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.  

That said, there are a number of more significant reason the Wolves have continued to win with Billups replacing Brandon: the team's go-to shooters, KG and Wally Szczerbiak, have risen to the challenge; Gary Trent has emerged as quite literally a force to be reckoned with; and, last but not least, the team has quietly changed its style to help mitigate Billups's flaws.

After Brandon went down on December 18, there was lots of talk about how Billups would have to adjust to the team rather than the team adjusting to Billups. That lasted for two disastrous games. In the first, Minnesota blew a 22-point lead in the second half against Dallas--largely because Billups and the offense couldn't effectively get the ball to Garnett down near the basket in the fourth quarter; this, despite the fact that the man guarding Garnett, Dirk Nowitski, was playing with five fouls. The next night against New Jersey, Jason Kidd undressed Billups for 33 points and 8 assists. And Chauncey's poor decision-making on offense down the stretch was the crucial factor in the Wolves' overtime loss. In the eight games since then, Minnesota has slowly but surely relied less on its trademark offense (multiple, crisp passes culminating in an open, mid-range jump shot), in favor of more isolation plays in the low-post and drives to the hoop.

For years, fans have yearned for KG to utilize his size and quickness to become a more aggressive offensive presence down near the basket. After his fourth quarter disappearance in the Dallas game, a talk with Saunders, and, just maybe, the realization that Brandon's absence required him to become more assertive, Garnett has become more of an offensive warrior in the paint than during any other time in his career. Consequently, his scoring, shooting percentage, and rebounds have all increased. More remarkably, he has averaged seven assists per game in the Wolves' last seven wins, proving that the offense can be effectively run through him--even when he is setting up shop in the low post. With Shaquille O'Neal already having missed five games this season due to injury, KG should rank as the early favorite over Kidd and Tim Duncan as the league's MVP.

Szczerbiak is another player who has shouldered more of the offensive burden in Brandon's absence. Always a deadly mid-range shooter and dynamic finisher on the fast break, Wally has added a three-point shot this season that goes in 47 percent of the time. Now that he has KG's trust and the discipline of a Brandon-choreographed passing attack has been at least temporarily loosened, his confidence is soaring; Opponents are rushing at him in an effort to thwart his deadly j, and he has become increasingly apt to put the ball on the floor to initiate slashing drives across the lane or toward the hoop.

Then there is Mr. Torso: Gary Trent, a man whose shoulders are broad enough to encompass a tattoo of the entire Gettysburgh Address, who prefers to demonstrate his brutish eloquence with his back to the basket in the low post. Early in the season, when he was getting his injured knees into shape and Joe Smith was logging most of the minutes at forward beside KG, Trent seemed out of place in the Wolves' fast-paced offense. But with his body healthy and Smith out with a calf injury for the past four games, Trent has thrived under Minnesota's greater willingness to foster individual match-ups down in the paint. It is no coincidence that the team is undefeated with him as a starter. And Minnesota fans should enjoy him now, because the Wolves aren't going to be able to fit his enhanced value under the salary cap next season.

If, as expected, Brandon is able to return later this month, then his injury may ultimately turn out to have been a blessing in disguise. While he's been gone, Billups has gained a more acute appreciation for the rigors and nuances of the point, enduring some growing pains that didn't hurt the Wolves' record (thus far anyway) and, if anything, actually increased both his confidence and that of his teammates. An even better dividend is that the Wolves have become more versatile on offense, capable and increasingly comfortable scoring either through passes and jumpers or isolations and drives. Developing a balance between the two styles when Brandon returns will be an intriguing adjustment.  

Can Brandon, who is somewhat of a point guard purist, with enormous pride in the refined elements of his position, accept the occasions when the offense will be less artistic and out of his control, yet more effective for the situation at hand? Will Szczerbiak allow Brandon to set him up rather than continue taking matters into his own hands? Will Garnett maintain his low post desire? Will Billups again rush himself and try and do too much when his minutes are reduced? For that matter, how will Trent, who loves to start and has worked his butt off, feel when Smith and Brandon have both returned?

These are questions resulting from a surfeit of talent and capabilities. Thirty-two games into the season, the Wolves are closer to becoming an elite team than at any time in franchise history. With Billups at the point, it is very unlikely that they could get past any of the big four in the West during the playoffs--the Lakers, San Antonio, Sacramento, or Dallas. But properly reconciling the strengths this team has developed playing with Billups as a starter with the strengths it has exuded under Brandon's guidance, Minnesota could become one of those dangerous, quickening playoff teams that no opponent wants to face.


Next week: Rasho ascendant and the enigma of Loren Woods.

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