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Blazing the Trail: Chauncey Billups, the basketball cheat code

Blazing the Trail: Chauncey Billups, the basketball cheat code

Welcome to Basketball News' 10-part mini-series, Blazing the Trail, where Mat Issa breaks down the most revolutionary players of the 1990s and 2000s. Throughout this series, we'll examine how these players changed basketball and pioneered their respective skills.

In this ninth installment, Mat goes in-depth on the dual-threat nature of Chauncey Billups. He explains why his big shots were also revolutionary ones, with insights from his former coach Dave Hanners and Detroit Pistons analyst Bryce Simon.

Chauncey Billups was the steadying force of the Detroit Pistons’ dynasty in the mid-2000s, their Finals MVP when they secured the title in 2004 and the man known by all as Mr. Big Shot.

Why don’t we take a moment to reminisce on some of those big buckets?

Notice a recurring theme with those clutch shots? A majority of those buckets were pull-up three-pointers. 

Hidden amid Billups' most iconic moments was a shot type that buoyed the Pistons’ at-times-suspect offense, put the natural laws of efficiency into question and made Billups an idol to a generation of point guards. 

WHAT MADE BILLUPS SPECIAL

Billups’ pull-up was an easily deployable tool — one that, thanks to his body mechanics, could be fired off from well behind the three-point line with little to no available space in front of him. 

In a 2005 interview with Better Basketball, Billups said that the distance between a shooter and a defender does not really matter “if you got a quick release and you have a strong base where [you] don’t have to come all the way down.” 

His ability to fire his trusty pull-up in almost any situation was essential to a Pistons team that usually lacked a reliable secondary creator. (Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince could masquerade as one at times, but neither was a permanent fix). 

This brand of self-generated scoring was especially lethal in the Pistons' pick-and-roll-laden offensive attack. 

“If you go back and look at the whole [2003-04 season], we ran more pick-and-rolls than anyone in the league,” former Pistons assistant coach Dave Hanners told Basketball News. “Side, angle and middle pick-and-roll, and that was sort of the start of the way the game is played today.”

And since Detroit was ahead of the pack, the defensive schemes they faced were often outdated. The two main ball-screen coverages that were in vogue at the time were the "under" and "hedge and recover."

Going under on Billups was futile because he was such a prolific shooter (38.7% from three-point range for his career). Meanwhile, the hedge-and-recover technique was nullified by Billups’ pick-and-pop synergy with stretch big man Rasheed Wallace. 

Along with being a lethal weapon in the halfcourt, the pull-up three was something Billups could turn to in order to ignite Detroit’s offense in transition. 

As Bryce Simon of the Pistons Pulse explains in his video breakdown (see clips below), whenever Detroit’s offense grew stagnant, they could count on Billups to push the pace on a miss and fire off a high-percentage triple before the defense had time to get set.

Of course, not every shot can be a three and in those instances when Billups was lured inside the arc, his long-range pull-up transposed into a destructive mid-range pull-up. 

“He was also able to turn his [three-point pull-up] into a mid-range pull-up,” Simon noted in his breakdown. “For a guy who lacked a little bit of explosiveness, this pull-up in the midrange was vital to his success.”

Here is a short visual and audio breakdown created by Simon (volume up):

As Simon alluded to, Billups lacked the traditional north-to-south explosiveness that was present in other elite guards of his time (such as Allen Iverson). To remedy this, Billups learned how to use the extra defensive attention that his pull-up gravity earned him to his advantage. 

“When you can shoot it [with] that kind of accuracy… defenses are gonna be set to run you off of that line,” Billups explained to Better Basketball. “If a guy is going to run out at me… I’m going to get by him and make a play for somebody else, if not myself.”

His shooting prowess acted as an automatic first step that allowed him to get past his original defender for an easy finish or a laydown pass to one of his bigs.

Unfortunately, Billups was not a strong finisher around the rim (finishing in the 13th percentile for his position in 2003-04, per Cleaning the Glass). So, he had to rely on free throws to boost his overall efficiency.

To juice his free throw rates, Billups exploited defenses’ tendency to bite on his pump fake (out of respect for his jumper), and as a result, he became a master at commandeering fouls from the perimeter. 

“We never talked about it, but I bet he studied Reggie Miller and Kobe [Bryant] because those were the two guys… that did that a lot,” Hanners recalled. “And again, it was because they were such offensive threats.” 

Once again, here's a visual and audio breakdown created by Simon:

ON-COURT PRODUCTION

While suffocating defense was the hallmark ingredient of the Pistons’ NBA Finals upset over the Los Angeles Lakers in 2004, what often gets lost is how difficult Detroit made life for L.A. on the other end of the floor.

