whose ball-handling prowess is not even close to being of point-guard caliber, as a spot defensive replacement for Chauncey--yet another sign that the hapless third-string point guard Will Avery will be wearing a minor-league uniform next season.

Okay, so if Billups is so bad, why have the Wolves won seven of their last eight games with him logging heavy minutes in the starting lineup? It's a fair and inevitable question. One answer is that there are some aspects of Billups's game that make him an improvement over Brandon. His drives to the basket are more likely to draw fouls and put him on the free-throw line, where his accuracy is nearly as stellar as Brandon's league-leading percentage. But the biggest upgrade at the point when Billups is on the floor comes at the three-point line. When Billups has the time to set his feet and gather himself together for an uncontested shot, he's not a bad marksman. The most likely place for him to gain that time and space is out behind the three-point arc, where he is nailing j's at a 42 percent clip, as compared to the league average of 35 percent and 13 percent for Brandon, who has attempted only 15 threes (and converted just two) all year.

In addition, Billups has improved his game in recent weeks as his confidence grows and the team keeps winning. In particular, he's been less prone to taking bone-headed shots and, as he becomes more comfortable with the starter's role, has begun to find a rhythm where he can play aggressively without getting out of control. Because the Wolves are such a staunch rebounding team this year at both ends of the floor, there is also less need to rely on the efficiency of half-court sets. Put another way, Billups is less of a hindrance when the team is operating in transition on the fast break or, after an offensive rebound, freelancing in the half-court. Odds are he will never make an offense hum with the command and consistency that Brandon generates, but he's not turning probable victories into defeats--which is about all you can reasonably ask from a backup point guard.

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