“We knew that we couldn’t stop [Bryant], we couldn’t stop [Shaquille O’Neal],” Billups mentioned in a recent appearance on All the Smoke. “But our gameplan was thorough. We knew that they couldn’t stop pick-and-rolls with me.”

The Lakers struggled against Billups-led pick-and-rolls for two reasons. One, their guards – Derek Fisher and Gary Payton – preferred to go under on ball-screens (which is a big no-no, as we already covered). And two, their bigs (particularly O’Neal) were incredibly immobile and could not contain Billups out on the perimeter.

To bury the Lakers, the Pistons relied on a variation of HORNS known as “HORNS Twist.” A more in-depth description is provided below, but all it really consists of is two ballscreens – one guiding the ballhandler toward the baseline followed by one guiding them toward the heart of the interior. 

This alignment is especially taxing because it forces the point-of-attack defender to navigate through two different screens with little time in between. And it forces both of the bigs on the floor to participate in the action (so you can’t try hiding the less mobile one somewhere else).

However, despite winning Finals MVP in 2004, the 2005-06 season was the year that Billups graduated to offensive royalty. 

As a refresher, the previous offseason featured a change of leadership within the organization. The defensive-minded Larry Brown parted ways with the team (eventually joining the New York Knicks). To replace him, the Pistons brought in an offensive guru: the late Flip Saunders.

For those unaware, Saunders was Billups’ coach during his brief stint in Minnesota, and he helped the point guard get his career on the right track.  

“I give [Saunders] so much credit for making me the player that I became,” Billups said during an ESPN segment paying tribute to the legendary coach. “Quite frankly, in Minnesota is where my career… turned around, and it all had to do with [Saunders].”

When the Detroit head coaching job became vacant, Billups immediately knew who the team needed.

“I was the guy… when they were looking for a coach, I fought so hard for [Saunders],” Billups recalled. “We were already a very dominant defensive team, and I thought having a ton of structure and a ton of options offensively would be great."

Billups’ lobbying proved fruitful, and his foresight was impeccable. Saunders took the job in Detroit and immediately catapulted their offense from 17th in 2004-05 to fourth in 2005-06. On top of that, the Pistons remained a dominant defense (fifth in Defensive Rating) and achieved the best Net Rating of their six-year dynastic run (ranking second).

“We didn’t win the championship that year, but… shoot, we would win games for almost a month straight… Easily too,” Billups reminisced. “That was all because of [Saunders’] offense and the freedom he gave us.”

Billups was the primary beneficiary of this autonomy that Saunders’ system allowed. Under Brown, Billups played more of a "commander" role, as Hanners put it, operating as the traditional point guard we outlined in Volume VIII

Under Saunders, Billups had the opportunity to fully express his revolutionary quality. In 2004-05, only 27.3% of Billups’ three-pointers made were unassisted (and unassisted generally means they were pull-ups). That number sky-rocketed to 51.6% in 2005-06, per NBA.com.

Not only was this a career-high (at the time), it also placed him in a tier of his own in terms of volume pull-up three-point shooting:

The increased volume was important because it allowed Billups to hunt for his own shots. Normally, you want your best shooters to take catch-and-shoot jumpers within the flow of the offense, but as Philadelphia 76ers coach Dan Burke explained in Volume IV, “You have to have a real big, key player [you’re playing off of] to get spot-ups.” And since the Pistons didn’t really have that secondary creator, they needed Billups to forge for himself.

This ahead-of-the-curve volume allowed Billups to "cheat" the conventional measures of efficiency. In 2005-06, Billups had a field goal percentage of 41.8% – good for 97th among 111 eligible players, per Basketball Reference.

This was the exact same shooting percentage as Seattle SuperSonics’ point guard Luke Ridnour. So, why is Billups unanimously perceived to be the better offensive player?

Well, when you look at their True Shooting percentages, Billups obliterates Ridnour, averaging a 60.2% TS compared to the Seattle guard’s 50.6% TS.

Since True Shooting percentage accounts for all types of shots (two, threes and free throws), it gives a more holistic depiction of a player’s scoring efficiency. (To learn more about True Shooting percentage, check out Ben Taylor’s video on measuring efficiency). Billups had a low field-goal percentage because he was a subpar finisher, but his overall scoring was among the best in the league thanks to his high-volume of three-pointers (and free throws).

“That’s another thing that people go to sleep on [Billups],” Hanners added. “He led our team in free throws, but he also led our team in three-point shots.”

Interestingly enough, his progressive shot diet made him an even more efficient scorer than field-goal-percentage merchant Tony Parker. Parker finished third in the Association in field-goal percentage in 2005-06 (54.8%). However, Parker’s True Shooting percentage (58.4%) trailed behind Billups’ (60.2%) because Parker took fewer threes and free throws (0.5 and 4.5 per game versus Billups’ 5.2 and 6.4 per game). 

Overall, the 14th-worst scorer in terms of the archaic field-goal percentage managed to place seventh in the league in True Shooting percentage in 2005-06 (which ranked in the 96th percentile).

(Note: On the Blazing the Trail podcast, Bryce Simon and I broke down where Billups ranked in the league in 2005-06, and we ultimately landed on somewhere in the 8-to-12 range).

WEAVING THE THREAD

Using Cerebro Sports’ Global Search tool, we can connect players with similar statistical profiles across different eras. 

With Billups, by looking at his score in three of Cerebro’s five skill metrics – Pure Scoring Prowess (PSP), 3-Point Efficiency (3PE), and Floor General Skills (FGS) – we find that only one player prior to 2005-06 (minimum 25 games played) resembles his archetypal footprint: Tim Hardaway Sr. (To learn more about how these metrics work, click here).

“I could see that every bit,” Hanners responded when asked about the connection. “Just from watching film and everything, I could see that.”

After a devastating knee injury in 1993 zapped him of his straight-line burst, Hardaway was forced to develop a more guile-based approach, exchanging many of his patented killer crossovers and paint escapades for a finesse-orientated game in line with what we saw from Billups. 

On the topic of finesse, Billups actually credits a great deal of his growth in that area to a guard he played alongside during his aforementioned tenure in Minnesota: Terrell Brandon. 

“Basketball wise, being able to learn behind Terrell Brandon, who was the smoothest, craftiest, smartest... was incredible,” Billups told All the Smoke. “The dude took so much time with me, and it changed my life. It changed my career.”

And, of course, both of these guards relied heavily on self-generated three-pointers. In 1996-97 (the first year of play-by-play data), Hardaway and Brandon were unassisted on 51.7% and 50.5% of their makes, respectively – marks eerily similar to the one that Billups posted in 2005-06 (51.6%). 

While they both rival him in that statistic, Billups has them beat in per-possession volume. As the chart in the section above illustrated, Billups made 1.33 unassisted three-pointers per 75 possessions in 2005-06. In contrast, Hardaway and Brandon only mustered up 1.09 and 0.76 unassisted made threes per 75 possessions in 1996-97.

Not only does Billups' volume far surpass his peers in the past, it even stands out when you look at today's players. If you took Billups’ 1.33 made unassisted threes per 75 possessions and placed him in 2015-16 (a decade later), he would still be ranked third in the entire league – only trailing behind two of the greatest shooters ever in Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. 

IMPACT ON TODAY'S GAME

Along with stops in Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte and New York, Hanners also had the luxury of coaching in New Orleans from 2011 to 2015. While with the Pelicans, he noticed the similarities that exist between Billups and Jrue Holiday.

“[Billups] was so good at getting a guy on his hip in pick-and-roll,” Hanners explained. “When I watched [Holiday], he could do that. I was in New Orleans with Jrue, and we had [he] and Anthony Davis running pick-and-roll. And he could really do a good job by getting the guard to screw up and run into the screen, which [Billups] did over and over again.”

Speaking of putting defenders on his hip, one of Billups' favorite tricks for grifting fouls on jumpers was to stick his butt out when he had defenders on his backside to initiate contact – similar in practice to one of today’s greatest offenders:

Interestingly enough, Trae Young has talked about studying and incorporating parts of Billups’ game into his own. Perhaps learning how to draw fouls on jump-shots was one of his takeaways.

And while Billups emulators like Young are scattered throughout the game today, the crux of his impact is far overreaching. Billups provided undersized, non-traditionally athletic guards with a way to stand out, just as Steve Nash did with his perpetual-dribble probe.

He made it possible for poor finishers to be hyper-effective scorers. He also showed that it was possible for a team to sport a high-powered offense even if they didn’t boast multiple talented ball-handlers. Not to mention, he made us question the very way we measure efficiency. 

So yeah, he hit a lot of big shots. But he was also a trailblazer to the game we love dearly. 

Bryce Simon contributed to this piece.

Tune in next week for our final chapter of Blazing the Trail, which focuses on Chris Webber, the read-and-react king. 

Click here to read Part VIII: Anfernee 'Penny' Hardaway, the floor giant 

Click here to read Part VII: Dirk Nowitzki, the unicorn that became world champion

Click here to read Part VI: Shawn Kemp, the aerial artist

Click here to read Part V: Andrei Kirilenko, the five-tool defender

Click here to read Part IV: Reggie Miller, the moving target

Click here to read Part III: Shane Battier, the data-ball defender

Click here to read Part II: Rashard Lewis, the All-Star stretch 4

Click here to read Part I: Steve Nash, the magician who danced in the paint

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